SALT LAKE CITY —Audrey Kim has been described as a fearless swimmer, but it wasn’t always that way. At the age of 2, she hated the water so much that her mother, Mina, enrolled the two of them in a mommy and me swim class to help Audrey get over her fear.
It was a fateful decision.
Today, Audrey, 12, is taking the Paralympic swimming world by storm and is looking strong to make it to the 2024 Paralympics, if not the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics, her coach McKay King said.
After her introduction to the water, Audrey soon grew to love it, so when the family moved to Utah from Houston, Texas in 2011, she began youth group lessons at South Davis Recreation Center. In 2014, she joined the South Davis Aquatic Team.
“I love the water now,” Audrey said. “I like that you can only focus on yourself sometimes; it’s not a group effort.”
With King’s encouragement, Audrey entered the paraswim community last June. Competing in her first national meet, she not only took home six medals but also became the American record holder in 50m backstroke.
Audrey, a seventh grader at The Madeleine Choir School, qualifies for paraswimming because she was born with Syndactyly, a congenital malformation of her right hand; her first, second and third fingers are fused and she is missing her fourth and fifth fingers. In addition, her right arm is shortened. She required three corrective surgeries before the age of 4, and there may be more in her future, her mother said.
Syndactyly has never held the mischievous 12-year-old back, Mina Kim said. Audrey is an A student, a member of the school’s St. Therese choir and plays the violin in the little spare time she has.
Audrey said her coach has found ways to make it easier for her to swim by using different parts of her arm, but mostly Syndactyly is not something that hinders her.
“It does create a little bit of imbalance but since I was born with it, I don’t really notice a difference,” she said.
If anything, her disability has given Audrey an advantage, her coach said.
“She is forced to be more aware of what she’s doing in and out of the water,” he said. “She has to pay more attention to detail than a lot of swimmers her age at any level. Because she’s able to do that, that’s why she’s successful.”
In December, Audrey was the youngest swimmer to compete in the Paralympics Swimming National Championships in Phoenix, Ariz. Despite her age, she won medals for fastest classification times in the 200m freestyle and 50m backstroke.
She also met the time standard for the US Paralympic Emerging Team in the 50m freestyle, and finished third place overall in the 100m freestyle. That time qualified her to become a member of the Emerging team, which is the first step to becoming part of the national Paralympic team.
In March, she competed in the Utah Short Course State Championship in seven events. Although she was ill during the meet, (it was later determined she had pneumonia) she scored at the top of the state in almost every event, King said.
Audrey will participate in a paraswim meet in May, and in July, she will compete in the long course state championship.
To make it all work, Audrey keeps a grueling schedule. She practices six days a week at the recreation center, taking off only Sundays, when she squeezes in attendance at St. Olaf Catholic Church and violin lessons.
Mina Kim said she had no idea when she first signed her daughter up for swim lessons how far she would go.
“I just thought it would be good exercise for her arm and hand,” she said, adding, “Now I’m so glad she’s working with McKay.”
King, who swam for the University of Utah, sees something special in his young pupil.
“I think given how fast she has improved and how well she has done, I think Tokyo is a possibility but I think Paris 2024 is definitely possible,” he said. “We’re going to do everything we can to qualify in 2020. If 2020 doesn’t work out, then we’ll be in a prime position for 2024.”
King said he would love to coach a full paraswim team and is hoping Audrey’s example may prove an inspiration to others who might qualify.