Supine on the surface of the water, Andrew Cho looks very uncomfortable. With his legs kicking furiously, he has his head thrown back, his face showing an expression of extreme strain. One arm thrust above his head, awkwardly extended, he reaches until he makes contact with the wall of the pool. Backstroke is certainly not the most elegant swimming discipline, but if you’re Cho, it is definitely the most rewarding.
A junior at Palo Alto High School, Cho has been a member of the Palo Alto swimming community as an athlete with Palo Alto Stanford Aquatics (PASA) since his childhood.
“I started when I was seven,” Cho said. “I’m really familiar with PASA because I’ve been in the program for over eight years.”
Introduced to the sport by his older brother Thomas, a Paly swimmer and water polo player in his own time, Cho found the team dynamic and atmosphere of club swimming immediately captivating.
“From the beginning I started swimming because of my brother, so I went into it just intending to have fun,” Cho said “I didn’t realize that I would be at this level right now, but I definitely just wanted to swim because I loved swimming in the beginning.” Cho spent several years as a comparative casual swimmer, not committing himself to any particular stroke and using the sport mainly for recreation and exercise. He maintained his position in the PASA organization but was not totally devoted to the sport itself and found the long hours and physical toll of the sport to be oppressive. During this time he also pursued another aquatic sport, water polo, which he considered to be his true calling at the time, in which he excelled in more than his swim team.
“I was actually thinking about quitting swimming before coming to Paly to play water polo, but that didn’t happen, thankfully” Cho said.
Cho did play water polo during his freshman year, and his talented playing merited a spot on the varsity team where he earned good playing time, unusual for his age. However, after his freshman year, swimming suddenly gained a much greater significance in his life, and water polo became the sport that would have to be sacrificed.
“[Sophomore] year made me realize how much I loved the sport, how much I can get out of it and how much it can benefit me in the long run,” Cho said. “I saw the results and I was super proud of myself.”
During his sophomore year, Cho devoted himself fully to swimming and found a new niche in the sport which allowed him to surpass his previous level of performance.
“By the beginning of last season, backstroke just hit me, and I had one really good race and since then I’ve really been focusing on the stroke,” Cho said of his transition to the event. “It’s my strong suit, even though growing up I wasn’t really into any stroke per se, I just jumped back and forth.”
Cho achieved a Junior National cut in his two-hundred meter backstroke with a time of one minute and 48 seconds. He continued to improve his times in both the 200 and 100 meter backstroke events in order to achieve his personal goals for the year.
“Last year I got time standards in winter Junior Nationals, summer Junior Nationals, Sectionals, and I’m setting myself up to be close to getting Olympic trial times,” Cho said. “I’m two seconds off in my hundred back and four seconds off in my two hundred back, so hopefully I can cut that.”
Olympic trials and possibly the Olympic games themselves would be the ideal way to achieve the next step for a swimmer of Cho’s success, and he has high hopes for his future in the sport. Looking forward, 2015 still holds mostly national level events, but Cho knows that if he wants to elevate his competition to the Olympic level his opportunity is coming up fast.
“I have Sectionals in February, then I have summer Junior Nationals,” Cho said. “And this is kind of reaching for the stars, but my parents and I have been talking and trying to see if I could possibly make it on to the South Korean Olympic team.”
As a dual citizen, Cho would be eligible to compete for the Republic of Korea in the Olympic Games under the rules put forth by the International Olympic Committee. Ideally, he would achieve his Olympic Trial times and join the South Korean national team in Rio for the 2016 games, however there are obstacles other than the rigorous performance standards Cho would have to overcome.
“This might just stay a dream, its complicated because to retain Korean citizenship you have to go into the army, and because I’m a dual citizen I need to decide whether or not to keep my citizenship when I turn eighteen, which is also when the Olympics will be happening,” Cho explained.
In order to make his Olympic dreams come true Cho would need to maintain his current level of performance with his club by competing at Junior National level events , while at the same time surmounting the gauntlet of the NCAA recruiting process and negotiating the complex legal situation surrounding his Korean citizenship and potential Olympic performance.
Despite the onslaught of significant events the next year will bring, Cho is positive that it will be another good year in the world of swimming, both in the future and in his high school career. He also remains hopeful that with enough hard work he will realize his Olympic ambitions.
“This is my last chance to make the South Korean Olympic team and to represent my home country, I’m going to work my tail off because it’s a dream of mine and I want to make my family proud,” Cho said. “We’ll see what happens.”