One swimmer’s journey from professional table tennis to WU’s first pandemic-era in-person competition

| Senior Sports Editor

If Kevin Hao was rusty after an extended break from competition, he didn’t show it. In the Washington University swimming and diving team’s first meet since the onset of the pandemic, a win over Rose-Hulman last Saturday, the Michigander finished with three first place medals and set numerous personal records. Hao, a junior studying computer science, has featured prominently for the Bears over the past few seasons. In addition to the many top finishes and athletic accolades he has racked up during his time at Wash. U., he is also a UAA All-Academic athlete. Student Life called Hao to learn more about the Bears’ first swim meet and Hao’s swimming background.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Courtesy of Kevin Hao

Hao stares out over the pool ahead of a meet against Saint Louis University in September of 2019.

Student Life: Last weekend the swimming team had its first meet of the year. What was the week leading up to the meet like?

Kevin Hao: It was definitely super up in the air until like, Thursday afternoon, which was two days before the meet. We had no idea if we were going to swim [because] the coaches the whole time were like, oh, we’re moving forward in the process but nothing is certain yet. So we just kind of had to keep on training. We’ve been training for so long that we were kind of used to it. If another meet gets cancelled, so what, right? But then on Thursday, we found out it was actually happening, and I think a lot of us were excited and most of us were super nervous because literally we haven’t competed since February of last year. 

[Read how the swimming and diving team was training for a race they were not sure would ever come]

SL: Everyone must’ve been very amped up to finally compete again.

KH:  We were definitely very excited. On Friday, our coach rested us a little bit. On Saturday, we woke up, and I could barely sleep because I was just like so excited and nervous. And then once we got to the meet, it kind of just brought everything back. Even though we didn’t shake hands with the other team, just being in that setting brought back a lot of good memories and a lot of good times. Once we started competing, everyone was cheering for each other with masks on, and it just felt so fun again and brought back those memories. A lot of people did way better than we expected. Especially the freshmen, and it was their first meet. Finally, after five months of training, we get to see some of them do really well. And I definitely surprised myself going for a couple personal bests. And at the end of the meet, our coach, Brad [Shively], seemed kind of emotional. He was like, you know, it just means so much for you guys to try so hard and be out there for each other. 

SL: You placed first three times and recorded three best times. There must not have been too much rust despite the long layover.

KH: I trained a lot over winter break. I had a couple of mock races. It wasn’t like with a full team or anything, but I’ve just been keeping my racing mentality up. So I felt okay. The only reason why I was nervous is because I felt like I could have gotten a personal best time at that meet. So I really wanted to reach that goal. And that’s kind of what made me nervous. But racing and competitions are what I’ve been doing for so long that it’s like, you know, kind of just another meet.

SL: Have you ended up stepping into more of a leadership role this year?

KH: Both out of necessity and also just the fact that I’m an upperclassman, I felt like I needed to take more responsibility. And I think one of my main motivating factors this season was actually the fact that, because it was such an irregular season, I didn’t want the freshmen to slack off in any way. What drove me at practice and what kind of pushed me to be fast every single day was like, you know, I need to show these freshmen that, despite everything that’s going on, it’s not an excuse to go slow or to not try or give up. I definitely took that upon myself. And especially at the meet on Saturday, we had no senior guys. I mean, we had one senior diver, we had no senior guys swimming. So it was really up to the junior class to step up.

SL: When did you start swimming? 

KH: I’ve been swimming since I was five. I have an older sister and she swam. And my dad just kind of transferred all the knowledge he had with her onto me. So I’ve been competing since I was like seven. I’ve always just really enjoyed the sport. I definitely played a lot of sports growing up, like soccer [and] I played professional table tennis. And I was also into basketball, but I wasn’t very good. Among all those sports, swimming has been the thing I’ve always been doing. Back in middle school, when I was really focused on table tennis and swimming, I injured my arm playing table tennis. I was like, okay, I can’t play table tennis and I also couldn’t really swim. I kind of fought through my injury for three years, and that’s how I really knew swimming was for me. Because even though I couldn’t really swim for three years, that’s all I really wanted to do. 

SL: What ended up bringing you to Wash. U.?

KH: When I was looking for colleges, I was looking for schools that were good and had an engineering school. Also, I knew I wanted to swim in college. So I just looked at D-III and Wash. U. has always been a very good swim team. But coach Brad, he’s also from Michigan and he actually went to high school like ten minutes down the road from me. He was always so nice and so fun to talk to. And like he would always send me [texts] like, ‘hey, nice job.’ He was always just super open and super communicative. When I visited, everyone was so nice and so welcoming that Wash. U. just felt like the right place for me to go to.

SL: Is there a particular stroke or distance you really enjoy?

KH: Yeah, definitely breaststroke. I swam the 100 and 200 breaststroke. Growing up, I was never really like the strongest kid, so I didn’t have the explosiveness or the strength to swim shorter distances. So my 200 was actually a lot better than my 100. But now I’m in college and I’ve been lifting a little bit, I’ve developed the strength to pull off a pretty decent 100. But breaststroke has always just felt kind of natural for me. It could be because my oldest sister was a breaststroker. So again, my dad kind of transferred her knowledge onto me. And I also just think it’s the most interesting stroke, because, if you look at the top athletes or the top breaststroker in the world, they can all have different techniques and still go for insane times. With the other three strokes, you know, the taller, the bigger, the better. But breaststrokers can be very short and still be very successful. I still like the longer distances because I just think it’s a more interesting race. 

SL: Is there a professional athlete you look up to?

KH: I actually really like watching Caleb Russell swim, just because he’s so dominant and he’s so detail-oriented. People say he has the best start in the world. That’s such an interesting thing to be known for, because you know, the start doesn’t really matter. But his start is just so good that he’s already won the race. I definitely like Michael Phelps. You know, he was so insane, so dominant. What he did at Beijing was really just like a fairy tale. By the slimmest of margins, he did what he did, and it was just really inspiring. I also watched The Last Dance about Michael Jordan. And that blew my mind. After watching that documentary, I wanted to be a Bulls fan in the 90s.


Our recent athletes of the week:

Softball sophomore Tami Wong on her pandemic hobbies and what might come of the spring season

Going the distance with runner Jacob Ridderhoff

No school, more tennis: What life has been like for one student-athlete who took the year off

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