When Young Tae Seo recently took some time to sit down with Glendale News-Press sportswriter Gabriel Rizk for an interview, it was one of the few moments the Crescenta Valley High senior has spent away from a swimming pool over the course of the summer.
Always driven to improve and seldom prone to reflecting on his own numerous accomplishments, Seo trains with Spartan-like discipline and is always chasing a better time when he’s not chasing down wins in competition.
Over the years, Seo’s dedication and intensity has paid off handsomely. In his first two years at Crescenta Valley, the Falcons finished second and third in CIF Southern Section Division II and won Pacific League titles, while Seo himself hauled in a slew of individual championships in league, CIF finals and Masters meets.
This season was Seo’s finest yet, as he won two more CIF individual titles in the 500-yard freestyle and 100 breaststroke, but found the most satisfaction in leading the Falcons to their first CIF championship since 2001 with a win over Damien, 301-293. Seo literally brought the win home, as he out touched Damien’s Jason Haney on the anchor leg of the 400-freestyle relay to close out the meet and clinch the crown.
He was voted the All-Area Boys’ Swimmer of the Year for the third straight year and qualified for several events at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Omaha, where he didn’t qualify for a final heat, but gained plenty of future motivation.
For his astounding accomplishments during the 2011-12 school year, which also included leading the Falcons to a 20th straight league title, Seo was voted the James H. Jenkins Boys’ Athlete of the Year by the sportswriters and editors of the Glendale News-Press.
The following are excerpts from the interview with Seo.
Gabriel Rizk: It sounds like it’s been a busy summer for you with Olympic Trials in July and lots of training. Did you ever get a break this summer?
Young Tae Seo: I don’t have swim practice this week, which is a break. Well, I am going to go back to the CV pool and try to train Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, I’ll have two days off again and then go back to training next Monday. But we weren’t training that much the last couple weeks because it’ the end of the summer, so we were having fun. We played games after practice. I had a meet the first week of August in Fresno, so I just focused on that and after that I went to hang out with my friends. I’ve never done that before in my life. I always train with no break, but this year I’m taking a break and having fun and trying to refocus after this break.
GR: I know there’s times when you’re training harder and really ramping up for a specific event or a meet and then there’s other times where it’s less intense. Can you describe your training routine at its busiest?
YS: When it’s the busiest, we have morning practice Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and then we have all afternoon Monday through Friday. Monday is about 40 minutes of weight training and then swim until 7 [p.m.] every single day. Tuesday is with dry land for about an hour and then swim until 7 after that, so basically Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoon is weight training with swimming and then Tuesday and Thursday is dry land with swimming and Saturday morning will be sometimes dry land, sometimes weights for an hour and a half and swim from 7:15 to 11. Basically, we have [training] every single day except for Sunday.
GR: What do you do on Sundays, rest?
YS: Well I used to go to the YMCA and work out, but a year ago I stopped doing it because my doctor said my body needed rest to recover. I still go hiking with my dad, but now I just get kind of lazy now, stay home, watch TV, computer.
GR: That’s a pretty intense regiment. What’s your motivation to get up and do that every day? How do you stay with it?
YS: If you drop time at the end of the season, you get more motivation. Breaking a record is the most motivation and beating people who are faster than me by a lot and then catching up to them and beating them, that’s the most motivation to me.
And racing is fun, it’s the funnest thing ever when you swim, but swim practice you hang out with other friends. Just having a fun practice is the most motivation. When it’s painful or you’re out of breath, that’s kind of a good feeling to me.
GR: So, basically, you’re putting in months of work all toward maybe a minute or so of swimming in that one race. Is there a lot of pressure in that, when you actually get to that race, do you say, ‘This is what I’ve spent so much time and energy on, I have to have a perfect race.’ Do you feel pressure in that moment because of all that time you’ve spent?
YS: I feel pressure when I didn’t work hard because I didn’t put in enough energy during practice. But when I put 100% of my energy into it in practice it feels like I can do this, it’s not going to be hard.
GR: When did you first start swimming?
YS: I started swimming when I was 5, but it wasn’t swimming swimming, it was kind of just jump in the water and train with the coach. But I was just hanging in the back because I was scared of water, I thought there was going to be a shark in the pool. I was crying and I didn’t want to get in the water.
I learned [to swim] when I was in Korea, but in Korea I didn’t want to swim, so when I went to practice I would just hide in the bathroom. But when I came to America [at age 9], I had nothing to do, I had no friends, so I joined the local swim team and just trained there and it was fun and then I went to CCY [La Crescenta La Cañada YMCA], but then my dad saw practice wasn’t enough, so I went to Swim Pasadena. Swim Pasadena made me everything [I am]. I was slow and I had to race the tall people, so that was the motivation.
Basically when I really started swimming was when I was 9 in the U.S., because I took a three-year break because my grandpa passed away when I was 6, so I didn’t want to swim, I just wanted to play soccer and hang out with my friends. Swimming became my life when I was 13 and moved to Swim Pasadena.
GR: You mentioned when you first started you were scared and obviously not comfortable with swimming. When did that change to the point where you were not only comfortable with it but you could start realizing you were good at it and wanting to work at it.
YS: Until I was 12 or 13, I still didn’t want to swim, I didn’t want to go to practice, so CCY had some handball game on the top floor I just went there. My coach caught me and would bring me down to do like 50 push ups. But when I turned 12 I moved to Swim Pasadena and I dropped times in every single event and I raced with all the fast people. That turned me on and I just kept going.
GR: Do you remember the first time you won a race that was important to you or that meant something?
YS: Yes, when I was 13 in Dec. 2008 I went to Texas for Junior Nationals and I just wanted to drop [time], but I dropped a lot. I want to win [races], but most of the time, time is the most important thing to me until the Olympics because at the Olympics if you win it’s a win, but now it’s kind of stacked and you have to get onto that Olympic level.
You have to drop time at every single meet possible and then go for the records first and then make it to Olympics and that’s where place matters.
GR: When you got to CV, how was that a little bit different than anything else, being on that team and swimming in the CIF environment?
YS: It’s way different than club swimming because club is year round and high school is only two to three months. It’s really fun to hang out with other people and go to a meet, but freshman year I had no clue. I thought we were going to win CIF, but we never thought about Oaks Christian, so we got runner-up. Sophomore year everyone was confident that Oaks Christian had graduated five seniors the year before. ...We got third. Everyone was kind of sad. We thought we got second, so we went to get the plaque, but they said Murietta Valley [got second] so we had to switch sides and move back to our area. That was the saddest moment ever for CV.
Junior year we said we’re not going to talk about the championship, but everyone making it to CIF had to be the most important goal ever.
GR: The last race of the CIF finals, the 400-freestyle relay, where you clinched the team title, the last leg that you swam was so close, but was there any way you were going to let CV lose that race? After the race you said you didn’t care if you died, you were going to touch first. Was there any part of you that was ever going to let you lose that race?
YS: We saw that video, I’ve seen it 10 times already, and I still remember that during that race the first 25 yards I was like don’t waste too much energy because we have 75 more. During 25-50 he caught up to me, I could see his arms and face. I was like just keep up with him, I still have more energy. After the turn he was ahead of me and I thought if I lose this we get second and they get first and they get to celebrate and we can’t and I’ve waited for this for three years.
GR: You got to have that celebration and I remember during it your teammates were chanting your name. How did that feel when you were in the middle of that?
YS: It felt amazing, it was an honor. It wasn’t only me, everybody worked hard, our whole team worked harder and they put motivation on me.
GR: Was it a relief to get that team title after what you had gone through the last two years? You would have still had one more year as a senior to get it done, but just to get it done junior year, was it a relief to get it out of the way?
YS: Yes, because I think the last one [CV] won was 2001 and that was the biggest focus of my high school career, to get a ring. ...After the meet I still couldn’t believe that we won and still now we kind of feel the same as we did the last moment [of CIF], we feel amazing. We were proud of each other and especially give thanks to coach [Jan Sakonju].
GR: Now that you guys have done that, what’s your motivation now for your senior year at CV? What’s left to do and what’s the best way to go out for you do you think?
YS: Last year I swam the 500 free, but this year I really want to swim the 200 IM and 100 breast at CIF. I just want to break my own record and make it so that no one can touch it. Someone’s going to break it later, but I just want to hold it for longer.
And I want to go back-to-back championships. I just want to win again, so we can have two rings. I want to make history. They will remember my name because we won twice in a row.
GR: So you’re still pretty hungry for a championship at CV?
GR: A couple months after that was Olympic Trials. Talk about your preparation for that.
YS: I wasn’t ready at all. In my mind I was thinking I’m not going to make it at all. I just didn’t focus because I was too nervous and I didn’t prepare enough. I didn’t have the best conditioning, so after the first race I didn’t want to swim because I did really bad. Second race I did better than the first, but it was still bad, so I didn’t want to swim any more.
Before my fourth race in the morning, my mom called me and said to just forget about everything I had done and swim like it was my first race and try as hard as you can. I closed the meet better than the beginning and I was happy, but the whole trials was motivation for me because I saw every single finals, I saw Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte going to race. That just motivated me so much and after trials I really worked as hard as I can. I have to prepare for 2016.
GR: What would it mean to you to be in the Olympics?
YS: I’m pretty sure I’m going to cry when I make the Olympic team and my family will cry, too. It’s kind of hard because you can’t just say, ‘Next year I’m going to make the Olympic team,’ you have to still work hard and you know not just anyone is going to make the Olympic team. To represent the USA is the highest point you can go to in your swimming career, so that’s going to motivate me a lot.
GR: Before you get to that, what are your other plans after high school?
YS: Well, college is first, so I have to think about colleges, but right now I want to focus on Junior Nationals in December. I’m going to practice my form and not think about tomorrow, just think about today. If I keep saying I’m going to work hard tomorrow, I’m never going to do it. You have to work hard today because there is no tomorrow.