By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
OMAHA – They call it the river of tears. Or the well of tears. Or the meet where “95 percent of swimmers go home disappointed.” However you look at it, there’s a lot of crying.
It’s easier to stomach if the tears are happy tears. Like the ones shed by Bolles’ Ariana Kukors. As soon as she exited the pool and grasped onto her mother and sister – clinging to her family like the Trials pool would reach out, grab her, and make her qualify all over again – the whole family started to cry. NBC captured one of those priceless moments you rarely see during broadcast, a moment that those in the CenturyLink Center were able to witness, should they cast their eyes near the corner of the competition pool.
Older sister Emily held on tight and said, sobbing, “I’m so proud of you.” Ariana accepted the elderly sister pride with a smile, then continued on...
As she walked through the media zone, Kukors couldn’t control the tears. They fell from her cheeks onto the wet, blue carpet – a spongy, absorbent, shower-floor type of rug that gathers water as swimmers meander the media mix zone. Her tears splashed down and intermingled with all the other tears cast on that carpet from the excruciating, intense week. The ecstatic tears, the disappointed tears. The sweat. The saliva. The mucus.
Gary Hall Jr. knows this area, where athletes escape to have their private, un-filmed moments. “I used to call the warm-down pool ‘the well of tears,’” Hall told a group of people on Tuesday evening. He did not allude that it was a fun place to hang out for a casual dip.
I can then only assume Kukors walked to that infamous warm down pool, where she then contributed to its legendary description, along with whomever else happened to be there, clinging to the gutters, doing the same thing, but perhaps for very different reasons.
Trials Third Tears
It seems almost sadistic to compete and warm down amid the sadness of your peers. With swimming, the comment “there’s no crying in baseball” doesn’t really exist. It’s more like the Amanda Beard memoir, “In The Water They Can’t See You Cry.” Because it’s true. Just open your goggles, and let loose.
At Trials, you literally swim in someone’s sadness.
Which is why the warm-down area is always and completely off-limits to the media. The Omaha National Guard protects its entrance, and to gain access, you must have the appropriate credential. They are very strict. Equally sadistic is sometimes the media’s desire to capture these after-race moments of emotion, when a swimmer is keeled over and piecing together a lifetime of training coming apart/coming together while tears fall onto the deck. It’s referred to in some worlds as “the money shot,” maybe because, I suppose, there are significant ratings by showing people crying (although I have no way of proving this true.)
So, they’ve set up this off-limits, no-media refuge. The warm down area is a sanctuary from the screaming, stomping, thunder-boom roar of the crowd above, and the relentless pursuit of the media just in the other room. It is a place to have your personal and private moments, gather your thoughts, collect yourself while shoving your face into a gutter and listening to your own breath. The real emotion of the meet happens here, as Gary Hall Jr. hinted. It is the blood of the meet -- the heart, the stomach, the intestines, the messy workings of the beast itself. And it is here – away from the eyes of those who maybe don’t understand the pressures and intensities – that these intimate and private moments take place.
Or sometimes they happen in the drug testing room.
Back in 2008, Ariana Kukors – just minutes after a devastating third place, Kukors had to get drug tested. She described the atmosphere as horrible for the third place person. Not the ideal place to be after huge disappointment.
“The tough thing about getting 3rd at the Olympic Trials is you have to get drug tested just in case you get in,” Kukors once told me. “So you're in a drug testing room with people who are really, really happy, and people who are devastated..."
Kukors called her dad. He met her at the hotel, and she broke down. Once again, the tears of Trials. But Kukors told me, as she was reflecting on this moment, that it was actually a good moment between her and her dad. Maybe even a changing moment for her, a moment she’d gather strength from, a moment she’d revisit in her mind during all the trials and tribulations of Olympic pursuits, a moment she would use as her safe haven, just like the warm down pool can be for 1,829 swimmers this week. A safe place to go.
“I asked him to never stop believing in me,” Kukors said. “That I wasn’t giving up on myself, and he shouldn’t either.”
“He said, ‘I’ll never stop believing in you.’”
One year later, Kukors demolished the world record, and the tears returned.
Clary and Kukors: Erasing and Rewriting
For two athletes last night, both of whom experienced difficult and arduous third place Olympic Trials finishes before, the story was different this time.
For Clary, he became the Olympian he had always dreamed. He once told me that he didn’t aspire to be the “next Michael Phelps.” Of course, comparisons to Phelps comes naturally with the territory of swimming the same events as the Olympic champion. “So are you trying to be like Michael Phelps?” people asked him. But Clary merely suggested that they are two different people who happen to swim the same events. He did not want to be the next Michael Phelps.
“I want to be the next Tyler Clary,” he once told me. Clary’s 200 butterfly began that identifying process, one that is not over, not by a long shot.
And for Kukors, it was about embracing the pressure and making the team. Imagine going from Trials Third to World Record Holder in one year. The expectations that followed were monumental, becoming the fastest human ever, then having to wait three years to qualify for the Olympics and the chance to truly prove it to the world. Kukors did not approach her world record time this week, and she’s faced criticism that the suits of 2009 helped her more than others. (As if everyone didn’t compete under the same rules.) So maybe there was just a hint of defiance in those final, surging strokes in the final five meters.
Maybe it was all the pain, anguish, criticism, the good memories and the bad memories, that helped Kukors through the water. Maybe it was thinking about a pre-race text message tradition her father sends before every race that simply says: "I believe."
“I saw my sister and my mom right after, and they were just sobbing, and it was just the most emotional thing for me,” Kukors says in this interview. You can see the emotion. You can see the tears sliding down her cheek, onto her hands, to the floor, with all the rest.
They say at Trials, you can literally swim in other’s disappointment. All the sadness that came before you.
Ariana Kukors already experienced both spectrums, and decided to swim right on through.
Mike Gustafson is a freelance contributor with USASwimming.org and Splash Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @MikeLGustafson.