Audrey Kim adjusts her goggles before a race at the U.S. Paralympics Swimming Team Trials last June. (Photo: Joe Kusumoto)
When Audrey Kim was a baby, no one could have guessed that she would one day make a Team USA roster in Para swimming.
“Every time we gave her a shower or a bath, she would start to scream,” recalled Mina Kim, her mother. “She hated water.”
At age 2, Mina took Audrey to a “Mommy and Me” swimming class.
“Because of (Audrey’s) congenital hand malformation, Mina wanted to get her into swimming just to help strengthen the arm and to increase mobility,” said Chris Kim, her father. “So, for that first year, she would scream the entire 30-minute session.”
Though Mina thought about giving up, she continued to bring Audrey to the class to help with Audrey’s symbrachydactyly of her right hand and arm, which required her to have three surgeries by age 4. And Mina had some support.
“The coach was really invested in making Audrey swim and getting her to enjoy the water,” Chris said. “He was kind of a unique individual, very determined to make sure Audrey started to enjoy the water. I think it takes a special kind of person to be able to put up with that.”
“I do remember screaming and crying a little bit, like refusing to go into the pool,” said Audrey, “but that’s about it.”
Mina then enrolled Audrey in group swimming lessons at the community recreation center near their Utah home, and by age 7, Audrey was on her first swim team.
“As I got older and joined the team, it became more fun,” Audrey said. “Once I started to find friends and know more people, it became easier to go every day.”
Now a 15-year-old sophomore at Olympus High School in the Salt Lake City area, Audrey recently made the U.S. roster to compete in the 2022 World Para Swimming Championships from June 12-18 at the Penteada Olympic Swimming Complex in Madeira, Portugal, just five years after her introduction to Para swimming.
“We had no idea that something like Para swimming existed,” Chris said.
“When I went to my first meet, I was really nervous,” Audrey remembered. “But as I went to more and more meets and I attended some national team camps, I found a lot of good friends. I’m really excited to go to world championships with them.
“I just kind of grew into my community. I’m really thankful for the people that I’m with.”
The U.S. squad headed to Portugal is a veteran group. Among the 25 Americans, only four have never competed at the world championships — though the other three are all 2020 Paralympians. That means Kim is the lone swimmer making her global championship debut next week.
“I’m definitely nervous, really nervous, about this meet,” Audrey said. “But this will be a really, really good experience for me, so I’m just going to embrace that and go into it.”
Audrey, last year’s Paralympic trials co-champion in the 50-meter freestyle S10, earned her spot on the world championship roster with her performance at the 2022 Para Swimming World Series in Indianapolis, which took place in April.
“My last meet, I definitely surprised myself with the times I was going,” Audrey said. “Now, I definitely see going to trials again is one of my big goals. Hopefully, maybe getting the cuts for 2024 (Paralympic Games) is a really big goal of mine. That’s basically what I’m training for. It’s just a goal of mine to keep going.”
Audrey, who maintains a 4.0 grade-point average while taking advanced placement and honors classes with a goal of swimming in college, has reasonable expectations about the world championships, saying that she hopes “to gain a lot of experience at that meet and definitely try my best. I hope to meet a lot of new people and share my experience after I come back.”
Younger twin sisters Grace and Claire look up to Audrey, who also wants to serve as an example to children with physical disabilities in Utah, where she feels there is a lack of awareness and support for Para athletes.
“Just as parents, I think we’re just really proud of the work she puts in and the dedication to the sport and how hard she works to improve her times while juggling school and the normal, everyday things that a 15-year-old deals with,” Chris said. “I can’t imagine that I could have done what she’s doing at her age.
“It makes me really proud. It sounds funny, but I look up to her in terms of what she’s able to do and accomplish.”
“I’m just so proud of Audrey,” Mina added. “She works so hard every day.”