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Auburn's Kukors aims for Olympic gold
It's only been four years, but 2008 seems like a lifetime ago for Ariana Kukors.
At the time the Auburn Mountainview graduate was 19 years old and just launching her international swimming career. Although already accomplished at the national level, Kukors had yet to make her presence felt on the world stage.
At the 2008 U.S. Olympic Swim trials in Omaha, Neb., she narrowly missed qualifying for the Beijing Olympics, having finished third by a fraction of a second in the 200-meter individual medley.
This June, however, Kukors gets another crack at qualifying to represent her country, this time at the 2012 London Olympics.
"I feel much better prepared this time around than I did in 2008," Kukors said. "I think I was trying to convince myself of something that I wanted to achieve in 2008, and I wasn't quite sure I was ready for it yet, even though I wanted to be ready. I think this time around I've got more experience internationally. Rather than dwelling on things in the past that I could have done or done better, I just focus on today."
Kukors described the last few years as a whirlwind. In that time, the 23-year-old finished her schooling, earning a bachelor's degree in business from Chapman University in California.
In the pool she's made her mark internationally, earning two golds, three silvers and two bronze medals at several World and Pan Pacific championship meets.
In 2009, Kukors set a world record in the 200 IM at the World Championships in Rome, posting a blistering 2 minute, 6.15 second finish.
But not without controversy.
At the meet, Kukors, along with several other swimmers, wore full body polyurethane suits made by Italian swimwear manufacturer Jaked. The suits allegedly helped with buoyancy, allowing swimmers to float higher in the water, leading to less resistance and faster times. In 2010 the sports governing body, FINA, banned the suits.
"It was something I've dreamed of achieving my whole life," Kukors said. "Unfortunately, the controversy of the suits came with that, so I have mixed feelings about it. I'm happy that the suits are in the past because they definitely caused a lot of controversy. (The record) is something I'm proud of, although I've received some negative feedback from it."
Kukors added that nowadays she's more proud of the 2:09.12 she posted in the 200 IM at this past summer's 2011 World Aquatics Championships in Shanghai.
"I think I proved myself last summer by going 2:09," she said. "More to myself, I had to prove that to myself. Now I see that time as my best time."
London in view
Now, with just 100 days remaining until the opening ceremonies, she's all about getting ready for the U.S. trials and the 2012 London Olympics.
Kukors, who formerly trained in California, has moved to Florida to train with the Bolles High School swim program.
"It was a really great move for me," Kukors said. "I know I have all the training I need. The months before the Olympics are really about fine tuning things and making sure mentally you're in a good place. So I thought this move would help me stay relaxed and provide a great environment for me to be in."
With her schooling out of the way, Kukors said she's fully focused on her training, spending three-to-five hours every day in the pool, followed by an hour-and-a-half of weightlifting and an hour of pilates, both three times a week. She runs four miles every other day, too, "for no other purpose than I like to run."
"I'm also big on recovery, and I think that's helped with injuries over my career," Kukors added. "I get a massage every Friday. And I take care of myself nutritionally."
In 2008, Kukors had the luxury of the support of her older sister, Emily Kukors and younger sister, Mattie Kukors, both of whom competed at the U.S. Olympic swim trials. Although Emily, along with her father, Peter Kukors, and mother, Jaapje Kukors, will be in the stands, only Mattie – who attends and competes for the University of Michigan – will be with her on the swim deck.
"My little sister is rooming with me at trials this year, because she is the absolute rock of my life," she said. "She's the one who will keep me relaxed and laughing and giggling up to the last minute. And I need that and her by my side. We're best friends."
Although it helps to have her sister along to relieve the pressure, Kukors said, she's keenly aware of how important it is to enjoy the ride while she can.
"I think the most important thing I learned from 2008 is that I need to enjoy this experience, rather than thinking of the enormous goal of the Olympics at the end of road," she said. "I just need to think of every day as a little victory and do everything I can in that day and then move forward the next day. I've just really grown up, as a swimmer and as a person. I'm more relaxed. There are no drastic things I need to do between now and then. I've put in the work, and I know what I have to do."
The U.S. Olympic Swimming and Diving Trials get under way in Omaha, Neb. on June 25 and continue until July 2.
This past week Kukors was back in the Pacific Northwest for a spell, raising awareness about programs at local YMCAs as an All-Star Team ambassador for sponsor Frontier Communications.
"I feel blessed to have this platform to help reach kids and inspire people," Kukors said. "I started swimming at the YMCA in Auburn when I was 2."