Abby Kiffmeyer was always a natural at swimming, but swimming wasn't always a natural draw for Kiffmeyer.
Last season, Kiffmeyer, a senior at Soldotna High School, turned in a dominant performance to help the Stars to their first girls state swimming title in school history.
Kiffmeyer won the 100-yard butterfly, finished second in the 100 backstroke and also helped the Stars to state crowns in the 200 medley relay and the 200 freestyle relay.
"The talent was always there," said Soldotna coach Sohail Marey, who has been coaching Kiffmeyer since she was 9 years old. "It was always just a matter of commitment.
"Our sport is too competitive to come in and swim three months and expect to be a state champion. There are just so many swimmers in the state of Alaska that are year-round swimmers."
Kiffmeyer said she is at a point now where she can't imagine not swimming next year, but her love for the sport was not always so strong.
She didn't even want to be a swimmer in the first place. Kiffmeyer's big sport used to be gymnastics, but when she was 9 she broke her arm in a traumatic way that assured she would not participate in that sport anymore.
A doctor then suggested to Kiffmeyer's mother, Teresa Kiffmeyer, that Abby take up swimming.
"My mom made me start swimming," Kiffmeyer said. "I didn't want to because I thought that I looked like a boy in a swim cap."
But when Kiffmeyer got in the water, her talent took over. Her swimming experience had been limited to lessons and recreational swimming in lakes, but within three months of working with Marey she already was one of the top swimmers in the area.
"She just has a gift," Teresa said of her daughter. "There's a funny thing she always says.
"I'll tell her that she has a gift from God, and she has to use that gift. She'll say, 'You may think it's my gift, but I think it's my curse.'"
Teresa said Abby wanted to give up swimming a number of times. When Kiffmeyer got to high school, she certainly seemed in a constant hurry to get out of the pool.
She broke Soldotna's butterfly record as a freshman, winning a region title in the event. At state, she finished third in the 100 butterfly and fifth in the 100 backstroke. She also swam on a 200 medley relay squad that finished second in the state and posted one of the top 16 prep times in the nation.
As a sophomore, Kiffmeyer helped the 200 medley relay and 200 freestyle relay to region championships. She also finished second in the state in the 100 butterfly and fourth in the 100 backstroke. Finally, she won the SoHi Pentathlon.
Then as a junior, Kiffmeyer put on her dominant performance at state for the Stars. Soldotna's 200 medley relay again had one of the top 16 prep times in the nation.
As Kiffmeyer nears the end of her prep career, her name is all over Soldotna's record board. She is part of record-setting efforts in the 200 medley relay, the 200 free relay and the 400 free relay.
She also has school records in the 100 butterfly, 100 backstroke and 200 individual medley. Marey also said she's got a shot to break the 200 freestyle record.
"In high school, it's become obvious to me that the harder I work, the better results I get," Kiffmeyer said. "Every year, I've gotten a little more heart for swimming."
In the past year, Kiffmeyer has started to totally dedicate herself to swimming, not just in terms of months spent in the pool, but in terms of effort expended in the pool.
Marey said she now gives 100 percent during practice workouts.
"When I started high school, I didn't always give 100 percent in practice because it hurt too much," Kiffmeyer said.
Teresa chalks up Kiffmeyer's new attitude to a natural maturing process and a reaction to the death of Abby's father, Brad, which came during Abby's sophomore year.
"It was sad knowing that I would never get to look up in the stands and see him again," Kiffmeyer said. "Now, I try to use it as an advantage.
"While the other kids have their dads up in the stands cheering for them, I get to have my dad with me while I'm swimming."
The death of Kiffmeyer's father also brought Kiffmeyer a lot closer to Marey.
"Mr. Marey took my father's place," Kiffmeyer said. "I always want to make him proud. He's like a father figure to me."
With her newfound maturity, Kiffmeyer has set her sights on a performance at state that will catch the attention of colleges.
Kiffmeyer, who also has participated in soccer and student council at Soldotna, has a 3.3 grade-point average and would like to study psychology and counseling in college.
This summer, Leo Grasso, a fellow senior swimmer at Soldotna, had his father die. Kiffmeyer wrote Grasso a long note of support.
"After they got the letter, they told Abby that it was so good that she should go into counseling or writing," Teresa said. "It's nice that the things she's interested in are the things others are seeing she has talent in."
Thanks to her experience in swimming, Kiffmeyer now knows that as well as anyone.
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