Harrison Thai can be frustrating to some, but his way of doing things has made him a nationally ranked swimmer, not to mention a CIF champion.
By Brandon HENSLEY
Winston Churchill once described Russia as a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.
Russia, meet Harrison Thai.
The Crescenta Valley High School senior is a superbly talented swimmer, but he seemingly has as many layers to his persona as strokes that he’s mastered in the water.
He’s described as ultra-competitive and apathetic in the same conversation, and he’ll say how he doesn’t like to be pushed or yelled at, but when everything is on the line, he almost always delivers.
“He’s a fierce competitor, [but] he comes off as mild-mannered or low key,” said Falcons Coach Jan Sakonju.
When Thai is on, he’s really on. He helped CV win a CIF Southern Section Division II championship last year in Riverside. He won two individual events and his part in the 4×100 relay helped push the Falcons past Damien High School for the title.
Thai has also impressed at the national level. Thai swims for the Crescenta-Cañada YMCA club team, and in 2010 his 59:41 time in the 100-yard breast stroke earned him ninth in the nation for his age group at the Y Nationals competition. His time of 2:07:74 in the 200y breast stroke was good enough for seventh in the nation, and his 200y individual medley time of 1:54:26 was the third fastest time in the nation.
Three months ago he competed for USA Swimming in the Winter Junior Nationals. He placed third in the 200IM with a time of 1:47.65 (Steven Stumph from Orlando was first at 1:46.79).
All of this sounds so good, but his coaches – and Thai himself – acknowledge the proper desire hasn’t always been there, and maybe still isn’t.
“I wouldn’t lie about him being a difficult child,” said his YMCA coach Joy Lim. “Because he was so talented, things kind of came easy.”
When Thai was 5, his parents moved into a house with a pool and signed him up for water safety at the Y. After he completed the program, they signed him up for competitive swimming, and for a little over a decade he’s been in the water.
But there have been times when it’s been hard for him to keep focused, like a child musical prodigy who just wants to go outside once in awhile. Around age 12, he fell out of love with the sport.
“Swimming, it’s so repetitive. You’re following a black line over and over,” Thai said.
His father talked him into sticking with it, and a year later he found a peaceful place that he’s been able to go to.
“I would say I’m pretty hard to deal with.”
“He has a tendency of fighting his temptation of not wanting to do certain things,” said Lim.
Thai was happy CV won a CIF title last year. The team fell short in his freshman and sophomore years, coming in second and third respectively. So to be a part of a championship team last season felt like “an accumulation of all those years of hard work,” he said.
But there are those key words: hard work.
CV has another talked-about swimmer, Young Tae Seo, a fellow senior who Sakonju said works like a mad man trying to get better. As for Thai, Sakonju said it’s sometimes a bother to get him to stick around poolside for sixth-period practice (Thai is not required to practice with the team).
Sakonju said one time someone beat Thai’s record in an event, and Thai shrugged it off and said it didn’t matter. If that happened to Seo, said Sakonju, he would have been upset at not being able to defend his record.
“But the thing is, [Thai] says that, but then if he were to race, he would break that guy’s record,” Sakonju said, further illustrating the confounding nature of Thai.
“When you look at the long history of high level swimmers at CV, he’s among the elite,” said Sakonju. “Maybe one of the top two.”
Thai is looking at colleges such as TCU, Cal Berkeley and USC to swim for next year. Can he succeed at the next level?
“He’s gotta find a coach that’s going to be okay with the amount of work he’ll do,” said Sakonju. “I think he’s capable of doing it. He’s immensely talented and he’s great in the meets, and some coaches are going to be okay with that.”
In a few years, Thai could be swimming in Rio de Janiero in the 2016 Olympic Games. That sounds crazy, right? Lim isn’t so sure. Thai was hesitant to say whether that could be a possibility, but Lim said he is being too humble, and that his experience for USA Swimming only demonstrates how good he is.
“It’s the highest level to be treated as if they were Olympians,” said Lim.
Maybe Thai is some sort of riddle still to be figured out, or maybe he’s a really good swimmer wrapped in the life of a high school senior inside of someone who knows he still has a way to go.
“Unless you’re Michael Phelps, there’s always someone better than you,” said Thai. “The goal is just to be the best you can be.”