TAMPA — A water tower that reads Plant High School, Home of State Champions can be seen from the parking lot of Hao Wah, Koichiro Kimura’s Chinese restaurant that sits on the corner of South Dale Mabry Highway and Angeles Street.
Saturday in the 4A state swimming meet, Koichiro’s son Kyle has his last chance to join that elite group of Panthers. It’s an opportunity Kimura would have likely qualified for a year ago, but he was forced to sit out.
Kimura lives in Westchase, but because his family’s restaurant is just blocks from Plant, his mother filled out paperwork to have him attend school and swim there his freshman and sophomore years.
In September 2012, just a year after his mother, Yung, died, Kimura was sidelined for a year because paperwork wasn’t filled out in time. Kimura, who had been to the state meet both years he swam for Plant, could practice with the Panthers but couldn’t compete.
“It was a year he couldn’t focus on anything much,” Koichiro Kimura said.
Kimura continued to train with Tampa Bay Aquatics during his time away from the Panthers. And he showed up at every meet to cheer on his Plant teammates.
By the time his senior season rolled around, Kimura kicked it off in a meet against Robinson with a newfound appreciation and a pair of first-place finishes.
“I actually swam decent times, which I was really surprised about,” he said. “I was just really anxious to swim again.”
Kimura’s coaches might have been even more ready for his return.
Since the season began and freshman Paxton Rhoades joined the Panthers, Kimura has taken the state championship qualifier under his wing. The swimmers, who both compete for Tampa Bay Aquatics, are polar opposites, coach Royce Brown said. But Kimura has rubbed off on the rookie.
“Kyle is very calm, collected,” Brown said. “Paxton is always bouncing around. He’s got a lot of energy. If he would just use that energy and focus it. And that’s where Kyle comes in.”
Kimura is known for his underwater technique off starts and turns, an aspect of the sport Brown said can’t be taught. Kimura’s diligence comes from more than a decade in the water.
As a 4-year-old, Kimura could swim the length of the pool. At Yung Kimura’s urging he joined his first team, the Westchase Dolphins, a year later.
Kimura’s mother built the foundation for his competitive swimming career, one he hopes to continue in college. Even now, she continues to be his motivator.
“I think about her every day,” Kimura said.
Kimura, seeded second in the 200-yard freestyle and fifth in the 100 butterfly, hopes a top-three finish Saturday will be the ultimate tribute.
Brown watched Kimura lose his mother, then for a year, his chance to race. Even thinking about Kimura ending his career with the biggest win of all makes the emotional coach pause.
“I don’t think you can quantify that,” Brown said about what a podium performance would mean. “Just to go through what he’s been through …
“I’ll probably be the one doing the crying.”
When: Class 3A, Friday; Class 4A, Saturday. Prelims start at 9 a.m., diving at 1:30 and finals at 5:30.
Where: Sailfish Splash Waterpark Aquatic Athletics Center, Stuart