Once he began swimming competitively close to a decade ago, Daren Choi measured success by how quickly his muscles propelled him through the water.
After one treacherous slip last month, progress is now defined by accomplishing the simplest tasks, patience replacing speed as the operative concept as he works to regain function in the same limbs that powered him to age-group records and high school championships at Pearl City.
Shortly after completing a highly successful meet in Samoa last month, a misstep while exploring the coast line of the neighboring island of Savaii sent him tumbling into shallow water, fracturing three vertebrae in his neck and leaving him without movement in his arms and legs.
After being transported from Samoa to New Zealand and enduring a protracted process of securing clearance to return home, Choi, 16, is now at the Rehabilitation Hospital of the Pacific, where he began a physical therapy program last week.
The Kamehameha Swim Club has set up a fund to assist Daren Choi’s family with medical and travel expenses.
Donations will be accepted in cash and checks made payable to "KSC Friends of Daren Choi" at all First Hawaiian Bank branches.
"It’s early right now. You can’t really see that much progress and you want to see more, so that’s the anxious part," said Derrick Choi, Daren’s father.
"But from the beginning, when he got here, we just told him we just have to take it one day at a time."
Ever since his parents first carried him into a pool when he was 5, Daren Choi’s will was readily evident.
"We tried to put him in the water, he would lift up his legs, just yelling, ‘No,’ " Derrick Choi recalled. "We said, ‘Come on, when you goin’ swim?’ He said, ‘When I’m 6.’
"So we laid off one year. He made 6 years old and he said ‘OK, I’m ready to swim.’ … He kept his word."
Daren soon joined his older sister Shanelle in age-group swim meets, starting off in the outside lanes and eventually earning starts in the center lanes reserved for the faster swimmers.
He had already assembled an impressive collection of awards by the time he enrolled at Pearl City High and promptly won state championships in the 100-yard freestyle and 100 backstroke as a freshman. He set records in the 50 and 100 freestyle at the Oahu Interscholastic Association championships in February and repeated as state champion in the 100 backstroke.
A member of Kamehameha Swim Club, Choi was part of a 12-member delegation representing the state at the Oceania Swimming Championships on June 21-26 in Apia, Samoa.
He captured three bronze medals while posting personal bests in the 50-, 100- and 200-meter backstroke in a meet featuring swimmers from Australia and New Zealand preparing for the Olympic trials. He also hit a national qualifying time in the 100 backstroke, a rarity for a Hawaii high schooler.
"Daren has steadily improved quite substantially over the past few years and is at a point where he’s the fastest backstroker we have in Hawaii," said KSC coach Kevin Flanagan, an assistant on the trip who has worked with Choi for the past three years.
On June 28, the group took a ferry to Savaii for some sightseeing before heading home. Near the end of the excursion, Choi was climbing along a path when he stumbled, fell off a rock and landed some 15 feet below.
Perhaps more frightening than the fall, Choi found himself facedown in the water and unable to pick himself up. His coaches and teammates rushed over, gingerly getting him out of the water.
Choi had sensation in his body and began regaining some movement within moments of the accident, but the coaches took precautions to keep him stabilized.
"When we got a sense it was a spinal cord injury we treated it like it was the worst situation possible," Flanagan said.
"All USA Swimming coaches are CPR and first aid certified, so those types of injuries, while they are rare, do happen and we have to be familiar with ways to deal with it, because it’s so critical how you stabilize a patient and how the injury can be magnified just by little movements."
A surf camp was being held on the beach nearby and lifeguards joined the effort, using a board to get Choi off the beach. But the last ferry had departed and Choi spent the night on Savaii in a hospital described as "no more than a hut."
Flanagan and University of Hawaii swimming coach Victor Wales stayed with Choi, and they returned to Apia the next day. Choi was then transported by medevac to Auckland, New Zealand, where he would spend the next week.
Back on Oahu, Derrick and Sue Anne Choi got a call from KSC coach Lisa Johnson shortly after the accident informing them of Daren’s situation. Since they didn’t have passports, they couldn’t fly to New Zealand right away and thus began a weeklong scramble to arrange for Daren’s return to Hawaii while working through the passport process.
All the while, the distance exacerbated their anxiety.
"We had some sleepless nights, tossing and turning. Each day was just an anxious moment to see how is he doing, are there any changes," Derrick Choi said.
"That was a feeling of uncertainty, of how bad he was hurt, not being there to see him, touch him or talk to him."
Nine days after the accident, Choi was cleared to travel after being fitted with a halo and vest to keep him stable. He was accompanied on the flight by a registered nurse from Auckland.
"Even on the plane, he knew we were flying in and you could see him smiling already," said Flanagan. who remained with Choi throughout the ordeal.
They landed in Honolulu on July 7 and Choi was taken to The Queen’s Medical Center. He was transferred to the Rehab hospital last Wednesday and began a 6 hour per day physical therapy regimen.
Choi has gradually regained movement in the weeks following the accident. His physical conditioning figures to aid in his recovery. He had movement in his right hand and leg following the accident and was able to lift his left arm soon after returning to Hawaii.
But his long-term prognosis remains cloudy.
Choi had fractures in his C4, C5 and C7 vertebrae. The extent of any nerve damage may not be fully determined until swelling in the area subsides, a process that could take months. Choi’s doctors were also awaiting the initial images taken in New Zealand to evaluate any changes since the accident.
The strength in his core muscles allowed him sit upright unassisted last week, and on Wednesday he managed to feed himself by using a spoon fitted with a sleeve to compensate for his weakened grip.
"That’s a real positive feeling," Derrick Choi said. "He’s getting all his senses back, it’s coming back slowly. But we have to remember the spinal cord injury, that’s going to take time. … We always tell him it’s not an overnight process."
Along with the physical strength, the drive Choi displayed in the pool could be his greatest asset in the painstaking process.
"He’s an incredibly hard worker and he’s a leader on the team," said John Flanagan, a KSC coach and Kevin’s brother. "He’ll raise that bar and kids will try to rise up to his level.
"He’s tough, he’s been through a lot, and if anybody can recover from it I think he can."
Word of Choi’s situation circulated at the Keo Nakama Invitational the weekend of July 2-4, where parents and participants offered their best wishes to Shanelle, a three-time state champion at Pearl City and now a member of the Boise State swim team.
A team from Australia in town for the meet inquired about making a donation for the family and a fund was established to help defray the mounting medical bills. His medevac flight from Samoa to New Zealand was sponsored by USA Swimming and the local swimming community has rallied around the family.
"He’s a good kid," John Flanagan said. "It’s not just his speed; he’s a good kid and people want to help and do what they can."
For the kid who wanted no part of the water as a 5-year-old, getting back into the pool now represents a target.
Many of his friends and teammates are competing in the age-group state championships this weekend at Veterans’ Memorial Aquatic Center, not far from the Chois’ home in Waipio. A KSC tradition rewards swimmers who qualify for the state meet with a swim cap printed with their last name.
This weekend, each cap also reads "D. Choi."
"I definitely think they’re going to have him in their thoughts in everything they do," Kevin Flanagan said. "Hopefully when things get tough in a race and they think about the situation, they might try a little extra to get through the finish of a race. I’m sure Daren would appreciate that as well."