By Susan Draper
Never underestimate an Olympian! When she retired from swimming in 2012, Ariana Kukors set out to use her experiences to inspire change in others. From kids’ clinics and corporate presentations, to her role as Director of Health Inspiration at LifeWise Health Plan of Washington & Oregon, Ariana has been able to engage, encourage, and motivate people from all walks of life. As she set out to work with over one hundred of our local athletes during the last weekend in September, I was in awe of just how much valuable information, pertinent to performance, could be included in a 2-2.5-hour workshop. I knew the workshops would be inspiring and insightful, but I didn’t realize that they had the potential to be life changing.
Ariana’s first Westchester workshop, graciously hosted by the Bristal in Armonk, was a Dream Clinic for teens looking for targeted ways to become better at their craft. The teens were everything from equestrians to soccer players, with obviously some swimmers in the mix. Ariana began by telling the story of how she was a member of the National Swim Team since age 13, and that her first crack at the Olympics was in 2008. She candidly described the details of finishing the semi-finals in first place, but sinking to third place in the final lap of the 200 IM. One doesn’t have to be a swimmer to know that coming in third by .09 seconds is a devastating experience. The ensuing night was rough, but beginning the next day–after dropping a full 9 seconds in the 200 breast–she began to develop a comeback plan. The clinic was an opportunity to explore one’s personal philosophy and vision with a suggestion to develop a vision board for life. The teens learned about positive self talk, mindfulness, and steps to calm the mind through meditation. She explained exactly what techniques she employed in order to break the world record, not once, but twice to win the gold medal at the World Championships in Rome in 2009, being named American Swimmer of the Year by Swimming World Magazine. The teens worked on their own personal ideas during the session and left with techniques to complete a comprehensive plan for success. One parent let me know that her daughter didn’t waste any time putting elements of the plan into practice, scoring points for her team in a competition the very next day.
That Sunday, Ariana conducted swim clinics at the Boys and Girls Club in Mt. Kisco. Again, she began with her story, which every swimmer in the room could relate to as she spoke. “Who has had a bad race?” Again, she described that fateful race of 2008 where years of training kept her in first place for the first 150 meters. She described how panic set in as her mind strayed to the thought of being chased down by freestylers who at moments in the past had been flat out faster than her personal best time. Her honed technique fell apart as she panicked. Everyone in the room identified with her at that moment–including swimmers I had seen repeatedly take first place at Metropolitan Swimming championships. It was her absolute humanness that drew them in to her world. Every swimmer has had the race where they put themselves out there only to touch the wall and look back at the clock to see that they fell short of their goal. There were questions about strategy, mental preparation, opponents, and how to pick an element to develop to drop their times. There were moments of laughter and moments where she tugged at their heart strings. For much of the afternoon she was in the pool with them working their strokes in new sets and drills. In the end, all of them had their opportunity to race an Olympian while swimming their best stroke. As the session closed, I could see that they had fallen in love with Ariana as they all stayed for photographs, autographs and even more laughter.
The afternoon brought me back to thoughts when, as a family, we met Ariana at the Olympic Trials. She had realized her dream of becoming an Olympian in a race that we watched on the edge of our seats the evening before. Little did we know in that moment as she touched and placed second–erupting in tears of joy as she connected with her family–that she was destined to take a place in our hearts. I knew the kids at the workshops would love her too, but what I learned is that she is truly as amazing outside of the water as she is in the pool. She put her heart and soul into the preparation for these clinics and once again, it paid off as a true gift for everyone involved. We can’t wait to have her back again!
Susan Draper is currently pursuing her RN degree while teaching yoga and spinning in her spare time. She lives in Armonk with her husband, daughter, and competitive swimmer son who inspired the whole family to “dive” into the sport eight years ago.