High School Sports

From ‘catastrophe’ to competitor, West High’s Ari Kaufman is breaking swimming records with a balanced approach

There was a joke within Ari Kaufman’s family during his first year swimming at West High, a playful jab illustrating his early flounders in the pool.

“The lifeguards were always on their toes when I was in the water,” Kaufman said with a chuckle Wednesday as he repeated the line.

Kaufman admits his freshman season was a literal struggle to keep his head above water and an endeavor he didn’t take especially seriously. But he has dedicated himself to improvement and as a senior has developed into one of the state’s top swimmers.

Already this fall he’s broken two longstanding school records with a third within his reach.

“My freshman year was pretty much a catastrophe in the sense of competitive swimming,” he said. “I look at the videos of myself and I’m just thrashing around, somehow not sinking.”

Kaufman recently unseated Joel Akers for the school record with a time of 22.02 seconds in the 50 freestyle. Akers had set the record in 1986 with a time of 22.16. On Sept. 2, he swam a 53.06 in the 100 fly, breaking an even longer-held record of 54.91 set by Clark Rush in 1977.

West head coach Lauren Langford believes Kaufman has a good chance at breaking Akers’ record in the 100 free set in the mid-80s as well. She said it’s rare for a relative newcomer to the sport to advance that quickly.


“They are the exception, not the rule,” she said. “There are a few things Ari has going for him, a super supportive family and the willingness to learn how to do it right. That makes a difference.”

Kaufman actually tried to get started as a diver as a freshman, which he viewed as more analogous to a favorite pastime — freeride skiing.

But he’d made some friends who were swimmers and figured he’d take that path.

“I just got into it and that’s when I really fell in love with the sport,” Kaufman said. “I really started pushing myself. I liked proving myself wrong whenever I saw a hard set I didn’t think I could do.”

Langford said Kaufman has the physical assets to be a great swimmer and remembers even as a freshman, he was big and strong and had big feet, a helpful trait for swimmers. But she said more impressively has been his willingness to dedicate himself to improvement.

“He’d be good with whatever he decided he wanted to be good at,” she said. “He’s got athlete’s form and a bone-deep willingness to do work, physically and emotionally and mentally.”

Kaufman said his “motivation is pretty intrinsic” and is more based on progress than on results in his races.

But he admits “it means a lot to replace these super long-lasting times.”

Kaufman is longtime friends and classmates with Charlie Rush, the son of former record-holder Clark Rush.

“I got a lot of encouragement from him and his wife,” Kaufman said. “His wife told me ‘Way to go getting that old man off the board.’ The swimming community is really supportive. Although it’s really competitive, you want to see your competitors do well.”

Kaufman is interested in swimming in college, but isn’t making the recruitment process a priority. He likes studying biology and mathematics and wants to maintain a good life balance. It’s a strategy he said has helped him progress as a swimmer.

“I’m really happy and grateful to be able to be at a place where I have a healthy balance between swim, my work life and my social life,” he said. “And I think having swim be a supplementary activity rather than, like what I based my identity off of. I think that’s what’s enabled me to really enjoy the sport so much.”

While he’s been careful not to put too great of an emphasis on swimming, he’s also enjoys training and being driven to improve.

“I really love being able to reset myself after a hard day of school and just focus on a completely different side of my mind,” he said. “I like to be able to walk out of every day, even if it’s not the greatest day knowing that I pushed as well as I could for that day. I’m getting better day by day.”

Kaufman has ulcerative colitis and has worked to bring awareness to the condition as a national advocate for a fundraising campaign for the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation.

“I’m grateful that I’m in the spot with my disease that it’s been manageable,” he said. “Although I’m not an Olympian or anything, I’m hoping that my story inspires others to do what they can.”

Langford, a former West swimmer herself, remembers seeing those records when she was competing at the school and thinking there may never be a swimmer at the school who could break them. Kaufman was surprised too, but doesn’t plan on slowing down.

“Never in a million years when I was a freshman did I ever expect to see myself up on the (record) wall,” he said. “But I’m really grateful that I’ve had the coaches who have gotten to this point and I’m excited just to keep pushing myself.”

Chris Bieri

Chris Bieri is the sports and entertainment editor at the Anchorage Daily News.