A humbled, grateful Ariana Kukors stepped to the podium Friday night.
Auburn’s celebrated Olympian hopes to step onto a different podium in more than three weeks when she competes for gold at the London Summer Games.
“Definitely, a medal … a medal, for sure,” Kukors said of her objective for the July 27-Aug. 12 Olympics in England. “I want to do well. I definitely can make improvements. I’m just so excited to be going.”
Kukors took advantage of a small window to come home this week before she leaves Saturday for Nashville, Tenn., to train with the U.S. Olympic Swim Team. Then it soon will be off to France for a week’s worth of preparation for the London Games. Team USA is scheduled to enter the Olympic village July 23.
The Auburn community – led by family, friends, coaches and supporters – threw her an emotional sendoff party at the Performing Arts Center, the first of many fundraising functions that will help fund Kukors’ way.
“It means so much to me,” she said of the large gathering, “Normally we don’t have the opportunity to come home, so I really feel like I have a community behind me, and that means a lot.
“No matter where I am in the world, no matter where I’m training, this is home,” she said. “That’s why I felt it was important to come here rather than Jacksonville (Fla.) where I’ve been training.”
Kukors, a 2007 Auburn Mountainview graduate and Pac-10 champion at the University of Washington, qualified for the Games when she rallied in the final 50-meter freestyle leg to grab second in a stirring 200 individual medley final at the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials in Omaha, Neb., on June 28.
It is her first taste of the Olympics. She missed by fractions of seconds in a bid for the 2008 Games in Beijing, China.
But this time, Olympic dreams finally came true for the 23-year-old Kukors.
“Relief and all those feelings. Relief is probably foremost,” Kukors said of grabbing a spot on the roster. “They say with our U.S. Olympic Trials, the only thing that matters is getting your ticket.
“I’m so excited to be going. I really love racing internationally, and I really feel like that brings out the best in me. I’m excited. I’m excited to race.”
The world record-holder in the 200 IM, Kukors’ time of 2:11.30 was 1.08 slower than winner Caitlin Leverenz, but 0.25 seconds faster than third-place finisher Elizabeth Pelton.
“I can’t say that I’m happy with that time, but considering the amount of nerves I’ve been feeling the last 24 hours, I’ll take it,” Kukors said. “I know I will have to make a lot of changes for London.”
Kukors holds the world record in the 200 individual medley (long course) and has won seven medals in major international competition – two golds, three silvers and two bronze spanning the World and the Pan Pacific Championships.
Kukors set the world record in the 200 IM (2:06.15) at Italy in July 2009.
Family road trip
Now comes the challenge of bringing family overseas. Team Kukors is large, tight knit and supportive.
“They give us two tickets for the parents, then we have to scrounge for everything else.,” said Kukors’ mother, Jaapje, a bookkeeper at Auburn Mountainview. “We’re still working on it.”
The fact that one of her three daughters – all decorated swimmers – has made the Olympics has yet to fully sink in for Jaapje.
“It’s still kind of surreal. It’s like, ‘wow, exciting.’ ” the proud mom said. “It was a relief. We were so relieved because she reached her accomplishment.”
Pete Kukors couldn’t be prouder of his daughter.
“It’s kind of fun when one of your kids actually has a goal and obtains it.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime deal,” he said.
Kukors, the Olympian, plans to turn her attention to details, then dial up her drive for the Games.
“I’m going to bring my intensity up for about two weeks. I’m going to hit it hard. I’ve been running, I’ve been back in the weight room,” she said.“I’m pretty much going to work on everything. (It was) a disappointing time (at the trials). It wasn’t where it should have been in any way,shape or form. I know there’s a lot of room for improvement.”
With the stressful, difficult trials behind her, Kukors plans to enjoy the moment.
“They say the Olympics are like a breeze compared to the trials in terms of nervousness,” she said. “It’s definitely the payoff. I’m really excited to take it all in.”
Did you know?
Ariana Kukors is the first Olympian from Auburn since Al Rossi competed in rowing for the U.S. at the 1952 Summer Games. Rossi wasthe coxswain of the American boat that won the bronze medal in the coxed fours event at Helsinki, Finland.
Bonney Lake’s Melanie Roach, an Auburn High graduate and former gymnastics star for the Trojans, competed in weightlifting at the 2008Beijing Games. Roach broke her own 10-year-old American record and finished sixth in the 53-kilogram weight division at Beijing.