He’s just one of the team

MARYSVILLE — Kaili Swan stood behind the starting blocks at the Marysville Pilchuck High School pool.

His towel was draped over the diving board nearby. He pulled his blue goggles over his eyes and laced his fingers together over his stomach. He waited.

It would be the final meet of the high school career for Kaili, 18, who was diagnosed with autism at the age of 4 and who also has scoliosis and mild cerebral palsy. He would compete against dozens of other swimmers Thursday afternoon at the Last Chance Junior Varsity Invitational meet.

His mother, Kaori Tutewohl, crouched by the side of the pool, camera in one hand and her cell phone in the other to record the end of what has been an improbable achievement for her son.

“Kaili is behind in his academics,” Tutewohl said. “He will always be (at a first- or second-grade level) and struggles with counting money and single-digit math, but when he’s in the water, he’s not special ed.

“He’s just like everyone else.”

On Thursday, Kaili started the Last Chance meet by directing band members in performing the national anthem, urging them to play louder and louder. He said he doesn’t like practice as much as he loves meets when others on his team cheer loudly for him.

“I like when they make noise for me,” Kaili said. “I like the noises that others make. I hear it.”

When he was a baby, doctors told Tutewohl that they doubted Kaili would ever walk. He ended up proving them wrong. Tutewohl’s own determination helped her son find his love for swimming.

Kaili’s first 10 swimming lessons didn’t go well, Tutewohl remembered. At age 9, Kaili’s condition included sensory integration issues that caused him to strongly dislike water. He refused to get into the pool for his first lessons at Naval Station Everett, where Kaili’s step-father James Tutewohl was stationed.

With the advice of her son’s doctor, Kaori Tutewohl had already decided that swimming would be Kaili’s best option for physical therapy. She refused to back down.

“There was a struggle to get him in the water at first,” Kaori Tutewohl said. “All the other parents heard him screaming, and I think they thought why did I bother.”

Kaili has been swimming ever since. He joined the Mighty Marlins Swim Club seven years ago and as a sixth-grader became part of an all-district swim team called the Hatchetfish. As a freshman at Marysville Pilchuck, he eagerly joined the school swim team, following in the footsteps of his older brother, Keito.

His brother, who is now 22, was severely injured in 2005 when he was a junior at Marysville Pilchuck. Keito was hit by a school bus and dragged 100 feet as he crossed 108th Street NE. The family in 2006 reached an $800,000 settlement with the Marysville School District.

Kaili wasn’t among the fastest on the junior varsity team this year but said he enjoys improving on his best times. His goal this year was to successfully swim in all eight individual events throughout the season. Such a swimmer is called an Ironman and receives a certificate at the end of the season team banquet.

He accomplished that feat on Jan. 24 when he swam the 500-yard freestyle event and completed the race in 7 minutes, 58 seconds. Kaili really didn’t know if he would be able to finish such a long race. He’s glad he did it once, but he doesn’t plan to swim it again.

“It’s tiring,” he said. “I need an energy tank.”

Assistant coach Cully Preston, who has worked with Kaili for the past four years, wasn’t surprised he earned the Ironman honor this season.

“I know Kaili won’t quit,” he said. “When he starts a race he’s going to complete the race.”

Kaili is part of special education classes during the day, but he’s not treated any differently by his coaches and teammates when he’s around the pool, Preston said.

During Thursday’s meet, Kaili’s 50-yard freestyle time flashed on the scoreboard at 32 seconds and he finished the 100-yard butterfly in one minute, 46 seconds. Teammates chanted “Go Kaili,” their cheers echoing around the pool.

The last high school meet is sad for everyone, Kaili said. It doesn’t mean he’s done supporting his team or school. He plans to continue to attend school basketball and football games and swimming meets. He probably will be wearing his letterman jacket, where he proudly displays the bars he’s earned for swimming.

Kaili isn’t done swimming on teams either.

On Saturday, he plans to rejoin his teammates on the Mighty Marlins Swim Club in a meet at Kamiak High School in Mukilteo. This summer, he hopes to swim in his fifth Special Olympics Washington Summer Games in Federal Way.

Kaili has won 11 medals competing in Special Olympics swimming events and has a new goal to win a gold medal in the 100-yard butterfly this summer. He also wants to work on his diving and endurance.

Kaili said he’ll never stop swimming.

“I’m one of the team,” he said.

Amy Daybert: 425-339-3491; adaybert@heraldnet.com.

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