Feb. 23, 2011
By Larry Watts
At an innocent age when she should have been thinking about things like going to her first dance, Daniela Cubelic, then 12, was confronted with a challenge most adults don't face until many years later. It was early in 2003 when her mother, Maryann, died of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and Cubelic was left as the only female in her Glenview, Ill. home with her father, Angelo, and two brothers, who were one (Dominik) and five (Matthew) years younger.
"It was a very difficult time," says Cubelic, now a 20-year-old junior on the University of Iowa swimming team. "My dad was born in Croatia and I was forced to help him with his business at a very young age. I had to help him write bills and do invoices for his marble and granite company because he had no clue about any of this. I had to mature very quickly.
"During the four years my mother was in and out of the hospital, we had a woman come in to clean and cook. Once I got older, I stepped up my responsibilities and did more work. I was taking care of my brothers and cleaning up after them."
Yet, Cubelic still found time to excel in the swimming pool. She made her first junior national cut (100 butterfly) at the age of 14. By the time she graduated from Glenbrook South High School, she was a three-time All-American, a member of the state championship 200 freestyle relay team, a four-time state runner-up and a school record holder in five individual events as well as every relay.
With those kind of credentials, some may have been a bit surprised when she chose Iowa over Illinois and Maryland from her list of three finalists. In the past 24 years, the Iowa women's squad has been among the bottom five teams every year at the Big Ten Championships.
"Iowa was the place where I felt most comfortable," she says. "On paper, the results look frustrating and that's inevitable. But I thought it was the best combination of athletics and academics for me. I was very comfortable with the coaching staff on my visit and I liked the direction the team was heading. And the girls really made a good impression on me."
Another big attraction was the coaching staff promised her she would be swimming in a new pool by her junior year. That promise came true this year when the Hawkeyes opened in the University of Iowa Aquatic Center.
"They had been swimming in the Field House pool, which was built in 1927," she says. "When we split the pool for practice, one side was 25 yards and the other was 23 because of the bulkhead in the middle. Now we have a regulation pool, which is up to par with swimming standards, and we're bringing in stronger recruits."
But Cubelic nearly didn't arrive for her freshman year of competition for the Hawkeyes. Three weeks before her departure, her father came home and was complaining of a massive headache.
"I rushed him to the emergency room and we thought he had a brain aneurism," she says. "I was 18 and I had to make all the legal medical decisions and call in a priest. It wound up that he had burst a blood vessel in his brain stem from trying to lift too much weight in the gym and he was hospitalized for five days.
"One doctor told me he was very lucky and we really dodged a bullet. I'm 18 years old and that's not exactly the thing I want to hear about the only parent I have left. Maybe my mom was looking over us.
"It was probably at that moment in my life I realized how much my family really meant to me because without my dad I would have been in charge of the family," she added. "It was really, really hard coming to college after that. I was considering putting it off for a semester, but one of the best things about being at Iowa is I am only a short drive from home."
A backstroke/freestyle specialist, it didn't take Cubelic long to start making an impression with the Hawkeyes. As a freshman, she helped her relay squads set school records in the 200 free (1:32.37), 200 medley (1:41.33) and 400 free (3:21.27) at the Big Ten Championships. Individually, she ranks in the school's top 10 in the 200 back, 100 free, 100 back, 50 free and 200 free. The closest she has come to placing at the Big Ten Championships was 17th in the 100 back as a sophomore.
"Placing in the Big Ten Championships is definitely a goal of mine," she says. "I kind of expected to do it last year, but it didn't happen. However, I learned a lot about myself as a swimmer and athlete last year. Knowing what I know now and feeling more confident in my training for both the backstroke and freestyle is going to help a lot in my mental toughness.
"I was probably the biggest emotional wreck in our freshman class when I came here. Swimming has always been my outlet and I am learning to enjoy myself more. I never took any breaks when my mom died and I didn't take any breaks after that experience with my dad. I just wanted to go to practice so I could release all that stress and worry."
According to Cubelic, it took a dunking from her brother Dominik, now a freshman swimmer at Northwestern, to get her to overcome her fear of putting her head under the water.
"I think I was around 6 or 7 at the time," she says. "We always loved going to the local pool, but I was afraid to put my head under water. My brother snuck up behind me and dunked me. I came up screaming bloody murder and my mother came running from the other side of the pool to find out what was wrong. Once I realized it wasn't so bad, I just took off from there."
Cubelic, who is carrying a double major in sports studies and communication, says she has yet to determine her career path although college coaching does appeal to her.
"Sports is something I have grown up with my entire life so I might as well study something I enjoy," she says. "Although my brother Matthew might be the most unathletic person I have ever met, my family has been pretty sports-oriented. My dad used to play soccer in Croatia and now he's a Wildcat fan one weekend and a Hawkeye fan the next.
"My dad always throws out career suggestions, like becoming a nurse or a lawyer. But I don't like blood and I hate to argue.
During her freshman year at Glenbrook South, when her coach called her "a horse," Cubelic took it as a huge compliment.
"That's the Croatian influence in me; I pride myself on my work ethic," she says. "For the first time at Iowa I feel like am now back and ready to go. Most of my records at GBS are now gone, so if I am going to put my name on a board it might as well be on the new one here. But first and foremost, I want to score in every race, individual and relays, at Big Tens this year."
According to Cubelic, there is a bright side to being the only female in her household.
"The only girl and the ONLY boss," she says with a laugh. "I am 100 percent princess and proud of it. I pretty much get my way and it is an accepted thing in my house."
No doubt Cubelic has paid her dues to earn her royalty status.