LINCOLN SQUARE — When Amundsen High School junior Ckoryna Lara says she's juggling a heavy schedule, she means it literally.
A typical Wednesday for Lara is a 5 a.m. wakeup for a 6 a.m. swim practice, then a full day of school, followed by afternoon swim practice and a three-hour session at CircEsteem. She then heads home for homework and a bite to eat.
"For both swimming and circus, it's just commitment and hard work, and you have to push yourself to make yourself better," said Lara, who maintains a 3.1 grade point average. "And I get a workout either way."
Lara got involved with CircEsteem, which is based in Uptown, eight years ago, when she happened upon a clinic they were holding at Navy Pier. She is now an expert in aerials — pulling herself up and spinning on silks and swinging on the trapeze. She also can juggle five balls and four bowling pins. She's learning how to juggle knives and items lit on fire.
"I think she really loves being in front of an audience," said CircEsteem executive director Maribeth Joy, of Lincoln Square. "She's also a great teacher. She works really well with young kids."
Lara said circus is harder than swimming, but she has more experience in the latter. Lara's been in the water since she was 5 years old and knows all four major strokes well. Her best is butterfly.
Last year, Lara was one of only four swimmers on the team, but Amundsen has more than 20 competitors this year under new coach Erik Olson. Many of them learned to swim this year.
Olson, of Roscoe Village, considers Lara a de facto assistant coach. Prior to the season, he gave the swimmers 15 minutes to name two captains based on who would be good role models, and senior Violeta Lozano and Lara were selected.
"I was very happy," Olson said. "Even though Ckoryna [pronounced 'Core-eh-nuh'] is not a senior, she's definitely our outspoken leader on the team. I know I can rely on Ckoryna to keep the team going."
Olson's squad, which is 3-4 heading into its final meet of the season on Saturday, doesn't have the ideal learning setting. The school's pool is 20 yards and has four lanes — Lara honed her skills at a 25-yard, six-lane pool at Gill Park. Amundsen also doesn't have starting blocks or an electronic timing system; stopwatches are used during home meets.
Olson, who is also Amundsen's athletic director, said he plans to apply for grants and raise money to buy the equipment. He also has a goal of a 40-swimmer program with a frosh-soph team within the next three years.
By that time, Lara hopes to be swimming at a Division III school and returning to her alma mater to help coach or teach a summer program.
She also wants to continue her life in the circus and inspiring others on the North Side.
"It's about being able to help people around the community," Lara said.