Auburn's Ariana Kukors realizes dream, swims in 200 individual medley in London Olympics
Four years later, Auburn's Ariana Kukors found herself in the same pool, on the brink of the same crushing path. But this time it led her to London and her first Olympic Games, where she will swim Monday in preliminary heats. The final is Tuesday.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Ariana Kukors was 50 meters away from retirement. And 50 meters away from euphoria.
She spent four years preparing for her Olympic fate, an unpredictable journey Kukors had previously tread.
In the 2008 U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials, Kukors fell short of qualifying for her first Olympic Games in the 200-meter individual medley by eight-hundredths of a second. It's how quickly four years of dreams can evaporate to illusion.
Four years later, the Auburn native found herself in the same pool, on the brink of the same crushing path. But this time it led her to London and her first Olympic Games, where she will swim Monday in preliminary heats. The final is Tuesday.
Confronted with the same obstacle in June's U.S. Olympic trials, Kukors had to ponder whether this would be the last time she'd strap on the goggles.
"It's a stressful thing when you look at it in its entirety," she said. And then Kukors laughed, realizing what she had admitted.
The night before the final, Kukors was terrified. Doubts started creeping in. The 23-year-old questioned if she had wasted her life chasing her Olympic dreams. What if she didn't qualify — again?
Kukors had led after 150 meters in the 2008 trials. She finished strong on the third lap, the breaststroke portion of the medley. Only the freestyle was left.
She was a lap away from booking a trip to Beijing, but Kukors couldn't maintain her slim lead. The top two swimmers qualify for the Olympics. She finished third.
Only hundredths of a second in a race that lasts a little over two minutes separate an Olympian from just another swimmer.
"It's something I need to pay attention to," Kukors said of the last 50 meters. "I need to figure out where within my race I'm spending too much energy and what happens that last 50, where I can't finish the way I should be able to."
The same issue dogged her last year during the FINA World Championships. Kukors finished her third lap leading by .66 seconds. She fell behind two swimmers on the final lap and settled for bronze.
Kukors has spent the past four years picking apart her strokes. She focused on her backstroke last year, taking notes from two of the best — Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte.
Kukors also dropped the 400 IM and transitioned into a sprint-medley swimmer, which helped her improve dramatically.
Despite four years of improvement, Kukors couldn't sleep the night before the final in June. So she leaned on the people that have always been there — her family.
She asked her sister, Mattie, to jump in her bed and hold her hand as she tried to rest before the big day.
"It's really taught me to really use my family and rely on them and realize I'm not alone," she said. "I don't have to be Superwoman. I can be myself and hope that's good enough."The next day, Kukors' coach, Sergio Lopez gave her one last pep talk moments before the race.
"No matter what you do, give yourself a chance to swim," said Lopez, her coach the past seven months. "And the last 50 meters, close your eyes and just go. Don't think, don't look at your competition and just go."
Kukors finished the butterfly in third place, but she dropped to fourth after the backstroke — the stroke she worked on this year. After 150 meters, two Olympic spots were coming down to three swimmers: Caitlin Leverenz, Elizabeth Pelton and Kukors.
And Kukors did exactly what Lopez told her to do.
Kukors and Pelton were neck-and-neck for second with 15 meters left when Kukors surged ahead. She described it as "a gift from God."
Kukors touched the wall and took her goggles off. She looked up at the scoreboard.
Leverenz finished first. Kukors placed second. Kukors nearly burst into tears.
Her defining moment also made her realize something about herself.
"I don't need to have a Superwoman performance on race day," Kukors said. "I just need to do what I've always done. I think that realization has helped me not get as nervous and not see it as a make-or-break situation."
She finally gets to experience the camaraderie of the Olympic Games, an atmosphere she could only watch on television.
Now she is an Olympian.
"All the pressure is off her shoulders in making the Olympic team," Lopez said. "She's made it. She's here, and I think she's going to swim very well."
The retirement cake and balloons are on hold. Kukors has an Olympic medal to chase.