Billy Kunkel has been taking it easy.
The Western Kentucky swimmer has been able to sleep in — waking at 7 a.m. instead of his usual 5:45 — and is enjoying some 1½-hour practice sessions instead of a more grueling 2½ hours six days a week.
The former Omaha Creighton Prep swim standout has ratcheted down his workouts so his body is in top condition for this week’s Conference USA championships in Houston and his last shot at qualifying for the NCAA swimming and diving tournament.
“It’s a pretty nice break,” Kunkel said. “The hardest part of our season is over. All of our hard training is done.”
The intensity is still high, though, and Kunkel has big goals. He wants to help his team win its first conference title since his freshman year. He’s also hopes to shave his time in the 100 breaststroke from his best of 54.85 seconds this season to 53.5 or less, which is what he figures will send him to the NCAA tournament for the first time.
“It’s a really, really elite meet,” Kunkel said. “Last year, I got pretty close. This year, I’m hoping to seal the deal.”
Kunkel, a senior captain, has been having the best season of his collegiate career. He’s won eight times and holds the top team time in five events — the 50 free (20.71), 100 free (46.10), 50 breast (25.58), 100 breast (54.85) and 200 IM (1:49.61). As well as setting several pool records, he hasn’t placed lower than third all season.
He’ll carry the load for the Hilltoppers at the conference championships, where he’s been first or second in scoring for his team all three years. This week, he’ll swim the 100 breast, the 200 IM and either the 100 free or 200 breast as well as four of the five relays.
With the meet spread over four days starting Wednesday, he’s not worried his schedule will hurt his chances in the 100 breast on Friday.
Kunkel plans to go into the championships with the mindset that he can’t be beaten. He’s started rehearsing his races in his head so on race day he’s ready to go.
“I’ve been training really well this year,” he said. “I’m really confident I can go those times, just relaxing before my race and getting after it and leaving it all in the pool.”
If he doesn’t qualify for the NCAA tournament, it won’t be the end of the world for Kunkel, who will graduate with a degree in financial management next December. There’s been too many good moments since he started swimming.
He’s the middle child of three standout swimmers. Older sister Kelly swam at Illinois and younger sister Kristy is competing for Iowa State.
“I’ve had a really great career. I’ve really enjoyed every part,” Kunkel said. “Making the NCAA will definitely be a letdown if I don’t do it, but I’m still going to be happy either way.”
Kunkel said it’s weird and bittersweet to think his career is nearly over.
“I’m definitely going to enjoy my last semester,” he said. “I’m going to be like normal students and sleep late and not have to work out twice a day.”
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