High School Sports

Puyallup’s Kacey Kiuchi keeps surprising herself in the backstroke

Puyallup H.S. swimmer Kacey Kiuchi, has concentrated full time on the backstroke, and goes to the state championships as one of the favorites.
Puyallup H.S. swimmer Kacey Kiuchi, has concentrated full time on the backstroke, and goes to the state championships as one of the favorites. dkoepfler@thenewstribune.com

Kacey Kiuchi’s goal for the state meet is simple: Swim straight.

Of course, a title in the 100-yard backstroke would be “kind of crazy“ for the Puyallup High School junior. But in order to do that, she has to avoid “zigzagging and hitting the lane line on both sides.”

“I honestly don’t know where I’m going,” she said of swimming face-up. “You just go straight and wait for the flags.”

It’s something Kiuchi is constantly working on. A sprinter since age 7, she took to the backstroke only at the suggestion of her coaches during her freshman season for the Vikings.

“They just kind of threw me into it and I was like ‘OK, I’m not good at breaststroke, and butterfly is pretty hard, so backstroke it is,’ ” she said.

It has worked out pretty well. Kiuchi enters the Class 4A Swimming and Diving Championships this weekend at the King County Aquatic Center ranked third in the 100 backstroke and sixth in the 200 freestyle (1:55.59).

Puyallup co-coach Andrea Stammen said the backstroke is a “natural fit” for Kiuchi.

“She’s just a powerhouse,” she said. “You can just tell from watching her swim that she has so much power in each of her strokes and the potential for even more power.”

At the West Central District 3 meet, Kiuchi’s time of 57.68 seconds broke a school record that had stood for 17 years.

“I was in shock,” she said. “That was more of a goal for next year. I looked at the clock and was like, ‘That can’t be right,’ and then I looked at my coaches and saw their reaction and thought, ‘OK, maybe that did just happen.’ 

Stammen said Kiuchi has a strong work ethic, but isn’t so intense that she isn’t able to have fun.

“She’s got that perfect balance, which makes her even faster because she enjoys it so much.”

As she prepares for her third trip to state, Kiuchi is going through the “stages of emotions,” which she said starts with excitement, moves to nervousness and evolves into confidence.

She is hoping to best the school record for the 200 freestyle, 1:55.07, set in 2015 by Mackenzie Mergel.

“You always see these people who were older and faster as untouchable,” Kiuchi said. “But then I started swimming distance, and I liked it.”

Kiuchi, who will also swim on the Vikings’ 200 medley and 400 freestyle relays, qualified for state in the 500 freestyle in just her second time swimming the event, but settled on the 200.

“It’s funny,” she said, “I feel like I have been swimming the wrong events all my life.”

“It’s a slightly irritating revelation,” she added with a laugh.

Sophomore Gabi Dunyaski, who has swam with Kiuchi for nine years, said she leads by example.

“She always works her hardest,” she said. “She comes to practice prepared to do the best she can.”

Kiuchi also plays water polo for Puyallup and swims for Valley Aquatics, and hopes to swim collegiately.

But right now, her focus is on this weekend. Despite being seeded as the third-fastest backstroker in the state — and just a tenth of a second behind second-ranked Rachel Nguyen of Newport — she doesn’t put much thought into the prospect of a championship.

“I don’t want it to psych me out,” she said. “But winning the whole thing, that would be amazing.”