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Swimming champ strokes to recovery

Paralyzed when he fell while hiking, the backstroke specialist is back in the water

By Jason Kaneshiro

LAST UPDATED: 2:28 a.m. HST, Jul 10, 2011

Standing on the beach alongside Daren Choi, Kevin Flanagan drifted back 12 months to when simply stepping from the shore and into the waves was beyond Choi's capability.

"I kind of asked him, it's pretty trippy to think about where we were a year ago," Flanagan said, "when he was in a hospital bed and completely paralyzed."

Flanagan was with Choi in Samoa on June 28, 2010, when a hiking accident left the state champion swimmer without movement from the neck down. He was among those who marveled at Choi's progress over the next year, and on July 2, they entered the water together for the North Shore Swim Series race from Sunset Beach to Pipeline.

Choi's time in completing the 1-mile course hardly mattered compared to passing just the latest landmark in his recovery.

"It was definitely amazing to see how far he's come in a year," said Flanagan, who coaches Choi with Kamehameha Swim Club, "from not even moving to getting out there and doing an open-water race.

"I think he was stoked just to be there. He did great, he got in there and banged it out with people and just hammered through."

Other than some lingering weakness in his left hand and wrist, there's little indication of the trauma Choi, a 17-year-old Pearl City senior, endured a little more than a year ago when a fall left him with three fractured vertebrae and a bruised spinal cord.

Doctors told him initially that it would be a year before he would walk again. Choi blew past the early prognosis, guided by the therapists at Rehabilitation Hospital of the Pacific and propelled by his desire to get back in the pool.

"I think it played the whole role in my recovery, because all I wanted to do was get back in competitive swimming again," Choi said. "I'm almost there right now. I think swimming played a role in terms of motivation, therapy."

Once he got back on his feet, Choi quickly progressed from needing a specialized walker in the early stages of his physical therapy to walking with a cane, which he ditched nine months after the accident.

He returned to the water in November, at first re-learning the freestyle stroke that once came naturally. While stepping onto the starting blocks in a swim meet remains a target in the distance — at least for now — he can cover the length of the pool (50 yards) in 33 seconds.

That time is well above the 21.23 he posted to place second in the 2010 state final. But just getting from one end to the other puts him far beyond where he was projected to be at this point.

"When I first jumped in, I didn't know what to expect," Choi said. "I think immediately frustration came in because I wasn't up to par to where I was before. I knew I had to be patient with it because only time could tell."

Flanagan said: "I think for him it's about a change of goals. Now it's about using that competitiveness to improve his health."

Few swimmers could keep pace with Choi in age-group meets and through his first two years at Pearl City. He had won three high school state championships and was regarded among the state's top backstroke specialists when he traveled to Samoa last summer with a team representing Hawaii in the Oceania Swimming Championships.

After winning three medals in the meet, Choi went hiking with coaches and teammates along the shoreline of Savaii, an island accessible only by ferry. He slipped off a rock and fell 15 feet. His head struck coral on the descent and he landed face down in shallow water, unable to lift himself out.

"I think I'm pretty fortunate to be living," Choi said. "A lot of the doctors said since I landed on my head I could have had brain damage, I could have died. I'm really happy I'm alive, seeing my family and friends."

When he returned to Hawaii, he spent two weeks at the Queen's Medical Center, followed by two months of inpatient treatment at the rehabilitation hospital.

"They had to guide me through everything, teach me how to do everything again pretty much," said Choi, who wore a halo device for three months to stabilize his head and neck while the vertebrae healed and the swelling around his spinal cord gradually subsided.

Just as returning to swimming provided impetus for Choi's efforts, his recovery was accelerated by "being in such good condition and having that mentality to push through," said Wendy Kondo, a senior occupational therapist at the hospital. "He doesn't give up."

A tutor helped Choi keep up in school in the fall and he returned to Pearl City in time for the second semester of his junior year.

Choi now drives himself to the hospital's outpatient clinic twice a week for occupational therapy sessions, and a year after the accident, "I look at life differently now," he said.

Once buoyed by the support he received from the local swimming community, Choi is on the giving end these days.

While he is not competing just yet, he assists swim club coaches during meets while providing encouragement to his teammates. Choi also volunteered to headline the hospital's direct mail campaign to help the hospital to raise funds and provide inspiration for others dealing with challenges similar to those he faced.

Although Choi has always had a healthy appreciation for swimming, he had often viewed practice as "just another day."

"Right now," he said, "I take it as another opportunity to get better."

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