“I touched the wall and looked at the clock and thought, that's pretty fast.”
Clocking a school-record time of 2:08.78 in the 200m breaststroke at the ACC Championships in Greensboro (North Carolina), Sudbury native and Florida State Seminoles freshman Nina Kucheran garnered one of only three medals of the meet for the FSU women's team, becoming in the process one of only two 'Noles female swimmers (Ida Hulkko earned a silver medal and qualified) to qualify for the NCAA championships (Florida State also qualified a relay team).
“The team atmosphere at a D1 school is like something I have never seen before,” Kucheran acknowledged this week, chatting on the deck of the Olympic Gold Pool at Laurentian University. “As soon as you finish the race, you had twenty girls running to you, jumping on you. That was probably my favourite memory.”
Just a few months later, the scene would be somewhat re-enacted. Competing in the very last race of the 2019 FISU Games in Italy earlier this month, Kucheran posted a personal relay-best split of 1:08 flat in the women's 4 X 100 medley relay, helping to lift Canada to a bronze medal performance, the only podium finish for the entire team at the Piscina Scandone.
It has been quite a first year away from home for the ultra-driven Sudbury talent who graduated from Collège Notre-Dame in June of 2018. “She is just passionate about getting better at swimming,” noted her long time Sudbury Laurentian Swim Club coach, Dean Henze. “She doesn't mind that it's a job, because there is nothing else she would rather be doing.”
“To her, it's not work. It's what she wants to do. She really thrives in that environment.”
The first local swim talent to be offered an NCAA Division I scholarship in what is believed to be the past quarter century or so, Kucheran enjoyed a transition that was far more seamless than many of the young athletes who have left northern Ontario for the lure of university competition south of the 49th parallel.
“This year went a lot better than I was expecting,” she said. “The coaches will even talk and warn us that the freshman year may not be great. But I went right from Junior Pan Pacifics to Florida, and it felt like the first few months, I didn't even have time to breathe, getting used to everything.”
That might sound overwhelming, to some. But there is little doubt that Kucheran's comfort cushion lies within the parameters of a pool. Is it there where she self-identifies, it is there where she excels, it is there where her dreams lie, ready to be fulfilled.
“In Sudbury, I am a big fish in a small pond,” said Kucheran, tapping into an analogy that seemed only too appropriate. “There, I am a small fish in a bigger pool. But I want to be a bigger fish. This gives me the opportunity to grow as a fish. I get to train with people around me that are better than me, which pushes me to be better myself.”
“I'm exposed to a lot more – facilities, resources, people in general. This is a little more of the edge that I needed.”
In some sports, the athlete-coach connection, on a local level, can be pretty much completely severed once the young prodigy is handed off to the post-secondary ranks. That, however, is seldom the case when it comes to swimming, one of those sports where that one on one relationship grows stronger than most. In the case of Kucheran and Henze, super-size it up another notch.
“Not a lot of athletes have the same kind of relationship that I have with Dean,” said Kucheran. “He's like a second dad to me. He kind of knows what I'm thinking, even before I say it. I'm very thankful that my coaches at school are really open to talking with Dean. I obviously trust Dean, a lot, and I trust my coaches at school, so having them work together is awesome.”
“The assistant coach there did a great job of staying in touch and picking my brain,” suggested Henze. “But I only got involved when asked, or if Nina was really feeling out of sorts.” That, apparently, did not happen all too often. While the refuge, for Kucheran, might lie in the pool, it's certainly an added bonus when time away from the pool opens up a whole new world entirely.
“I've gotten to meet so many new people in the past year, probably more than I had met in my whole life,” she said. “I've been surrounded by a lot of the same people for almost my whole life, and they're great people, people that I love. But I've met so many amazing people, making new friends, friends from Finland and the Cayman Island and Florida and Hungary.”
“And being so close to Georgia, it's all southern hospitality down here,” Kucheran added, the Florida State campus in Tallahassee only a couple of hours away from the Georgia state line. “Everyone is so sweet and so nice.”
Even when a partial tear of an MCL in her knee threatened to put a kibosh on her European adventure this summer, things still somehow turned out just fine, perhaps better than fine. “I had to get pretty creative with her training and, to her credit, she stayed positive,” noted Henze of the pre-FISU preparation that would see Kucheran limited to almost no pure breaststroke training whatsoever.
“She actually swam really well, considering.”
She also enjoyed what could only be described as pure icing on the cake in year one of her FSU era. “I loved Italy, it was beautiful,” she said. “We stayed on a cruise ship, which was super fun. The meet was a lot faster than I expected, so I got to watch some really fast swimming.”
The irony, of course, is that many might suggest having exactly that same thought while watching Kucheran torch her way through the pool. There is no slowing down in her sophomore campaign, with swimmers at this level keenly aware of the upcoming Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2020.
“I'm obviously going to want to represent my school the best that I can, keep swimming fast, but I want to focus on the Olympic Trials,” said Kucheran.
It's just what she does.