One of Sarra Lajnef’s most challenging obstacles was herself. 

Florida’s senior swimmer said she had difficulty dealing with anxiety before races. With the help of Jaime Jenkins, a licensed mental health counselor at UF, Lajnef said she learned to deal with the stress. 

“I had ups and downs,” Lajnef said. “It wasn’t great all the time. I got yelled at, sometimes, by coach (Gregg) Troy, and I’d go home crying.”

But she said she knows Troy was tough on her because he cared and wanted to bring out the best in her. 

Troy succeeded. 

Lajnef was in London for the 2012 Summer Olympics, surrounded by Gators, competing on the biggest stage possible. 

“She certainly was given the information she needed to improve,” Troy said. “Her learning curve is real big because she was very, very inexperienced. Sarra’s improved every year over four years. She’s given us a level of consistency.”

But before she was an Olympic swimmer, Lajnef endured a challenging teenage experience. 

Born and raised in Tunis, Tunisia, Lajnef and her family decided she should pursue swimming, but the lack of competition in Tunisia required a change of scenery.

Lajnef’s father dropped her off in Mulhouse, France. Their tearful goodbye was painful, but sacrifice helped paved her way to the London Olympics. 

“I didn’t want to deal with him because if I stayed with him, I would have cried,” she said. 

She spent her next two years in France but moved across the country to attend another school. Lajnef transferred because of her relationship with her swimming coach who neglected her.

“They didn’t like people coming from the outside,” Lajnef said. “(The coach) didn’t care about me.” 

She moved to Brest, a city located in northwestern France. She spent the next two years there.

As she prepared for graduation in 2008, with the Olympics in Beijing, China, Lajnef itched for her chance to compete at the world’s highest level.

She found herself competing at the World Swimming Championships in Manchester, England, that same year. But she fell short of her Olympic goal. 

Lajnef was distraught after missing out on a trip to Beijing, so UF associate head coach, Anthony Nesty, urged her to take a year off. Lajnef listened. 

She stepped off a plane into yet another foreign country in Fall 2009, her first time in the United States. 

“When the plane landed I was like, ‘Oh my God, what am I doing here?’” Lajnef said.  

She could speak English but still needed help adjusting to life in the U.S. Senior Jamie Bohunicky roomed with Lajnef as a freshman, helping the Tunisian adjust to life in the U.S. Bohunicky introduced Lajnef to bagels, among other things. 

“I can’t imagine at the age of 15, moving somewhere without your parents,” Bohunicky said. “That takes a lot of courage and shows how much of an independent person she is.” 

With time and effort, Lajnef made the adjustment. 

“I’m turning into an American,” Lajnef said. “When I go home, I can’t eat food there.”

She’ll remain in Gainesville after graduating in May, training for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Troy is impressed with how much Lajnef has grown at UF.

“She’s very mature for her age,” Troy said. “She’s very worldly. She has a unique perspective on things. She communicates well with people.”

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