Catching Up with Ariana Kukors
By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
Boom or bust, Ariana Kukors always knew she would be done swimming after the 2012 Olympic Trials.
More than a year removed from realizing her ultimate dream – swimming in the Olympics – Kukors recently called it a career two months ago and is quickly moving onto the next phase of her life.
It’s one she’s been anticipating for months even though she just recently pulled the retirement trigger. That’s how much swimming and all of the relationships she’s built over the years mean to her.
“My family's motto was, ‘You're not a swimmer, you're a person who swims,’ and I have always been excited to see what the other side holds,” Kukors said. “I'm so thankful for my career. It was such a blessing in my life and had a huge part in shaping me into the person I am today. I just felt that it was time.”
But it wasn’t a slam dunk decision after she made the finals but failed to medal in London – as evidenced by her taking a full year and then some to retire.
In the meantime, she has started her own company, Team Kukors, the umbrella for corporate speaking, corporate wellness and clinics.
It combines her passion for people, building relationships and helping people change their lives – a hybrid business that allows her to do all of the above.
“I am working with an amazing company, LifeWise, as their Director of Health Inspiration, encouraging, motivating and giving people the tools they need to take steps in their health journey,” said Kukors, who burst onto the swimming scene as a teenager at King Aquatics in Greater Seattle.
“Clinics are something I will always do on the side but mine are a little different because I wrote my own curriculum on emotional intelligence to include along with a traditional clinic. The mind game is such an important element that is sometimes forgotten about, and I love showing kids how much control they can have over that side of their sport.”
She also works for a company called Juice Plus, which is a whole food nutrition product – the only supplement and recovery drink she used as an athlete. She’s deeply passionate about their mission and vision to improve the lives of others.
“I am loving what I'm doing right now,” Kukors said. “If my swimming career taught me anything, it was to live in the moment and that's what I'm trying to do. I received some great advice recently in regards to my career from a great friend, who said to set out each day with the intent to ‘be a blessing" in someone’s life.’ It's stuck with me. I have today to make an impact. I'm trying to do my best with it, and I'll start over again tomorrow.”
Tomorrow was always something Kukors had as a competitive swimmer. When a meet didn’t go quite as she’d hoped, she could always look toward the next one for improvement and redemption.
Never did she experience this as strongly as when she finished third in the 200 individual medley and off the Olympic Team at the 2008 Olympic Trials.
Devastated, she chose to use the disappointment as a learning experience, going back to work shortly after with the intent of never letting anything like that happen again.
A year later, she made the 2009 World Championship team, and in Rome a few weeks later, set a world record in the 200 IM in the era of tech suits that are no longer allowed in competition. Her mark stands today and will take a Herculean effort to break.
“The back story to that world record that no one really knows is that at King, we thought the tech suits were here to stay, so we wore them in practice every single day,” Kukors said. “They changed your positioning in the water drastically, so we all made technique changes so they would work for us.
“I also focused on becoming a better underwater kicker and committed to taking seven kicks off every wall in practice every single day. My training was the best it ever was that year- so focused and intentional in everything I did.”
Funny enough, Kukors nearly missed Trials altogether when she became sick five days before and ended up in the hospital hooked up to an IV. She lost 8 pounds and missed two days of practice but conjured up the strength – thanks largely to some great, dedicated training – to make the team.
“It was devastating,” Kukors said. “I felt that all my hard work that year was about to go down the drain. That had a huge impact on my races at the Trials, and why my time drop was so significant between Trials and Worlds.”
Three years later, determined not to repeat the same disappointment she did four years earlier, Kukors returned to Omaha in 2012 and made good on her commitment to redeem herself by finishing second in the 200 IM and making her first Olympics.
In retrospect, Kukors said she finds it ironic that swimmers train their whole lives for something decided by a matter of seconds. But when things go as planned, it’s all worth it.
“We train our whole lives for something that is decided in a matter of seconds, and if I hadn't spent the last four years preparing for that moment, I would have crumbled under the pressure,” said Kukors, who had the great “privilege” to train and compete along with older sister, Emily, and younger sister, Mattie, the majority of her swimming career.
“The joy I felt seeing the number 2 next to my name (at Trials) is indescribable. The Olympic experience was amazing, and I was fortunate to be a part of a great team of friends. I would have loved to have won a medal for Team USA, but at the end of the day, I am so proud to have been there and feel lucky to have been able to celebrate Caitlin's (Leverenz) amazing accomplishment.”
Now that she’s a year removed from competition, Kukors’ perspective about swimming has changed from that of competitive athlete to retrospective retiree.
She said among the many highlights, most have nothing to do with the awards podium.
‘I have been fortunate to be a part of some amazing teams that made me love swimming day-in and day-out,” said Kukors, who made time to finish college at Chapman University (after going pro) with a degree in business in 2011. “Those countless hours that we spent together are truly the reasons for success, and it was a blessing that I had such great people to train with.
“Breaking the world record was an obvious highlight; it's something I'll never forget. But the most memorable part was definitely making the Olympic Team. It was a dream I was hung up on and desperately desired most of my career. The moments leading up to the race, with my little sister, then right after, with the tears and joy, will forever be ingrained in me. I'm humbled that I was able to achieve that with the help of so many people.”