Kenneth To Is Remembered by Those He Touched, Big and Small

As the world awoke on Tuesday to news of the passing of 26-year old professional swimmer Kenneth To, emotional rememberances spread across social media.

It always hurts when we lose someone as young as 26, but without intending to rank tragedies, it always hurts a little more when the person lost shines a light on the world as brightly as Kenneth.

First, a personal anecdote, and then I’ll share some of the thoughts that have come out from people far more important than me.

In 2010, when my then-partner Andrew Scherer and I were working on one of SwimSwam’s predecessor sites called The Swimmers Circle, we were chugging along, and slowly-but surely building our audience. This was in the early days of social media, where things were less predictable, less steady, and less scientific.

One day, we suddenly saw a 300-person bump in our fan page. When I went to try and figure out why, it was because Kenneth To had liked our page, and commented on an article. It was a point of motivation for us because, at a time where we weren’t sure what it was going to become, To was the first elite swimmer to engage us, and he did so at an age (18) and a point in his career where in his native Australia, he carried a lot of influence. He brought a light to our efforts and our passions, and that’s something that continued throughout the rest of his life, into SwimSwam, and with different members of the staff. He was always willing to share, always willing to chat, and always was upbeat and positive. At the time we were small, just some guys trying to do something good, and he gave us the time. It’s clear by the breadth of people who were touched personally by him that we weren’t alone.

While a very minor share of his character and positivity, the outpourings from teammates, competitors, and administrators around the world who knew To indicate that this was the way he always was, on scales large and small, from those who knew him daily to those who only knew him once. Swimming New South Wales, where To used to train before moving to Hong Kong and eventually the US, said that he “will be remembered as much for his results in the pool, as well ass being the true gentleman he was outside of it.

“Achieving results was a key focus for Kenneth, however, he always made sure he was there to support the team and was loved by all his teammates. His work ethic was second to none and was inspirational for all those who trained with him.”

The number of tributes on social media are almost uncountable, but we’ve selected some to post below. You can check his tagged images on Instagram to see more here.

Other remembrances:

View this post on Instagram

우리나라에선 잘 알려지지 않았지만, @kennethkhto 는 호주와 홍콩을 비롯해 전 세계적으로 성실함을 인정받는 선수였다. 이민 간 호주에서 수영을 처음 배우고 2010 청소년올림픽을 시작으로 호주 국가대표로 맹활약했다. 실제 오늘날까지도 개인혼영 100m와 200m (SCM, 단수로) 호주신기록 보유자이기도 하다. 중간에 허리부상 및 수술 때문에 리우올림픽행을 놓치고 잠시 주춤하는 듯 했으나, 새로운 각오로 홍콩 국가대표 자격을 취득하여 2017 유니버시아드대회를 시작으로 2018 자카르타 아시안게임과 항저우 세계단수로선수권대회까지 짧은 기간 동안 무려 16개의 홍콩신기록을 갈아치웠다. 그는 수영선수치고 단신(170cm)이었지만 그를 작게 보거나 내려다보는 사람은 아무도 없었다. 그를 조금이라도 알던 사람들은 언제나 밝고 상냥했던 그의 모습을 기억한다. 나도 작년 싱가포르 경영 월드컵에서 팬이라며 수줍게 인사와 선물을 건넸을 때 "한국에도 내 팬이 있다니, 내년 광주가 더 기대된다"라며 반겨줬다. 이후 "또 물어서 미안한데 이름이 뭐였죠?"라며 마주치면 먼저 인사해주는 모습에 단순 팬 서비스나 이미지 관리 때문이 아니라 진실되게 사람을 대할 줄 아는 그의 따듯한 성품에 감동하여 그를 더욱 응원하게 되었다. 그렇게 스치듯 딱 한 번 본 나조차 그의 갑작스러운 (미국 전지훈련 중 갑자기 고통 호소하여 병원에 실려갔으나 곧바로 사망) 비보를 들었을 때 너무 놀라 나도 모르게 눈물이 나서 화장실로 도망쳐야 했는데… 실제로 그를 알고 그와 함께 훈련/경쟁했던 동료 선수들이나 지인들과 가족들은 상실감이 얼마나 클지 감히 가늠조차 할 수 없어 마음이 더 아프다. 올여름 광주에서 또 마주치면 '태극기 양말 선물했던 나를 기억하냐고 물어봐야지' 기대했던 게 이루어질 수 없다니 믿기지 않는다. 전해질지 모르겠지만 한국에서도 애도하고 있습니다. 삼가 고인의 명복을 빕니다.

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Jay ryan
3 years ago

That is really tragic news. He seemed like a well liked guy. The reports say he fell ill after practice then went to the hospital and died. The cause was not revealed. Since he appeared to be conscious when taken to the hospital it was unlikely to be a cardiopulmonary or neurologic catastrophe, which can cause sudden death (not a gradual onset of a feeling that you are “ill”). Acute surgical emergencies would have been identified early leading to often rocky, long hospitalizations but not death the same day. This must have been an acute fulminant bacterial infection such as Neisserial sepsis/meningitis or pneumococcal sepsis. This or a sudden cardio/neurologic event (and we got the story wrong that he gradually… Read more »

Small bird
3 years ago

Nice write up Braden, thank you

3 years ago


3 years ago

RIP young man!
Very nice tribute.
(Please correct typos.)

tea rex
3 years ago

I never met To, but I just watched the aquashopswim video of his 100 IM silver medal, and saw Kenneth in first place after the fly, with just 5 strokes, at 5’7″. He was ahead of the other medallists:
Ryan Lochte, 5 strokes and a glide, at 6’2″. (Best 200 IMer ever).
George Bovell, 6 strokes, at 6’5″. (Maybe the best 50 free/200 IM combo swimmer ever).

A really inspirational swimmer, and from what it sounds like, a much-loved person outside the water.

S Tobin
3 years ago

Beautiful tributes and comments. Tragic loss of someone so young. My condolences to all who knew him. Let him live on in you and your endeavors.

Honest Observer
3 years ago

Very well written article. Before reading it, and the compilation of tributes you gathered, most of us in the bleachers would only have known Kenneth To as another world class swimmer whose name we saw in the meet results. Now we have a sense of his personality, and that makes the loss much more poignant. Thank you for that.

3 years ago

Wait, what just happened?! I can’t believe this news, I’m in shock…
My heart breaks for him and his family, just an awesome swimmer and an even better person.
He and his family/friends will be in my prayers.

About Braden Keith

Braden Keith

Braden Keith is the Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder/co-owner of He first got his feet wet by building The Swimmers' Circle beginning in January 2010, and now comes to SwimSwam to use that experience and help build a new leader in the sport of swimming. Aside from his life on the InterWet, …

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