Feb. 4, 2011
By Brad Rudner, U-M Athletic Media Relations
It's not easy being the youngest. Just ask U-M sophomore women's swimmer Mattie Kukors. She knows better than anyone.
When you say her last name around those who spend lots of time in swimming circles, you'll probably get one of two mentioned.
There's the oldest, Emily Kukors, a 25-year-old retired swimmer, who was a 19-time NCAA All-American at Auburn University from 2004-08.
Then there's the Ariana Kukors, who at 21 years old, is perhaps the most famous of the Kukors sisters. She's a world-class swimmer, having set the world record in the long-course 200-meter individual medley at the 2009 FINA World Championships in Rome.
And finally there's Mattie, the youngest of the three. Already well into her second semester of her sophomore year, Mattie is having a breakout season for the Wolverines' women's swimming and diving team. She holds team-best times in four races (100- and 200-yard backstrokes, 200- and 400-yard individual medleys) and on two relays (200- and 400-yard medley relays).
Being the third Kukors sister is something that Mattie has dealt with all her life. After all, swimming rules in this family.
"I don't mind it," Mattie said. "I'm proud of the things they've done. They've had great swimming careers. It's always a little hard for the youngest one to not be a little bit compared."
Mattie was born to be a swimmer. Her parents, Peter and Jaapje, owned a boat and wanted their three daughters to take swimming lessons. Since Emily was the oldest, she was the first to test out the water. She loved it.
By the time it came to be Mattie's turn, she admits that she was pushed into it a little bit. She was faced with a choice -- swim or watch.
"I was that little six year old who wanted to be just like her big sisters," she said. "Couldn't say no."
When it came to choosing a college, Mattie considered following Emily to Auburn. Mattie had a great relationship with the coaching staff there, which became a factor. So, too, was Emily's success in the pool.
In the end, Mattie decided that she wanted to pave her own way and escape the giant shadow that her older sisters cast.
"I didn't want to be known as 'Emily's younger sister' for four more years of my life," she said.
With Auburn out of the picture, Michigan rose to the forefront. It had everything she was looking for in a school -- prestigious academics, a beautiful campus and an outstanding team, both competitively and personally.
Head coach Jim Richardson knew of the Kukors family. He was told that all three sisters would be very good fits for Michigan. But Richardson assumed Mattie would follow in their footsteps, and thus, didn't aggressively recruit her.
Then two years ago, out of the blue, Richardson called up Mattie, who was a senior in high school and nearing the most important decision of her life. Problem was she had no idea where she was going to go.
After talking with Richardson, Mattie decided to take a recruiting visit to Ann Arbor. Everything was cemented after that.
"She was delightful, that's probably the best word to describe her," Richardson recalls. "It was very apparent that as a person, she was a very good fit for our program. And as a swimmer, she came from good bloodlines, obviously. It turned out to be a very good fit in all the important areas."
Mattie bonded with the coaching staff on that visit, and that bond has only grown stronger in time.
"Jim is very easy to talk to, very understanding," she said. "He's a good guy and a great coach. Him and (assistant coach) Stefanie (Kerska) balance each other out. She can get riled up sometimes, whereas Jim is mostly pretty calm. They've coached with each other for so many years now that anyone can see they know what they are doing."
"When you think of our program, the first thing that should come to mind is the character of our swimmers," Richardson added. "She's just a wonderful person to be around."
In swimming, the training cycle is everything. This season, Richardson went with a training regimen that leans more towards long-course rather than the short-course, which is what is used in collegiate swimming. Swimmers train for 90 percent of the calendar year, and Richardson is a coach that understands the season is a marathon. He sets his teams up for success in February (at Big Tens) and March (at NCAAs), not during the dual-meet portion of the schedule.
Michigan practices nine times per week -- single sessions on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday and two-a-days on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. There's also the dry-land and cardiovascular workouts outside of the pool.
No more evident were the fruits of the training cycle on display than in Michigan's dominant dual-meet win over Ohio State on Jan. 21. Michigan won nine of the meet's 16 events over the Buckeyes, and that's not including the final three races, which Michigan would have won had they not been exhibitioned.
Kukors had the top time in three races (100-yard backstroke, 200-yard backstroke, 400-yard individual medley) and has started to come into her own this year.
"Our team remembered last year," Kukors said, referring to Ohio State's win over Michigan in Columbus last January, just Michigan's second loss ever to its archrival in a dual meet. "We wanted to have a good meet this year. It wasn't easy on my body, but I didn't think about it that much. I ran on adrenaline that whole meet."
"When you see people you train with get fast times, and you know they are hurting, you know you can do it too. I think everyone felt that way that day."
With the dual-meet portion of the schedule ending, Kukors' focus will soon turn towards the Big Ten Championships, held Feb. 16-19 in Bloomington, Ind., and Mattie will have some extra support this time. Emily bought her tickets two weeks ago.
"She makes me nervous," Mattie said of her eldest sister. "She came to nationals in Irvine [Calif.] last summer where Ariana and I swam at. I think it's difficult for her to watch and not be a part of it. But I'm sure she has fun being a crazy spectator."
Not surprisingly, none of her goals for the meet include individual accolades or titles, though she's thought of it.
"To win would be amazing," she admitted. "I'm positive that thought is in my head somewhere."
But none of that matters to Kukors. She just wants to score points for Michigan.
"And be the best teammate I can be," she continued. "I want to get my hand on the wall as fast as I can. I want to go get my best time, obviously, so if I don't get that, but I still manage to score points for my team, that's what's important. Don't swim for you. Swim for the girls and the person next to you."