Disability doesn’t affect Hopkins swimmer’s courage

What’s it like to walk out of a high school sporting event feeling like everyone has won?

Swimmers from Hopkins and Edina found out recently in the last Lake Conference dual meet of the season.

The scoreboard read Edina 96, Hopkins 84. But the real story was one race at the JV level that had everyone in the stands and on the deck cheering.

Kelvin Chun P. Li, a Hopkins senior who was born without the use of his right arm, completed the 500-yard freestyle in 12 minutes, 15 seconds.

Hopkins High senior Kelvin Chun P. Li finishes a 500-yard freestyle race in the last dual meet of his Lake Conference career, despite having the use of only one arm. (Sun Sailor staff photo by John Sherman)
Hopkins High senior Kelvin Chun P. Li finishes a 500-yard freestyle race in the last dual meet of his Lake Conference career, despite having the use of only one arm. (Sun Sailor staff photo by John Sherman)

He finished dead last in his heat, but as his Hopkins teammates and the Edina opponents watched him labor to finish, support for his performance swelled like high tide.

“When Kelvin finished, it was so inspiring I wanted to cry,” said Hopkins captain Adam Tarshish. “The 500 freestyle is a hard race for anyone, but I had a feeling Kelvin would finish.”

Li himself wasn’t so sure.

“The first part of the race, I couldn’t find my rhythm,” he said. “But eventually I did. I could hear them cheering for me, even when I was under water. My own teammates and the Edina guys were egging me on.

“I had done a 500 in practice,” he continued. “I think my time was about 14 minutes. All of my other races during meets this year have been 100 yards. I started thinking I could swim a 500 when I finished a long-distance set one day during practice.”

There is a tradition in Hopkins swimming that goes back years and years. Every swimmer is expected to compete in the 500 freestyle at least once during his senior year. Li wasn’t going to be the one to break the chain.

“Kelvin is one of 20 seniors on the team,” said coach Greg Bartz. “We talked about it a couple times during the season, and Kelvin said he definitely wanted to do this. When he finished the race, my feeling was, what a wonderful accomplishment. He brought everyone to their feet.”

Li shared the history of his career.

“When I was born, my shoulder was in a weird position,” he said. “There was nerve damage because of it.”

When he entered high school, he had friends who were on the swimming team. They suggested that he should come out, and his response was, “Why not?”

“Swimming on the team has been great,” he said. “This is my third year. The sport has taught me a lot about commitment and how to improve myself as an athlete. It also has taught me to believe in myself.”

Tarshish, one of Li’s closest friends on the team, said, “When Kelvin first started on the team, he wasn’t able to swim in the deep end. Look at him now!”

Carston Hernke, another Hopkins captain, said, “Kelvin is a great teammate. It was inspiring to all of us to watch him push through that barrier.”

“It’s definitely a unique situation,” said captain Colin Lau. “It is admirable what Kelvin has accomplished because when he first started he didn’t know a lot about stroke technique.”

Swimming with only one arm isn’t easy in any sense. It most likely requires twice the stamina, as well as twice the resolve.

Preparation plays a big role in any swimmer’s success, and Li is no different, he assured.

“To get ready, I ate a lot of carbs – bagels and pasta,” he said. “Mentally, I had to calm myself down and focus only on the race. When I finished, I was exhausted.”

That may have had something to do with his health.

“For a few days before the race, I had a pretty bad cold with headaches and sinus pressure, but that all went away when I stepped on the block,” said Li.

The scene after he finished was one he will never forget as long as he lives.

Tarshish rushed to help him out of the pool.

“At the same time, the Edina kids reached down into the pool to shake my hand,” said Li.

For that moment, at least, athletes forgot whether they were wearing a blue swim suit or a green one. And suddenly, it became obvious – everyone was a winner.


Contact John Sherman at [email protected]