ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Each year, one of the highlights of the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) Swimming and Diving Championships is the senior salute during the final session. Each team's seniors are announced, greeted by all the coaches and receive an ovation typically reserved for record-breaking performances.
At the 2015 MIAC S&D Championships, St. Thomas (Minn.) swimmer Mariann Kukielka was one of those seniors saluted. Her final appearance at the conference meet allowed the decorated student-athlete -- both in and out of the pool -- a chance to begin reflecting on four years filled with goals met, relationships formed and lessons learned.
"There's something conclusive about this meet," Kukielka said prior to the final day of MIAC competition. "It will be the last time I compete with this large of a team. I've been on the verge of these crazy emotions this whole weekend. Every person is pushing their body to the limit, and their hearts to the limit. You can't see it, but you can feel it. The focus has been, 'Let's do this for our team and our family.' That's definitely been the hardest party to say goodbye to. It's been an emotional ride."
As Kukielka's college career comes to a close this semester, the incredibly involved senior will have a lot of things to say goodbye to, and a ton of memories and experiences to bring with her into life's next phase. All her various involvements were recently encompassed in one huge, extremely fitting honor, as she was named the recipient of the 2015 Tommie Award. The annual award is presented to the senior that best represents the ideals of the university.
"I'm grateful I've been able to squeeze so much into these four years," Kukielka said. "Everything I've experienced in athletics has bled into everything else. I'm so pleased to win the award and I'm so honored my friends, peers, faculty and staff, that they thought I deserve it."
Kukielka is certainly worthy of a salute for everything she's accomplished in school, in the pool, and in her many extra-curricular pursuits. She has also served as a perfect ambassador for the MIAC's partnership with Special Olympics through her work with the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) and her own personal connection to the cause.
It's often said that "busy people get more done." If Kukeilka is the example, that old saying has to be true.
TRULY SPECIAL OLYMPICS
One of Kukielka's many leadership roles has come with St. Thomas' SAAC. This year, she elevated that role as one of UST's two MIAC SAAC representatives, which unites the SAACs across the conference to work together on student-athlete issues, campus involvement and service projects.
A few years ago, NCAA Division III formed an official partnership with Special Olympics. The intent of the partnership is for the two groups to benefit one another through the shared bond of athletics. This partnership has been really embraced by the entire St. Thomas campus, as they open their doors to host a number of big-time Special Olympics events. However, Kukielka and her family have been involved with the organization long before the Division III partnership.
"He's so tall and athletic," Kukielka said of her brother. "Me and my dad always say that if he was a swimmer, he'd be an amazing sprinter."
Michael, who is now 17 years old, was encouraged by his kickball teammates to join them in Special Olympics as well. Now, he competes in basketball, track and bowling, and his family has truly enjoyed watching him compete, improve, accomplish his goals and bond with his teammates. Kukielka said her brother is now the most accomplished bowler in the family, and he's really blossomed as a runner, with his track times continuously improving.
"Athletics is something that's so largely received as a positive thing by our entire world, and when people have special needs, they have different opportunities in the world," she said. "Positive or negative, that's just how it works. But to have this organization give them an opportunity to feel accepted and do something so widely loved and appreciated, it's just incredible. It's so amazing to take part in these moments where you see people achieve all this happiness and pride through athletics."
Each year, St. Thomas hosts the Special Olympics Spring Games, which includes basketball, swimming and power lifting at the Tommies' Anderson Athletics and Recreation Complex, and the St. Thomas SAAC is instrumental, along with the school's Special Olympics club, at putting on such a big event and providing a great experience for the athletes. It sounds like at St. Thomas the Division III-Special Olympics partnership is working exactly as intended.
"We're very lucky to have the facilities and resources to host those events," Kukielka said. "It's fun to welcome them into our pool and our court. Our athletes always talk about how great it feels to share the camaraderie and sportsmanship with athletes who are so devoted, so committed and are very similar to how we approach our sports. It's amazing to take part in these moments and see people achieve all this happiness and pride through athletics."
The past few seasons, that event has coincided with the NCAA Division III Swimming and Diving Championships, so Kukielka hasn't been on-site to help, but she's had plenty of hands-on experience working with her brother and volunteering at other Special Olympics events.
"We take him to adaptive swim lessons and I'm in the water with him," she said, "I help move his arms and legs to get his strokes down. I go with him to all his sports. With track, he's really fast but he doesn't stop, so I'll go to the finish line and my dad will be with him at the start and tell him, 'Just run to Mariann.' It's so fun to see the same joy I've experienced in athletics up close."
With her athletic career coming to a close, Kukielka has been able to see several parallels between the things she's accomplished and the lessons she's learned, and the similar benefits her brother has enjoyed. Their common bond of sports has brought them closer together and helped them communicate about their shared passions in entirely new ways.
"My brother has a very severe case of autism," Kukielka said. "He can speak, but you can't hold a conversation with him. Since athletics is a physical activity, you can have more of an insight into his thoughts without needing any words. When he does something and we can see the smile on his face, it communicates his happiness to us."
Many think of swimming as an individual sport. Team scores are tabulated and relays are a big part of the sport, but it's mainly driven by individual races and events. While Kukielka has had a boatload of individual success, for her it truly has been about the team and the greater good.
The 2015 MIAC Swimming and Diving Championships serve as proof. For the first time in her four-year career, Kukielka didn't earn a spot on top of the podium as an individual MIAC champion. But for her, it was equally -- if not more so -- enjoyable to help her team nearly capture the team championship and lead a relay to a first-place finish with a MIAC record time.
Kukielka won the MIAC 100-yard butterfly title in each of her first three years and will graduate as the MIAC record-holder in the event with her time of 55.25 at the 2014 championships. However, her quest to complete the career sweep in the event came up short, as she finished fifth in 2015 MIAC race. Though she didn't win, the lessons she's learned throughout her career were evident.
Still, she's had some pretty darn good outcomes in her career. Kukielka has her three individual MIAC 100-fly titles and has been a member of four MIAC championship relay teams, including the 2015 200-yard medley relay team that set a new conference record with a time of 1:43.14. She has earned a total of four individual All-Conference honors (top three) and eight All-MIAC relay awards, but it's clear the successes she cherishes most are the ones she shares with her teammates, like the relay record and her team's performance as the conference runner-ups in 2015.
"One of the things that makes her really good in the pool is her attention to detail," St. Thomas head coach Scott Blanchard said. "She has really worked hard at making those finer points of racing a focus for her. Her streamlines, her starts, her turns, her underwater dolphin kicking. All those come into play in the butterfly, and because of her focus its allowed her to become quite successful."
Her team has enjoyed a similar level of success, particularly this season. Gustavus came into the 2015 meet as the five-time defending champions and were the heavy favorites to add title No. 6 in a row, but St. Thomas gave the Gusties their stiffest test yet. In fact, UST actually surged into the lead early on the third and final day, but two events later Gustavus reclaimed the lead and hung on to finish first with 858.5 points to 817 for the Tommies. It was UST's third consecutive second-place finish, after it finished third in Kukielka's rookie season, with its point total improving each year.
"Everything we've done so far, it's accumulated to where we're standing as a whole, as a team, and it raises goose bumps on my arms and makes my heart swell with pride," Kukielka said of the way her team collectively performed at the 2015 MIAC meet. "As a co-captain, the five us of met last May and said from the get-go, we need to bond as one. We need to build our family. When the going gets tough, we'll be together and we'll be strong."
The second-place finish for St. Thomas -- which has never won a MIAC women's swimming and diving team championship -- was especially satisfying for Kukielka and her fellow team captains, as they took on a larger leadership role this season. Prior to the 2015 season, long-time head coach Tom Hodgson retired and was replaced by Blanchard, and the new coach was extremely fortunate to have Kukielka and the other captains in place to ease the transition.
"She's been a fantastic captain for my first year," Blanchard said. "All of them have been fantastic. They've really helped to transition from the 35-year tenure of Tom Hodgson to the beginning of my tenure. She's been a huge help in that, along with the other four captains. I've been very fortunate to have them."
TOMMIE AWARD WINNER
Kukielka's was named the 2015 Tommie Award winner just a few days prior to the 2015 MIAC S&D Championships to add another incredible thrill to an already-emotional week. Her selection carries several degrees of history, as she is the first woman since 2001, and ninth woman overall, to win the award, which has been presented since 1931. She is also only the second varsity student-athlete to receive the honor.
"Outgoing" doesn't begin to describe Kukielka's bubbly and infectious personality, but when she received the honor it was so overwhelming the only emotion that immediately set in was shock. The talkative Tommie was actually speechless as she processed the news.
"When I was told I won, I'm so expressive and emotional, but I was just silent," she said. "I just kept saying, 'Thank you so much.' There was no screaming, no crying, I was just in shock."
Since that initial stunned silence, the magnitude of the honor has begun to set in. Kukielka said it was just an honor to be nominated alongside so many other accomplished peers, but her long list of accomplishments is truly worthy of recognition. Kukielka is involved in so much, it'd be believable if she said figured out how to mess with time and cram a couple extra hours into each day.
She is double majoring in entrepreneurship and business communication with a minor in film studies. She's the lone undergraduate student on St. Thomas President Julie Sullivan's Strategic Planning Committee. She's the president of the Delta Sigma Pi business fraternity. She's been a Morrison Hall apartment coordinator, a first-year commuter advisor, and she and a classmate won a scholarship for their small-business idea in St. Thomas' 2012 Fowler Business Challenge. And all of that comes on top of being a student pursuing a double major and a minor and a devoted student-athlete.
"I've learned it's not just the time we put in," Kukielka said. "It's about the intangible things that come from it. I've learned what's important, what you can find within yourself, what you can find within others, how to lift others up."
"What stands out is her overall caring for the program and trying to help the program continue to grow," Blanchard said. "She's been successful by being the best possible captain she can be to everyone that's on the team. Whether it's a conference-level athlete or not, they all get the same amount of attention and respect from her, regardless of their ability or the level they're at."
Though one very successful -- and very busy -- chapter of her life is coming to an end with graduation looming this spring, Kukielka is more than ready to swim toward her next goal. She wants to combine her business acumen with her creative side and pursue an executive career in either the film or fashion industry.
She has long desired to break into the corporate side of film production, but a recent opportunity to be the assistant producer of the I AM MPLS! fashion show introduced her to another creative outlet where she could utilize both sides of her personality.
"That opened my eyes to another creative industry that I really enjoyed," Kukielka said. "Films express a story, and clothing is self expression. It's been fun looking and job searching. It's funny to read the job description and think, 'This is something I could contribute to in the real world.' I'm willing to do whatever life has planned, but I know I want to be in a creative area where there's creative expression."
Regardless of what path she chooses, it's certain Kukielka learned countless things in the pool that will help her immensely as she moves forward. Already equipped with her infectious personality and admirable work ethic, she'll most certainly pull those lessons out of the pool, dry them off, and add them to her repertoire as she heads toward an uncertain, but undoubtedly successful, horizon.
"Swimming has been such a large part of the experience," Kukielka said. "Not just the time we put in, it's about the intangible things that come from the work. It's not the results, it's not the numbers. It's the relationships you form and the lessons you learn that really matter."