OMAHA, Neb. -- As she lay in bed and tried to fall asleep the night before the biggest race of her life, Ariana Kukors needed a hand.
She knew this could be the end. She knew that if her hand didn't touch the wall first or second in Thursday night's 200-meter individual medley at the U.S. Olympic trials, she was going to retire. If things didn't go the way she had hoped, that was the plan. She had a degree in business, a bunch of contacts in the field and a red-eye back to Seattle to start the next chapter of her life.
It wasn't what she wanted, of course. She wanted to be an Olympian. She wanted to feel what it was like on the other side. In 2008, at the same meet in the same pool in the same event, she had come up eight-hundredths of a second short.
As she lay there Wednesday night and tried to fall asleep, her mind raced. On one hand, she wanted it so bad; on the other hand, she wanted the nerves to just go away. If this was going to be the last night of her swimming career, the 23-year-old wanted to relax. So she asked her younger sister, Mattie, a junior swimmer at Arizona State, to hold her hand. Mattie agreed. Big sister grabbed her pillow and blanket, crawled into little sister's bed, locked hands, and squeezed.
"Then she just fell asleep," Mattie said. "Once she did, my arm started to cramp a bit, so I wiggled out of it. She woke up at some point around 5 a.m., and I felt her grab my hand and hold it again."
For every Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte in the world, superstar swimmers who often seem immune to the boiling pots of pressure brought on by the make-or-break Olympic trials, there are 10 times as many like Ariana Kukors, who fight the inner demons that come along with having the fate of your career decided in 130 seconds. They succeed not only because of their talent, but also because of their support group. A coach. A sister. A mom. A dad. A boyfriend. A wife.
The Kukors' story is one of sisterhood, three girls born within six years of each other who all were college swimmers and all had each other's backs. For years, reporters asked questions about a sibling rivalry, and for years, they always walked away empty.
"It's always been a sisters thing," their mother, Jaapje, said. "You mess with one of them, you mess with all of them. That's just the way it's been."
On this night, a gray T-shirt that the three sisters and their mom all wore told the story. It featured a black-and-white picture of the three girls together on a beach in San Diego under the words "Team Kukors." On the back was the following quote: "When sisters stand shoulder to shoulder, who stands a chance against us?"
So on Thursday night, when Ariana stepped on the deck and stood behind the block in Lane 6, she reminded herself of just that and did exactly what Mattie told her. She looked up at the giant scoreboard and reminded herself that the world-record time of 2 minutes, 6.15 seconds was hers. Sure it came in 2009. Sure it was swimsuit-aided. But so what? No other woman had ever covered 200 meters of an individual medley faster than she had. This would be her night.
As the race started and she dove into the water, Ariana tried to keep her mind blank. Up in Section 101, panic reigned. Older sister Emily ran back and forth in front of her row, trying to shake out the nerves and somehow transfer some of that energy down to her sister. A few feet away, Jaapje held up her iPad and recorded the moment she hoped they would celebrate for decades to come.
At the 50-meter mark, Ariana found herself in third place. At 100, she was in fourth. And with 50 meters left to decide the next chapter of her life, Ariana was again in third, .13 seconds behind second-place Elizabeth Pelton. But down the pool she came, shoving as much water out of her way as she could, while remembering what her coach had told her.
Keep your eyes closed. Don't look at the competition. Focus on your strokes.
Just like that, her fingers touched the wall. She didn't want to turn around and look. She felt like she had finished in third place, maybe even fourth, and this was the end. For five good seconds, she just bobbed in the water, her back turned to the scoreboard.
"I was terrified," she said. "I was so scared, so, so scared. Then it was like, 'Just turn around. Make yourself turn around.'"
When she did, she saw that magic number next to her name: 2. She was going to London.
"I just started crying," she said. "And Elizabeth Beisel gave me the biggest hug."
Up in Section 101, the emotions were exactly the same. Tears, lots and lots of tears.
"I looked up, saw that number and thought to myself, 'That's a two,'" Jaapje said. "'That's a two. She's going. We're going.'"
Emily jumped up and down in the aisles, then sprinted down the stairs in hopes of holding her sister as soon as possible. She didn't want to wait. Mom followed along. Before she walked off the pool deck, Ariana saw them. She ran over. And right there in Row 1, Section 101, they shared an emotional hug as Mattie looked on with her Arizona State teammates. Mattie will also swim here Friday.
"I told her I was so proud of her, so, so proud of her," Emily said. "She's worked so hard. She's put so much into this. I just couldn't be any more proud of my sister. She deserves this."
Now, when people ask Ariana what she does for a living, she will still tell them "swimmer." And when they ask whether she's ever been to the Olympics, she'll finally be able to answer, "Yes."
"When you say, 'No, but I've been to the world championships, people are like, 'Whatever,'" she said. "Nobody cares about that. The Olympics are something that anybody can identify with. So to have that huge goal, be unsure with myself yesterday and still make it is just an incredible feeling."
Instead of heading home Thursday night and beginning that career in business, there were plans to order a pizza and watch some television. There would be tears, laughter and smiles, but most of all, a sense of accomplishment. For all three sisters.
"I'm just so thankful for my family," Ariana said. "I never could have done this without them. They are my rock."