"They're all smart students. School counts first. Swimming is secondary."

Larry Oshiro
McKinley High School swim coach

Clockwise, from bottom left, Lei Cheung, Jessica Yee, Karen Curameng and Rayna Scudder led the McKinley swimming team to second place in the OIA East.

No pool, no prob

McKinley practices away
from campus, but the small
squad is going to the states

McKINLEY freshman Lei Cheung sits in a doorway near the Kalani High School pool.

The Oahu Interscholastic Association Championships are under way, and she sits there weeping after finishing third in the 500-yard freestyle race. Several swimmers, all from different schools, sit near her, consoling her.

But Cheung isn't crying about finishing third. She's competing despite a pre-race injury to her right elbow. She's feeling the pain in every stroke on a blustery, rainy afternoon.

The event's runner-up, Shelby Takeshita of Pearl City, escorts Cheung back to the McKinley tent and gives Cheung a hug and encouragement. Compassion should always be so intertwined with competition.

Cheung, who also placed third in the 200 freestyle, is part of a mini-machine at McKinley. Despite no pool of their own, five of the nine Tigers who comprise the boys and girls teams have qualified for the state championship meet.

It's more than enough to make longtime coach Larry Oshiro proud. He points to his swimmers' success in the classroom with the same pride he feels for their swimming feats.

"They're all smart students. School counts first. Swimming is secondary," said Oshiro, who began coaching at McKinley in 1972.

The numbers don't lie. Karen Curameng has a grade-point average of 3.5. Rayna Scudder carries a 3.4 GPA. Jessica Yee has a 3.5 GPA despite a hectic schedule that includes honors English and math.

"My grades stay the same during the season," said Yee, a state qualifier in the 200 individual medley and 100 fly. "It makes me study even harder."

The success isn't limited to classrooms.

Two times down, two times back, and the 100 fly is soon over. Three swimmers were neck-and-neck most of the way, but the girl with a bright yellow cap emerges in the final 25 yards -- to the stunned silence of a normally noisy crowd -- and pulls ahead. Yee wins the race, repeating a victorious performance of the week before at the OIA Eastern Division championship meet. McKinley placed second in that race despite its small number of swimmers.

At the overall OIA meet's end, McKinley finished a respectable seventh out of 14 teams.

Cheung will race in the 200 and 500 free at states. Curameng, a junior, will line up for the 100 free and 100 backstroke. Scudder and Florence Keawemauhili are part of McKinley's relay teams that also qualified for states.

Interestingly enough, the latter two, both seniors, had never swum at the high school level until this season.

CHEUNG BEGAN HER career with the Hawaii Swim Club as an 11-year-old. Her older brothers, Ernest and Bryant, swam at McKinley under Oshiro. Yee, who also began at 11, swims for Manoa Aquatics. Curameng, a junior, began at 10 with Rainbow Aquatics.

Scudder and Keawemauhili have picked up the sport quickly.

"I'm surprised with our first-year swimmers. It's too bad they can't come back next year," Oshiro bemoaned.

Scudder is the anchor of the Tigers' 200 free relay team, while Keawemauhili is on the 400 free relay team.

"I never thought I'd be in states. My parents were surprised, too," said Scudder, who also plays volleyball and basketball.

Keawemauhili paddled for five years, but gave it up and found swimming to her liking.

"It keeps me on the go. You work your whole body, continually holding your breath," she said.

The team practices at McCully Recreation Gym three times a week. There, assistant coach Jared Oshiro -- no relation to Larry -- brings his knowledge to the team. The rest of the week, Cheung, Yee and Curameng practice with their clubs.

McKinley's pool was torn down in the early 1980s, well before the current Tigers were born. Oshiro has rolled with the punches, continuing with a consistency and resilience made for movies about million-dollar babies.

It's a quiet confidence that rubs off on his team.

"High school swimming is more fun than club," Curameng said. "We know each other."

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