By Lee Davis
A random ride along U.S. 280 as a pre-teen may have started Rac, short for Rachel, Cunningham on the path to become one of Alabama’s best high school swimmers.
Cunningham, a junior at Spain Park, remembers the moment as if it had happened yesterday.
“I was about 11 years old and, to be honest, I was a pretty typical lazy kid,” she recalled. “I wasn’t serious about anything. One day my mom was driving me along 280 and she said she thought it would be good for me to get involved in a sport. I saw a sign on the side of the road about a swim team, and I said, ‘OK, I’ll try swimming.’ If the sign had been about a soccer team, I might be playing soccer now.”
We’ll never know whether Cunningham would have been a star in soccer, but the decision to pursue swimming has paid off in spades. Her chance introduction into swim became a passion that grew over the years.
Earlier this month, Cunningham added two pieces of hardware to an already crowded personal trophy case. In the Class 7A/6A Swimming and Diving Championships at Auburn University, she won the 200-yard intermediate medley and the 100-yard breaststroke events.
“I really didn’t expect to win either time,” Cunningham said. “It was very exciting to win both races.”
An even bigger thrill came last summer when Cunningham qualified for next summer’s Olympic Trials in Omaha, Nebraska. She swam the 200-meter breaststroke in 2:34.98 to make the cut.
“It’s going to be awesome to be a part of it,” Cunningham said. “I’m going to enjoy the experience of being around some of the greatest swimmers in the entire country. I don’t expect to win, but it will be a great opportunity to improve my times and get better. If I could finish in the top 16 or top eight that would be amazing.”
Cunningham barely missed the cut for the 100-meter breaststroke by .03 of a second, but she had a second chance to quality for the trials in that event at the Junior Nationals in Atlanta last weekend.
As is the case with all championship-level swimmers, Cunningham has a rigorous training regimen. She practices in the pool every day from 3:45 to 6:30 p.m. and does weight training three to four days a week. During the most active periods, there are also morning practices before school, from 5:30 to 7:30 a.m. “Those are the toughest ones,” she said, laughing.
Making things all the more difficult is having a home pool, which is the Birmingham Crossplex, about a 40-minute drive from her house. “But it’s worth it,” she said. “It’s really a fantastic facility.” Cunningham also swims at Wald Park pool in Vestavia Hills during the summer.
With her senior year still ahead, Cunningham has high goals for her swimming career. “I’d love the opportunity to swim in college and get my times down as low as possible,” she said. “It’s a challenge, but if I work hard enough, I can get there.”
Wherever Rac Cunningham’s road to success leads, it all began with a sign – literally.
Other Over the Mountain individual winners in the competition at Auburn included Sandler McKeen of Briarwood in the boys 500-yard free style; Anna-Julia Kutsch of Altamont in the girls 50-yard free style; and Ann Moers of Vestavia Hills in the girls 100-yard backstroke.