The only thing more impressive than Celina Li’s talent, is the Foohill senior’s unassuming nature.
By MITCH STEPHENS | Contributor
At long last, it was Celina Li’s shining moment at Foothill High.
The massively accomplished, humble and under-appreciated senior swimmer was competing in her final home meet against California on April 26.
Foothill coach Lauren Andrade, a former Cal swimmer and Olympic Trial competitor, had spread the word to fellow teachers and administrators and students that Li was finishing out an illustrious and largely un-noticed prep career.
Un-noticed considering she is one of the elite athletes for her age in her sport in the world.
“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).”
Producing four North Coast Section titles and a section record in the 100-yard butterfly (53.13 seconds) should have been enough to draw anyone’s attention.
The NCS has produced some of the sport’s greatest athletes — Matt Biondi (Campolindo) and Natalie Coughlin (Carondelet ) — and to take home six golds (she’s heavily favored to capture two more individual titles on May 17-18 at Concord Community Pool in Concord) is more than noteworthy.
But last November at the AT&T Winter National Championships in Austin, Texas, the 5-foot-3 dynamo — nicknamed “Lil’ C” by teammates — won the national 200 individual medley in 1 minute, 55.28 seconds and was second in the 400 IM (4:07.95).
In the 200 IM, she beat, among others, Olympic darling and future Cal teammate Missy Franklin, who placed third.
Everyone on the sporting planet knows of Franklin, but few even at Foothill really comprehended Li’s elite athletic prowess. Andrade sent out a memo to make sure everyone was clear on Li’s feats.
So with the pool deck full and cameras clicking and video 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.”
GO WITH THE FLOW
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 Corp 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 a great job. Both the girls are such great achievers and do exceptional things, but they don’t expect praise.”
Li was also a competitive gymnast, which helped with strength and flexibility. She started both sports at the age of 5 and enjoyed them 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 the Phoenix area, 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?”
SMALL PACKAGE, BIG PICTURE
Longtime Pleasanton Seahawks head coach Steve 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 — “She doesn’t have a weak stroke,” Morsilli said. “Most great swimmers have 3.5 strokes, but her gift is she has all four.”
“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 3.90 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. 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 that all swimmers experience. Once you get over it, you feel a lot better.”
It’s helped to have her sister and 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 Silverthorn and Maxime Rooney of Granada High, and Foothill freshmen Tony Shen, among the boys.
No matter whom she competes again, there is no one with more precise strokes or who is shorter. “You don’t see a whole lot of shorties like me,” Li said with a laugh. “I like being short though. I wouldn’t change my height at all.”
ZOOM, ZOOM, ZOOM
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 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 see how Cal coach Teri 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.”
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.”
Mitch Stephens is a national columnist with MaxPreps.com
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