Ariana Kukors is an Olympic swimmer, world-record holder and Pacific Northwest native who is working with LifeWise to promote healthy living. Follow along on her journey to live an active and healthy life.
Inspiration. It’s an interesting word. What does it mean? When do we feel it? When do we need it? Where does it come from?
I’ve wondered about these questions throughout my swimming career and my life. But really, what does it mean to be inspired? What extraordinary events result from the inspiration?
One of the most inspiring moments of my swimming career came in 2008 during the Olympic Trials. At this point, I’d been competing for Team USA for a number of years. However, I certainly wasn’t a favorite to make this Olympic Team in many people’s eyes. I needed to prove them wrong.
I swam in the prelims of the 200 Individual Medley (IM) and made it to the final 16 swimmers. Then, in the next round, I made it to the final eight, which meant I’d earned a chance to compete in the final and land a spot on the Olympic Team. All I had to do was finish in the top two.
I wanted it so much. My dream was so close I could almost touch it! I prepared for the final as if it was just another race. I showed up at the pool, did my warm up, put my suit on and stood behind the starting block.
I dove in and swam the first lap – 50 meters of butterfly. Butterfly isn’t my best stroke, but I knew I could catch up on the next leg (backstroke). By lap three, I was ready to make my move with my strongest stroke – the breaststroke. As I finished that leg and flipped to freestyle with one lap to go, I had an odd feeling that I was in first place. However, I also knew that two of the fastest freestylers in Olympic history were in this race. So I pushed myself as hard as I possibly could toward the finish.
I touched the wall, took my goggles off and turned to look at the huge scoreboard where I saw my name. Third place. Just 0.08 of a second was all that separated me from my Olympic dream. I was crushed.
I didn’t want to show my disappointment with the cameras on me, so I congratulated my competitors and got out of the pool. On my way back to the hotel, I called my dad and asked him to meet me in the hotel parking lot. When I arrived, I got into his car and started crying. My tears quickly turned into gut wrenching, heartbreaking sobs. I looked at my dad and saw tears trickling down his face as well. He held my hand, and together we quietly mourned the loss of my Olympic dream.
Another 15 minutes went by before I composed myself enough to speak, and I turned to my dad and said, “Dad… don’t give up on me! I’m not giving up on myself. I have more left to do in this sport. Please continue to believe in me.” My dad looked at me and said, “I will never stop believing in you.”
I returned home from the 2008 Olympic Trials more motivated than I had ever been in my life. Every day was an exciting challenge and stepping stone in my journey towards my dreams.
During non-Olympic years, the fastest swimmers in the world gather and compete in the World Championships. In 2009, this event was held in Rome. I showed up flying completely under the radar. I hadn’t competed in the Olympics the year before and had no pressure on me to do well.
In the prelim race of the 200 IM, I broke the American record. In the semifinal later that night, I broke the world record. The next night, I broke it again, and became the World Champion for the first time in my career. It was truly one of the most special moments of my swimming career and it was everything I had dreamed it would be. More importantly, I was so proud to have pulled myself out of my disappointment in 2008, and in that moment of fear and heartbreak, found determination and strength.
The next few years flew by. I became World Champion again and gained a wealth of international experience. I also graduated from Chapman University with a degree in business. But my focus was still on my Olympic dream.
On June 28th, 2012, in the same pool in Omaha that had brought me total heartbreak four years before, I looked up at the scoreboard and saw my name again. Only this time, I was an Olympian.
A wave of joy, relief, happiness and an overall sense of peace washed over me. The tears that I had held back publicly four years before came pouring down my face for all to see. I had achieved my Olympic dream! I had the incredible honor of traveling with Team USA to London and competing with the best swimmers in the world. The support I received from my friends, family and community was truly an honor and a humbling way to end a successful career.
Inspiration can come from many places. Yet often, we find inspiration after we’ve been deeply disappointed. It’s in those moments that we have an opportunity to overcome our deepest and darkest fears, try harder and find out who we really are.