Dogged Determination

These University School of Milwaukee students have taken their passions to the next level—combining countless hours of practice with their innate abilities—to achieve greatness.

GABBI KABAKCHIEVA ’20

Agility Dog Training

Gabbi Kabakchieva’s ’20 passion for agility dog training sprung from an unlikely source: boredom. As a 12-year-old, she Googled “obstacle course for dogs” when her family adopted a dog from the Wisconsin Humane Society. “I watched a few videos and thought, ‘that’s so cool, I’m going to do that with my dog,’” she said. She built some equipment at home, but soon discovered it was harder than she expected. “We were really bad at it because I didn’t know how to train him,” she said.

Kabakchieva convinced her mom to let her take agility training classes, and from there her passion escalated. She started competing at trials and soon found herself at her first national competition at the American Kennel Club Junior Agility Competition, in 2016. There, she and her rescue dog, Scotty, finished 4th cumulatively in the excellent junior division. “Initially, my mom wasn’t thrilled with my agility stuff. She thought I would quit after six months,” said Kabakchieva. “But after that junior nationals placement I think she thought, ‘this kid is really good and genuinely wants to continue.’ So she was more supportive after that. She even let me adopt another dog.”

Kabakchieva, her mom, and her dogs have since traveled all over the country and even the world competing at agility competitions, including the Westminster Kennel Club’s Masters Agility Championship in New York City. They drive to Madison, Wisconsin two to four times per week to practice at an agility training facility there, often not getting home until 10 p.m., and spend their weekends competing or practicing. Kabakchieva also teaches classes at the Milwaukee Dog Training Club and participates in horseback riding, too.

Kabakchieva with Scotty (left) and Kinder.

Kabakchieva trains her dogs herself, which is an aspect of the sport she enjoys. “I like working with all the different mentalities they have,” she said. “Some dogs are really soft and you constantly need to be building them up, and some dogs are really hard, and you have to set rules for them. And some dogs can’t focus at all and you have to work on building their focus and their ability to be engaged with you all the time.”

Scotty is nearing retirement age, but he will always have a special place in Kabakchieva’s heart. “I feel like I owe a lot to him,” she said. “He’s been so forgiving of every mistake that I’ve made. He’s just such a good dog. Sure, my dogs might not be as genetically suited for agility as other breeds, but I’m not in it for the ribbons. I do it because I love the sport and I love how happy it makes my dogs and me.”

LARA SPANIC ’20

Precision Rifle Shooting

The first time Lara Spanic ’20 fired a precision rifle, as a 16-year-old in 2018, she was hooked. She loved how it narrowed her focus and challenged her mental stamina, but, most of all, she loved the sound of the bullet hitting the metal target. “It’s really fun to hear the steel go ‘tink,’” she said, “especially with the delay. I’ll shoot and then hold my breath, waiting to hear if I hit it.”

Soon after she started, Spanic began shooting competitively at matches throughout the Midwest and quickly made a name for herself in the male-dominated sport. At a recent match in Canada, Spanic hit a bear-shaped target that was 1,400 yards away. She was one of only three competitors to hit the target (out of 121), and the only one to hit it twice. “That was my best match yet,” she said. “People were calling me ‘bearslayer.’ It was fun.”

Precision rifle shooting is much more involved than simply pointing at a target and pulling the trigger. The competitor has to hold the rifle steady and always be conscious of safety, while also calculating forces like wind and gravity (called bullet drop), in a small window of time—usually 90 seconds. Spanic has learned to quickly and accurately judge wind speed using environmental cues like blowing grass, tree branches, or rain, and she uses a formula and an app on her phone to gauge bullet drop based on the target’s distance. “There’s definitely skill and technique involved, but you really don’t know if you’re correct until you send a round down range and test it out,” she said.

For Spanic, who trains three to four hours per day with hopes of making the 2024 Olympics, mental training is just as important. “The thing I really had to work on was accepting failure,” she said. “Being able to move past mistakes and learn from them, instead of dwelling on them.”

TATIANA MARICH ’25

Sewing and Fashion Design

Tatiana Marich ’25 discovered her love of sewing at age 3, while a student in Muffie Browne’s prekindergarten class. “We used a sewing machine in class to make little bean-bag bird pillows and I loved it,” Marich said. A few years later, she discovered the television show “Project Runway,” in which fashion designers compete to create clothes while being restricted by time, materials, and themes. “I’d watch the show and write down all of the challenges and try to recreate them using paper because I didn’t know how to sew dresses back then,” she said. “That’s when I wanted to learn how to make clothes myself.”

Marich began taking sewing classes in 4th grade. She has a dedicated space in her family’s basement, where she spends upwards of 12 hours every weekend sewing dresses, jackets, and pants, including a flip-sequined jacket that her mom wore to a fundraising event. “That was probably the hardest thing I’ve made because the fabric was really thick and heavy, so I had to use a leather needle and specialty scissors, because the fabric would have damaged my fabric scissors.”

Marich also sketches designs, and sews pants, bags, and pillows, but perhaps her favorite thing to make is collared, button-down dresses. “I love making collars because I think they’re so interesting,” she said. “When you see a collared shirt you don’t always realize what goes into them. But when I make them I think, ‘wow, this is so cool.’” While she hopes to complete a fashion line by the time she graduates from USM, she doesn’t necessarily want to pursue fashion in college. “I really love math and science, so I could see myself majoring in something like that, and continue doing fashion on the side.”

HERSH SINGH ’24 AND ARADH KAUR ’26

Chess

Hersh Singh ’24 was just 7 years old when his grandfather taught him the basic rules of chess as a way to occupy him during the long Wisconsin winters. “His first tournament was here at USM, and he did well, so we took him to another tournament,” said his father, Dr. Dalip Singh. “He kept doing well, so we kept taking him to more tournaments.” To say that Hersh picked up on the game quickly would be an understatement.

Today, Hersh and his sister, Aradh Kaur ’26, have traveled all over the world representing the United States at chess tournaments. She trains virtually with a Hungarian coach, while Hersh trains virtually with two coaches, both grand masters based in Chicago. As an 8th grader, Hersh is ranked as an expert, with a rating of 2,095 (the best player in the world is rated at 2,870). Both siblings practice nearly every day and consistently play 3- to 4-hour games, but for different reasons. Aradh enjoys the puzzle-like challenge of figuring out the next move, while Hersh’s favorite part is winning.

What would their dad think if, one day, the children told him they didn’t want to play chess anymore? “I think it’s up to them,” said Dalip. “But I would never say that,” added Hersh.

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