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Los Angeles Times
Los Angeles Times
Thuc Nhi Nguyen

Teen swimmer Kayla Han makes national waves with Paris 2024 on horizon

The girl in a plain blue swimsuit and white swim cap just kept going. Looping overhead stroke after looping overhead stroke, Kayla Han's arms propelled the 13-year-old forward despite the burn building in her lungs and shoulders. A socially distant, limited-capacity crowd cheered. Han knew she was catching up.

"Here she comes!" two-time Olympic medalist Elizabeth Beisel exclaimed on the NBC feed as Han inched ahead.

Han hasn't stopped charging up the swimming ranks since her breakthrough performance at the Olympic Trials, where her epic comeback in the last 15 meters of the Wave I 400-meter individual medley B final earned more than 1.2 million views on YouTube. It was the most-watched clip of the 2021 Olympic trials and Han's unofficial coming-out party.

Since touching the wall in 4:51.08 at the Olympic trials, swim blogs have tracked her times at every meet. Local media outlets descended on her home pool in La Mirada, located on the edge of a water park with water slides towering on the other side of the pool deck. Public address announcers rarely miss a chance to announce Han's credentials: the youngest Olympic trials qualifier last year and multiple national age group record holder.

But as she makes the jump to more championship meets, Han's résumé is easily eclipsed by the accomplishments of the new peers she's chasing. Two-time Olympic medalist Leah Smith outpaced Han by nine seconds in the 400-meter individual medley at the U.S. Open last December. At the national championships in July, Han swam next to seven-time Olympic gold medalist Katie Ledecky in a 400-meter individual medley preliminary heat.

Han wasn't part of a viral YouTube clip this time. The biggest highlight was when Ledecky reached across the lane line after outpacing the teenager by eight seconds to graciously shake Han's hand.

Now the smallest swimmer in a pool with collegians and Olympians, Han has a way to go.

From the first day Dan Han saw his daughter in a pool, he knew his only child was different. The 5-year-old learned the butterfly, its powerful double-arm stroke and dolphin kick, in one lesson. Kayla's earliest coaches raised their eyebrows knowingly and told her parents she would be fast when she grew up.

"Sure," Dan and Kim Han said with a shrug.

Less than seven years later, they sat in the stands as Kayla set three national age group records for 11- and 12-year-olds in one weekend. The most significant came in the 400-meter individual medley, where she shattered Beisel's mark by nearly five seconds. Kayla's time of 4:50.70 qualified for the Olympic Trials under the Wave I cut, the slower of the two time standards.

Beisel's mark stood for 16 years before Han obliterated it. Beisel, the 2012 Olympic silver medalist in the 400 individual medley, knew the person who eventually broke it would be special.

Han didn't disappoint with the way she raced. In her first meet as a 13-year-old, Han was allowed to wear a tech suit, but she shunned the upgraded equipment because she didn't want to change her approach in the biggest meet of her life to that point. Then she confidently chased down competitors four to 12 years older than her.

"I think Kayla is somebody that will be a leader on Team USA and probably at a very young age," Beisel said.

She paused.

"She will be a teenager!" Beisel added, shocked at the reality.

Standing about 5-feet tall, Han doesn't have the Gumby-like arms, broad shoulders or long torso that often mark elite swimmers. She is unassuming, often hunching her shoulders and bowing her head modestly as she walks toward the starting blocks before a race.

Though she looks demure on the pool deck, Han is a ferocious competitor, evidenced by her confident comeback at the Olympic Trials. To see a teenager so unbothered by a slow start stood out to Beisel. Han was not scared to run down any of her competitors, even if they were more than a decade older.

The viral moment announced Han as a budding star but was just another step in the long journey of an Olympic hopeful. At 13 years old, she swam in Wave I, which was the slower of the two time standards during the trials, and won the B final. Winners of the Wave I A finals advanced to the Wave II Trials, which determined the Olympic entrants.

Han is still several stages away from the pinnacle.

"We just have to pace ourselves, especially with the young ones," Beisel said. "We want to see them flourish and blossom into the athletes that they are, but we don't want to put the cart before the horse."

In December, six months after bursting onto the scene at the Olympic trials, Han stood outside a restroom at La Mirada Armada's pool where she and her teammates just completed a three-hour practice in pouring rain. Han called racing at the Olympic trials the "biggest accomplishment of my life," but had hopes for something bigger: an Olympic gold medal.

Eight months later at a meet in Irvine that featured many swimmers who had already accomplished Han's ultimate dream, the 14-year-old offered a different glimpse at her future goals in swimming.

"Just training really hard and just doing my best, that's all I can ask for," Han said. "And see what happens in 2024."

The attention building around Han during the past 14 months is unavoidable. She was a rare B finalist at the national championships that drew multiple media requests. She notices the increased interest in her career but tries not to let it faze her.

"I just swim my own race and practice my butt off," Han said.

In the face of mounting attention on her swimming career, Han's iron will has only gotten stronger. No workout seems to phase the teenager, whether it's the team's famous "New Year's Insanity" workout that lasts nearly six hours or two-a-day sessions at 7,000-foot altitude. The thousands of meters she swims a day are the fuel for her meteoric rise.

"Her work ethic is probably unlike anyone else that I've ever seen," said teammate Mia Carley, a rising sophomore at Fullerton Sunny Hills. "She pushes herself every day, which is something I think we all hope we can do."

Teammate Chantee Nguyen said it's motivating and even thrilling to watch Han swim. It's the way she attacks each assignment without fear, Nguyen said, with no hesitation or complaint. When Han and the other distance swimmers were assigned a brutal set of 50 100-meter freestyle swims, Nguyen, a 100- and 200-meter backstroke specialist, marveled at how the 1-minute, 15-second interval was faster than what she would do on a single short course interval.

Han didn't look like she had any problem, even as her male teammates labored. As the boys began to fall behind the clock's unrelenting pace, Han only seemed to get stronger.

"I honestly kind of like not a lot of rest because then sometimes the boys fall off," Han said with a bashful smile, "and I get ahead of them, and I can beat them."

Looking for the next challenge after her trials success, Han started training on the boys intervals and moving into the same lane as her male teammates three and four years her senior. The move was inspired by Ledecky's training regimen. The Olympic star who broke out as a 15-year-old at the London Olympics is Han's favorite swimmer.

When Beisel met Han at the Olympic trials, the 29-year-old, three-time world championship medalist felt almost like she was meeting a 13-year-old version of herself. Beisel, too, broke out as a teenager. At 14, she became the youngest American to make a world championship team. She made her Olympic debut at 15 and won two medals — silver in the 400 IM and bronze in the 200-meter backstroke — at 19.

The same way Han said she fights back nerves when she gets into the pool alongside Ledecky, Beisel faced what she called "imposter syndrome" during her sudden rise. Almost overnight, she went from anonymous teenager to racing against her idols.

"You kind of feel like you're at a place where maybe people don't understand you or you can't relate to other people," Beisel said.

The experience seemed to ring true for Han this season. Olympians and collegiate stars who came from established swim programs teamed up in massive cheering sections at the U.S. national championships in Irvine, shouting, clapping and whistling as their teammates raced. Han, the only one of La Mirada Armada's club swimmers who qualified for the meet, only had her coach standing on the deck.

College teams such as Minnesota, Texas and Indiana brought choreographed cheers. Rick Shipherd raised his fists or waved his hand in the air between jotting notes at each turn.

The solitary existence is becoming more common for Han this season as she started participating in more championship meets along with local events with her Armada teammates. Shipherd noted how well she handled the environment in April at the international team trials, where she could have surpassed Beisel as the youngest American to make a world championship team. Han reached best times in the 400-meter freestyle and individual medley, 800-meter freestyle and 1,500-meter freestyles and was the youngest competitor named to the Junior Pan Pacific Championship team, the highest-level meet for U.S. junior swimmers this season as USA Swimming is not sending a delegation to the Junior World Championships.

Aiming to peak at the Pan Pacific meet in Honolulu on Aug. 24, Han and Shipherd choose not to rest for the national championship meet. A rigorous training regimen combined with the isolation of competing without her teammates contributed to a disappointing meet in which Han didn't come close to any personal bests and struggled even to improve on her times from the previous meet 10 days prior. It wasn't until the fourth day of the five-day meet that Han started growing into the event, completing the 400-meter freestyle in 4:14.70, a 0.36-second improvement from her previous swim.

Learning how to judge success by thousandths of a second instead of the five- to six-second drops a year ago has been a challenge as she grows up in the swimming spotlight.

"When I was 12, I would be dropping at every single meet," Han said, "but now it's not so often. So I feel like I'm getting used to that right now and this meet definitely is making my mentality strong."

Han is racing the best swimmers in the world now, Shipherd said. They're bigger, faster and stronger than the teenager who sings K-pop songs in her head during long practices. A month before swimming next to Ledecky in Irvine, Han celebrated her 14th birthday with a sleepover with her swim friends.

"She's having to grow in a hurry," Shipherd said.

A decade into her dominance, Ledecky casts a long shadow in the sport. She is the idol of swimmers everywhere, a crossover star whose name has broken free of the four-year Olympic cycle and she's not done yet.

The same summer she won four more gold medals at the world championships, increasing her total medal haul to 22, she added U.S. championships in three more events, including the 400 IM, where she swam her preliminary heat next to Han. When asked if she ever talks to Ledecky at the championship events they share, Han recoiled.

"Oh no," Han said, almost chuckling at the suggestion she could ever speak casually to America's swimming superstar.

But Ledecky did sign an autograph for her last year.

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