Team Australia is coming off of one of its most successful years in recent history. Both its senior and junior teams ended their respective FINA World Championships as second only to the U.S. in total number of medals, and the junior squad topped the total golds among all countries.
In all the success, however, one familiar Aussie was notably absent, but is looking to make his way back to the podium – 23-year old Kenneth To. Born in Hong Kong, To moved to Australia in his toddler years, started swimming for the green and gold and never looked back. He still trains at Trinity Grammar School under Coach Matthew Brown, the mentor with whom To has been for 12 years. To talked exclusively with SwimSwam recently regarding his journey, current status and future path.
After making a name for himself with impressive performances at the 2010 Junior Pan Pacific and Youth Olympic Games, To continued his upward trajectory into the senior ranks. In 2012, To earned a silver in the 100m IM at the Short Course World Championships, and was ultimately crowned Overall Male Winner of the FINA World Cup that same year.
Into 2013, To continued training heavily and said he “was the strongest I had ever been in my life” when an incident in the weight room would sidetrack the young star. A deadlift-gone-wrong left To with what was later determined to be a bulging disc, but at the time was thought to just be nagging after-pains. To continued to train and work out through the pain, feeling it grow from a nuisance to an impediment, so much so that “he wasn’t improving and wasn’t meeting expectations in practice.”
To fought on through the 2014 Commonwealth Games where he earned two relay medals, but considered his performance as “sub-par”, and pointed to his lackluster results as a strong indication that his back injury was more serious and needed to be addressed. Scans confirmed surgery was the best option, which To underwent in August of 2014. The ordeal sidelined To for several months, taking him out of contention for this year’s world championships in Kazan.
To said his post-surgery recovery was “long and involved a lot of lying down”, as one would expect after back surgery. But, the time away from his Trinity Grammar training pool did give the athlete time to reflect on his short-term and long-term plans. Looking back on his training leading up to the 2014 championship season, To believes his “focus on the 100m freestyle event took away from some of his readiness for the 200m IM”. Now, To and Coach Brown are turning the tables and shifting the focus more on the 200m IM, and believe that using the longer distance event as their primary focus will indeed result in an improved 100m free.
To gauge how is training plan is faring, To will be focusing on the 100m freestyle and 200m IM events in his upcoming international meets appearances. To will be competing at both the Hong Kong (September 25th-26th) and Singapore (October 3rd-4th) stops of the FINA World Cup. He says that while he doesn’t necessarily consider the meets as “test events”, he does “want to keep expectations in perspective” with where he’s at with his training and recovery. Coach Brown will be accompanying To on these trips, as the duo certainly views the stops as “important stepping-stones to next year’s goals.” Immediately before leaving for Hong Kong To will swim at a short course open event in New South Wales, so he will get some warm-up swims in before he arrives in Asia.
To says he has “momentum on his side”, with Team Australia’s performances at both the Senior and Junior World Championships fueling his own motivation. He commented that “the team’s results speak for themselves in terms of the times, but we [the Dolphins] are in a really good place right now” and that is fueling everyone to keep up the pace headed into 2016.
His team’s performances, along with his injury, have changed the mental outlook for To. “I’ve gone through struggle, I’ve gone through hardship, but I’ve come out on the other side and am getting stronger.” And the endgame, in To’s mind? He says that his idea of chasing his dreams is “becoming the fastest swimmer that I can become.” To has the personal goal of simply “being the best that I can be.”