PLEASANTON, Calif. —
The big splash around the Cal aquatics program is that four-time Olympic gold medalist Missy Franklin
is coming to town in the fall.
But swimming in the shadow of her giant 6-foot-4 wingspan will be an impressive 5-foot-3 girl from just a few miles from the Berkeley campus. She's not nearly as statuesque or famous, but she has an impressive win over Franklin that came in November.
Foothill (Pleasanton, Calif.)
senior Celina Li defeated Franklin at the AT&T Winter National Championships in Austin, Texas, taking the 200-meter individual medley in 1 minute, 55.28 seconds. Franklin was third in 1:55.88.
Li, who was also national runner-up in the 400 IM, will swim her final high school meet in Saturday's North Coast Section Championships at Cowell Powell in Concord.
She's already won four NCS titles, has a section record in the 100 butterfly (53.13) and should shatter the 200 IM section mark of 1:56.17.
In many years, Li might be Cal coach Teri McKeever's star recruit, but that honor definitely goes to Franklin, a fact that doesn't seem to bother the versatile swimmer one bit. She is the No. 7 senior swim recruit in the country according to collegeswimming.com
"(We) have been on a couple recruiting trips together and she really is the nicest person," Li said. "We're both really excited to go to Cal."
Foothill coach Lauren Andrade, a former Cal swimmer, might disagree with Li's assessment. She claims no one is nicer than Li, or more humble. She deflects attention, said her coach, gets embarrassed with praise and is uncomfortable in the winner's circle.
For Li's final home meet, Andrade sent out an email to all staff to make sure they got a glimpse of one of the region's greatest swimmers. Many didn't even know she was a competitive swimmer.
"We're talking about a once-in-a-generation talent," Andrade said. "We're talking a national champion, a girl who has swam all over the world and almost assuredly will be swimming in Rio De Janeiro (site of the 2016 Summer Games)."
Though extremely short on the competitive swim circuit, she made up for it with impeccable strokes, said her Pleasanton Seahawks club coach Steve Morsilli.
"Most great swimmers have 3.5 strokes, but her gift is she has all four," Morsilli said.
"You don't see a whole lot of shorties like me," Li said with a laugh. "I like being short though. … I don't think height matters as much as how determined you are and how much heart you put into it."So Celina
Li had put everything into it for so long, but she told few outside of her circle at Foothill. At long last, this was her shining moment. This was her final home meet.
Andrade had garnered enough attention so that the pool deck was full and cameras were clicking and video was rolling.
The stage was set for Li to make a grand entrance, to bask in her richly deserved glory, to play princess for a day and wave and fawn and soak it all in.
Instead, Li dropped to her knees.
There were kids to speak with.
"Friends and onlookers were ready to take her picture, but suddenly she was surrounded by children," Andrade said. "She immediately got down to their level and was asking them all sorts of questions. This was her time, her moment but instead the kids were way more important for her. It was a beautiful moment.
"It was so Celina."
Don't get the notion that Andrade is in any way bitter about Li's relative lack of local notoriety.
Part of it is the sport and mostly it's Li's unassuming and graceful nature. Andrade said she's never seen such a humble, deflecting elite swimmer.
It is why she's so popular among her peers and teammates.
"It's always been about team first with Celina," Andrade said. "She's always been gracious and kind with her teammates. She's embarrassed when she receives praise. It's so refreshing for a swimmer of this caliber."
Part of it might be her culture.
Her father Phillip is Taiwanese and mother Yvonne is Chinese. They met at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.
Celina was born in Wisconsin, seven years after her sister Jing, who was a highly competitive swimmer herself, earning a scholarship to Georgia Tech. Following a successful four-year swim career there, she joined the Peace Corps and served for a spell in the Ukraine.
"She was definitely my role model," Li said of her sister. "I grew up watching her in the pool and meets and I wanted to be like her."
Said Andrade: "Her parents have done great job. Both the girls are such great achievers and do exceptional things but they don't expect praise." Go with the flow
Li was also a competitive gymnast, which helped with strength and flexibility. She started both sports at age 5 and enjoyed both equally. But she gave up gymnastics at Level 5.
"Ultimately, I felt like swimming was less dangerous," she said. "I just felt very natural in the water. There was flow, I felt."
Her dad, an electrical engineer, moved the family from Palo Alto to North Carolina to Phoenix, where Li made a name for herself in the youth ranks.
When the family moved to Pleasanton, right before Li's freshman year at Foothill, Andrade knew she and the Falcons had hit gold.
"I'd heard the name before," Andrade said. "I thought what a treat. How lucky was I?"
Morsilli felt the same way, though he's been around hundreds of elite athletes as a coach for USA Swimming all over the world. The Level 5 coach, which ranks him in the top 2 percent in the nation, has coached in Pleasanton since 1975 and led the Seahawks for 31 years.
His first impressions of Li were "she's quiet and very intense. She takes her academics and swimming very serious. Maybe too serious."
Morsilli's No. 1 goal with Li was teaching relaxing drills and keeping her loose. Li's technique and strokes were and have always been impeccable so most of his work with Li was simply big-picture stuff.
"At first I did a lot of joking with her," Morsilli said. "Then I did a lot of yelling. I'm not sure what she thought of me. Probably thought I was a little weird. … But as her talent has risen and her accomplishments have increased, the pressure mounts.
"Four years ago when Celina Li had a bad race nobody noticed. But like any elite swimmer now if she has a bad race, everyone wants to know what's wrong with Celina. Is she sick? Is she unhappy? You get assaulted by the public when in reality, you just had a bad race. It happens. It happened to Michael Phelps at the last Olympics. Everyone assumed this and that but he had a bad race. It happens to everyone and Celina needed to realize it."
Li fully admits that she often applies too much pressure on herself and that she's had a love-hate relationship with the pool.
Three times a week she has to rise at 4 a.m. for morning workouts. She trains roughly 20 hours a week on top of her studies. Somehow she's maintained a 3.9 GPA.
"It's definitely not always smooth sailing," Li said. "It's hard and you have to remind yourself what your goals are."
In the spring of 2012, Li said she almost considered giving up the sport. Probably not seriously, but between SAT testing, recruiting, NCS and Olympic Trials, it almost overwhelmed her.
"There was a point I wondered is it really all worth it," she said. "But of course had I quit I knew I would regret it. Those are all small bumps in the road all swimmers experience. Once you get over it, you feel a lot better." Zoom, zoom, zoom
It's helped to have her sister, parents, Andrade and Morsilli to talk things over with.
It's also helped to train with faster athletes, such as national team members Catherine Breed (Cal) and Allison Brown (Stanford) among the women and Nick Silverthorne and Maxime Rooney, of Granada, and Foothill freshmen Tony Shen, among the boys.
No matter whom she competes with, there is no one with more precise strokes or who is shorter.
Morsilli admits that "generally a longer boat is a faster boat. … The longer boat has an advantage."
But he also says: "Celina streamlines beautifully. Her body just disappears in the water. She squeezes and pushes off the wall powerfully. She just zooms."
Said Andrade: "She's incredibly strong and very flexible. ... She may be small, but she always swims big. She has the heart of a lion. She swims with such courage. She's fearless and unafraid."
Andrade is looking forward to seeing how McKeever will develop Li.
"The thing about Celina is that she's just so versatile," Andrade said. "She's just scratching the surface to all she can do. (McKeever) is known to get the most out of swimmers like she did with Natalie Coughlin."
For now, Andrade is counting the days she has left with Li, who figures to shatter the NCS 200 IM record of 1:56.17. With college-bound seniors Cayla Jetter (Texas), Katherine Clark (Boise State) and Stephanie Doi (undecided), Foothill could contend for some relay wins as well.
But thinking of coaching next season without Li is sort of surreal to Andrade.
"You can't replace a Celina Li," Andrade said. "It's not just the points she scores, but it's her presence. The way she conducts herself which makes it so easy for everyone else to follow suit. How do you replace that? You can't."
E-mail senior writer and columnist Mitch Stephens at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @MitchMashMax