Game Ball: After setting record swim times for Sunny Hills in her first year in aquatics, senior commits to UC San Diego

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Image used with permission from Grace Cho.

Then-sophomore Katie Cho swims toward the finish line in the 2019 Division 3 California Interscholastic Federation [CIF] finals for the women’s 100-yard Butterfly held at Riverside City college in Riverside. Cho set three Sunny Hills records for the varsity swim team.

Andrew Park

When senior Katie Cho was 14 years old, the athlete found herself in a yearlong slump. 

Even in the absence of any physical injuries, Cho found her skills declining, and so in a session with a physician who specializes in the respiratory system, she learned that severe asthma had taken a toll on her swimming abilities.

“I was a little scared because I didn’t know how long it would take to stabilize my condition but relieved to find out that there was a tangible reason behind my poor performance,” she said.

Nevertheless, Cho endured a year of a treatment regimen, stabilizing her asthma completely and diving back into the pool.

“My love for the sport motivated me to continue swimming,” she said. “As frustrated as I was, I couldn’t imagine my life without swimming.”

And that life of competing in the water started as early as 5, and since then, her persistence has led her to shatter three SH records and committing Aug. 3 to the University of California, San Diego [UCSD], to join its NCAA Division 1 swim team.

Cho said she was first introduced to the sport by her aunt, Sarah Lee, and her mother, Grace, who registered her daughter to join the Brea Glenbrook Swim Team — a non-competitive swim club.

“At first, I thought that Katie would enjoy swimming with her cousins and brother,” Cho’s mother said. “It teaches one the importance of consistent practice and working toward your goals while nurturing friendships among teammates.”

But the senior doesn’t recall seeing it the same way when she first started.

“[At first], I didn’t like the monotony of swimming,” Cho said. “Compared to the other sports I was doing, like soccer and softball, swimming was definitely less dynamic.”

By age 9, however, she said she began seriously committing to the sport because she had just qualified for the Junior Olympics in two events: the 50-meter freestyle and the 50-meter butterfly.

“I was ecstatic when I first qualified for [Junior Olympics] because I had been working hard for it,” Cho said. “I also knew that my coach would be really proud of me.”

While representing the Fullerton Aquatics Sports Team — her first competitive swim club that she joined in 2010 — she didn’t fare so well in her two Junior Olympics events.

In the 50-meter freestyle, she finished among the back half of the competitors, and in the 50-meter butterfly, she came in last among her fellow 9-year-olds.

“I was a little discouraged about the results but still very happy to attend my first Junior Olympics,” Cho said. “I was able to build off my initial Junior Olympics experience. In 2016, I came in first overall for the 13- to 14-year-old category in the 400-meter freestyle, 800-meter freestyle and 1,500-meter freestyle at the Junior Olympics.”

With such accomplishments already under her belt — or her swim cap — Cho decided to start her high school swimming experience at Fullerton Union High School, where she made the varsity squad as a freshman.

One year later, Cho transferred to Sunny Hills and joined its varsity swim team.

“I chose Sunny Hills because I had a few friends from my club swim team as well as people I knew from middle school that attended SHHS during my freshman year, and they all loved it here at Sunny,” she said. “Athletics had little effect on my decision to transfer.”

During her first year on the Sunny Hills varsity swim team as a sophomore, Cho had to sit out of the first six meets since she had transferred from a different school to comply with a California Interscholastic Federation [CIF]-Southern Section bylaw.

Despite this, she was eligible to compete that same year in the Division 3 CIF-SS meet at Riverside City College and the CIF State meet at Clovis West High School in the 100-yard butterfly and 500-yard freestyle, placing third in the former and fourth in the latter. 

“At first, I felt bad about not competing in the six meets because I wanted to help contribute to the team,” Cho said. “It was so gratifying when [the team] came out with our highest finish in decades. I was happy with my results at CIF because I didn’t place my freshman year, so the big improvement was very exciting.”

Girls swim head coach Keith Nighswonger considers Cho to be a big reason why the team has been so dominant in the last few years.

“She was a gift to Sunny Hills from the swim gods,” Nighswonger said. “She is a rare talent and for her to decide that she would rather swim for the Lancers was a gift to us indeed.”

2019 was also when she started setting new school records for certain swim times.

In the CIF-SS Finals at Riverside City College in Riverside, Cho’s 55.93 time in the 100-yard butterfly was only good enough for third place, but Nighswonger acknowledged no previous Lady Lancer had come close to that time at that level.

In the 200-yard medley relay, she and three other SH swimmers finished in 1:47.64, another best for a Sunny Hills medley team, the coach said.

“I was very happy for her and for the rest of her teammates,” Nighswonger said. “We have had some amazing swimmers at Sunny Hills and to make our record board is a major accomplishment.”

With another set of swimmers, Cho set her third record-shattering performance in the 400-yard freestyle relay (3:34.92) at Riverside City College.

“We were ecstatic because we broke the [400-yard freestyle relay] record a few weeks before at Freeway League Champs,” junior Kailee Chow said. “As a whole, we just wanted to do well to make Sunny Hills proud.”

Though the 2019-2020 swim season was cut short because of the coronavirus pandemic,  Cho said she aims to place higher and improve her record in 2021.

“From a team standpoint, my goal is to help our team defend our Freeway League championship title and win the CIF-SS Division 3 title,” she said.

Of Cho’s many swim events she has competed in, the senior said her favorite was her 100-yard butterfly at the 2019 CIF-SS Finals.

“It’s a ‘splash and dash,’ which means that you don’t have to pace yourself and just go for it from the start,” she said. “I love this event because the race is normally pretty exciting and close, and it is also a lot less painful than longer events.”

Cho’s persistence and commitment drew praise from Richard Shipherd, her coach from the La Mirada Armada, her second club team that she’s competed in since June 2018. 

“I can’t think of a better team person than Katie,” Shipherd said. “Others on our team rely on her for positive support and her sound advice. Katie is uniquely talented and combines that with a great work ethic.”

Cho’s performance in the pool has caught the attention of college scouts as well. Cho said she has received offers from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa and Washington State University, but on Aug. 3, the swimmer committed to UCSD.

“I was very impressed with the conversations I had with the college’s coaches and a few swimmers on the team, as well as the beautiful location and great academics,” said Cho, who is leaning toward a major in psychology. “I plan on swimming collegiately but not professionally, and my goal is to qualify for Division 1 NCAAs by the time I graduate.”

I can’t think of a better team person than Katie… Katie is uniquely talented and combines that with a great work ethic.”

— Richard Shipherd

No matter what the future holds for Cho after her years in college, she knows that she still has lots to learn.

“One thing that swimming has taught me is that failure isn’t a bad thing but rather an experience that you can grow from,” she said. “I was given the opportunity to reflect on my mistakes and ensure that they don’t happen again in the future.

“This can be applied to almost anything in life: We cannot grow without failure.”