Q&A with Senior Cari Cunningham


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Cari Cunningham
Cari Cunningham
Courtesy: UCSD
If the race truly goes to the sure and steady, UCSD senior breaststroker Cari Cunningham is in line to grab her just rewards in 2009-10. Solid, if not necessarily spectacular in her first two seasons after walking on at UCSD, Cunningham qualified for her first NCAA Championships as a junior and won All-American honors in the 200 breaststroke at the national meet in Houston. Now, she's one of UCSD's team captains and continuing her progression -- in and out of the pool -- during her final season in La Jolla. "Cari has definitely stepped into a senior leadership role more than capably," says UCSD head coach Scott McGihon. "And she has used last year's NCAA scoring appearance to elevate her swimming to a higher plane." Coming off the preeminent meet of the fall season, last weekend's Toshiba Classic, Cunningham took time to talk about her career, her sport and the future.

Q: This is your senior season-how is your approach to swimming different now than it was when you first arrived at UCSD?
The last two years I have been able to overcome many intimidations and limiting factors I put on myself my first two years swimming at UCSD.  I think my freshman and sophomore year, fellow athletes, coaches, and our vigorous training schedule intimidated me.  Also, as a senior, I find myself thinking more about the team's success than my own.  It is a lot easier to get through tough races when you think about scoring for your team.

My approach to swimming has changed greatly both during training and in meets.  The past two years, I think our whole team has stepped up a lot in our out of the water training, especially in weights, and we've seen direct results from this.  I also have come to realize that racing really is more mental than physical, and if you know you have put in the work then you have to be confident in your abilities to perform.  Lastly, one of my younger teammates said something at the beginning of last season that has really stuck with me.  There are two or three races that are still a mental battle for me, no matter how many times I swim them.  I remember being pretty nervous before swimming one of them that day last season when my teammate told me, "It's going to be SO much fun!" and now every time before either of us swims one of our more mentally (and usually physically) challenging races, we joke with each other about having fun, even if it is a tough race.

Q: During your college career, what, if anything surprised you about college swimming in general and UCSD in particular?
As an incoming freshman, I was definitely prepared for a busy schedule crammed with both my athletic schedule and academics.  Having started competitive swimming before even attending elementary school, I have always had to balance my training and academics.  However, college swimming is more than simply attending nine practices a week.  Sometimes it can be more physically and mentally draining than I ever expected, which makes schoolwork, especially here at UCSD, hard to get done even when we aren't practicing. 

It is the physical, mental, and time demands of swimming, however, that give rise to what I am most surprised about college swimming: the tight-knit bond that everyone on our team shares.  Through club and high school swimming, I never felt the tie to my teammates that I feel now.  It is amazing that after spending over 20 hours training together a week, we still spend every free moment together.  Maybe it is because we can't actually talk to each other while swimming with our face in the water, I don't know!! Swimming at UCSD is particularly unique, as the women and men's teams train and compete together, and act as one team rather than two.  

Q: Besides the competitive successes, what else have you gotten out of swimming?
I think the biggest gain I have gotten out of swimming, particularly while at UCSD, is a close group of friends that will always be connected through our college swimming experience.  In addition, the demands of swimming teach you to be mentally tough, committed, a team player, and extremely adept at time management skills!  This may sound nerdy, but I can't tell you how many pages I have read on the shuttle from the parking lot to the pool!

Q: As a prep, you swam at San Clemente High School, also the Tritons. How did you wind up coming to UC San Diego?
Just because I loved the mascot so much!  I think UC San Diego had everything I was looking for in a school: first and foremost an outstanding academic reputation, but also a strong swimming program I could be competitive in, and a location that can't be topped!

Q: Last year, you qualified and competed at the NCAA Championships for the first time. What was that experience like and is there any residual effect for you this season?
I think qualifying for nationals and getting to compete in Houston last season was one of the most rewarding experiences of my lifetime.  Qualifying for the first time my junior year was even more gratifying, knowing that I came a long way since starting as a walk-on my freshman year.  UCSD usually qualifies a large number of swimmers to compete at the NCAA Championships each year.  Getting to be part of that group, and the women's team placing third in Division II last year was phenomenal.  This season, I definitely have the confidence boost from last year and the ambition for both our men and women's teams to move up in rankings from last year.  And so far this season, our team is showing the potential to have a great performance at nationals in March.

Q: You're a breaststroke specialist-what specific mental and physical skills are important in that discipline?
Breaststroke is a more rhythm-driven stroke than any of the others.  The correct synchronization between the pull and kick is fundamental.  Tempo also is a large factor in breaststroke.  You have to learn how to pick up your tempo for shorter breaststroke events, and lengthen it for longer events.

Q: Besides the obvious distance, what are the differences in the 100 and 200 breaststroke races? Which do you like better and why?
The main difference between the 100 and 200 breaststroke events is the stroke tempo at which you race.  The 100 breaststroke is a sprint: a fast, but efficient tempo is key.  The start off the blocks and each turn are even more crucial since the race is over in a little more than a minute.  The 200 breaststroke is definitely not a "Sunday afternoon swim", but the stroke tempo is definitely slower than in the 100.  As much as I love to swim the shorter 100 breaststroke, I think I need some more fast-twitch muscles before I can convince the coaches I should train as a sprinter.  I actually enjoy the 200 breaststroke, where you have time to get into the race and have a race strategy.  

Q: Does swimming in other events help with your specialty?
I definitely think swimming the individual medley and butterfly helps with my breaststroke.  The hip movement in butterfly helps drive my kick forward in breaststroke, and the out sweep of the arms is similar in both strokes.  I also think getting to train different strokes breaks up the practice regimen.

Q: What are you thinking when you step onto the blocks before a race?
No matter the race, there are many of the same thoughts going through my head.  Our coaches always tell us take deep breaths before going down into the starting position.  I usually try to give myself some brief pep talk too, and relax.  And of course, "Am I on the right block!?"  One of our swimmers got on the wrong block last meet and was completely unaware of the swimmer and coaches on the other team yelling at her.  I can't help laughing about it before my races now. 

Q: Last week, the team swam against a slew of Division I teams at the very competitive Toshiba Classic in Long Beach. What were you trying to get out of that event and how does it fit into the overall objectives for the season?
This invitational meet has always been very competitive, but this year especially drew in some big name Division I teams.  Coach McGihon has always believed that to be the best, you have to race the best, and this past weekend we definitely did that.  We had swimmers racing and beating competitors from the top Division I college swimming programs in the nation.  Placing fourth on the guys' side and seventh on the girls' side, ahead of many strong Division I programs was definitely a positive indication of the success we have had as a team so far this season, and a confidence booster for our goals the rest of the season.

Q: Besides just putting in yardage, what do swimmers work on during training?
A lot of our practices are geared for different aspects of training.  There are some practices designed just to put in yardage.  However, we also have practices that focus on drill work and stroke technique to maximize the efficiency of our strokes.  Starts and turns play a large role in races, so we allocate a large amount of time working on both of those aspects.  This year especially, with a unique training situation due to the Canyonview pool closure, our team has done a lot of strength and aerobic training on land.  We always joke that we are only coordinated in the water, but we may be a little more coordinated on land this year because of it!

Q: The swimming season runs for roughly seven months. As a swimmer, what do you find the toughest time period?
The time period we are getting into shortly!  December is dedicated solely to training, as we don't have any meets that month.  Without classes over winter break, there is an abundance of time to whip us into shape!  January is also a mentally and physically demanding training time as we are still over a month away from our conference and national championships, which is a long enough time period to physically push us beyond our limits, but a short enough time period to feel the pressure to get into shape for our biggest meets of the season. 

Q: What impact has Coach Scott McGihon and his staff had on your career?
I think the biggest impact our coaches have had on my career is teaching me that nothing is out of my reach.  They are always reminding me that I am capable of achieving things in my swimming career that are far beyond the personal goals

I set for myself each season.  The coaches also emphasize many aspects of college swimming besides the actual swimming portion: such as developing a strong bond with teammates, and enjoying the sport.

Q: Your father was a UCSD graduate. Do the two of you ever compare notes on the experience? What does he think about the changes since his days on campus?
My dad was in the first four-year graduating class at UCSD, although he will probably not be happy with me for mentioning that!  It is funny, because every time he comes to the campus, he will mention how different it was back when he was at UCSD.  Despite that, I think I lived in the same dorms that he did his freshman year (Revelle fleets) and I'm not sure I can say they have changed much!  

Q: When you have down time, what do you enjoy doing?
Besides catching up on sleep (I am one of those people that takes a nap pretty much everyday!), I still seem to enjoy spending my free time in the water.  I grew up in a beach town and love body surfing.  My family also spends any free weekend we can at the Colorado River wakeboarding. When I only have a little down time, I love watching "Friends" and dancing.  Our team has a little obsession with dancing.

Q: You are a biology major. What are your post-graduate plans?
If everything goes according to plan, I will be graduating in June.  I chose biology as my major because it opened up a lot of doors for post-graduation.  Unfortunately, I am having a hard time deciding which career choice to pursue.  I am very interested in both nutrition and genetics, and will most likely attend graduate school in one of those areas.  Before I immerse myself in more school, I want to travel since I missed out on the opportunity to study abroad.

Q: At this point, what do you think the possibilities are for both the men's and women's teams at the NCAA Division II Championships in March?
I am already very excited for the Championships in March!  Our team has great depth this year and we are looking to give the Division II champs from last year a run for their money.  It's still very early in the season but we already have a large squad qualified for nationals, so it should be exciting!


Previous Q & A Articles

Elena Inouye (Cross Country) November 6, 2009

David Morton (Men's Water Polo) October 28, 2009

Juan Pablo Carillo (Men's Swimming) October 19, 2009

Sara Spaventa (Women's Soccer) October 10, 2009

Karen Reis (Women's Volleyball) October 2, 2009

Daniel Pavitt (Men's Soccer) September 23, 2009

Daniel Anderson (Cross Country) September 11, 2009

Peter Gresham (Men's Water Polo) September 2, 2009

Alexia Zatarain (Women's Soccer) August 24, 2009

Elaine Chen (Women's Volleyball) August 12, 2009

Jared Kukura (Men's Soccer) July 30, 2009

Dawn Lee (Former Women's Soccer Standout) July 8, 2009

Rob Mamula (Director of Athletic Performance) June 18, 2009

Garrett Imeson (Baseball) June 8, 2009

Leon Baham (Men's Track & Field) May 21, 2009

Kristyn Lesovsky (Softball) May 8, 2009

Kazumi Negishi (Men's Tennis) May 5, 2009

Laiah Blue (Women's Track & Field) April 16, 2009

Ryan Andre (Men's Crew) April 2, 2009

Josh Tanner (Baseball) March 24, 2009

Anju Shimura (Women's Swimming) March 7, 2009

Stephanie Bocian (Women's Water Polo) February 20, 2009

Lauren Chastain (Softball) February 5, 2009

A.J. Maulhardt (Men's Basketball) January 28, 2009

Annette Ilg (Women's Basketball) January 22, 2009

Steven Hardy (Men's Swimming) January 13, 2009

Frank Fritsch (Men's Volleyball) January 5, 2009

Kendall Bohn (Women's Swimming) December 22, 2008

Kelvin Kim (Men's Basketball) December 15, 2008

Michelle Osier (Women's Basketball) December 5, 2008

Sylvia Schmidt (Women's Volleyball) November 7, 2008

Denny Harper (Men's Water Polo Head Coach) October 17, 2008

Ron Larsen (USA Volleyball Assistant Coach) October 13, 2008

Jessica McGovern (Women's Soccer) October 6, 2008

Bre Schofield (Cross Country) September 26, 2008

Tony Fernandez (Men's Soccer) September 18,2008

Kimberly Carpenter (Women's Volleyball) September 12, 2008

A.J. Kotanjian (Men's Water Polo) September 2, 2008

Peter Akman (Men's Soccer) August 21, 2008

Natasha Belak-Berger (Women's Soccer) August 15, 2008

Jake LaVieux (Men's Cross Country) August 8, 2008

Dr. Penny Rue (Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs) July 30, 2008

Michelle Torres (Women's Volleyball) July 15, 2008

Jon Pascale (Men's Soccer Head Coach) July 1, 2008

Julie Ertel (Athletics) June 16, 2008

Clint Allard (Men's Basketball) June 9, 2008

Jen Myers (Women's Crew) May 27, 2008

Casey Ryan (Men's Track and Field and Men's Basketball) May 21, 2008