Last summer, Morgon Henderson-Kunz went to America's heartland as one of the nation's most distinguished high school swimmers and an unstoppable force in Oregon since his freshman year.
He left humbled.
Henderson-Kunz was in Omaha, Neb., for the U.S. Olympic Trials, where he hoped to earn a trip to Beijing for the Summer Olympics in both the 50- and 100-meter freestyle.
He soon discovered it wasn't like any
competition he'd been to before. Not when he saw swimming giants like Jason Lezak, Cullen Jones, Garrett Weber-Gale and some guy named Michael Phelps dominate the Trials.
Henderson-Kunz, one of the youngest swimmers in his events, didn't make it past the first heat in either race.
"It was bittersweet," says Henderson-Kunz of his experience. "It was a really nice
opportunity to be there, but I didn't do well. Even finishing second would've been a
disappointment. It really gives perspective on how much you have to improve. I felt like a big guy before, but when I saw those guys, I thought I was 5.
"I hate losing," he adds. "Losing is not fun, no matter how you slice it."
After the Trials, Henderson-Kunz realized that if he wanted to take his swimming to another level, he would need to get a lot stronger. Since the fall, he's worked with his Tualatin Hills Swim Club coach, Linck Bergen, on a more intense weightlifting program to go with his daily training in the pool.
He can't wait to see how the training pays off at the state meet in February, but it's fair to say opponents aren't exactly savoring the opportunity to go up against a new-and-improved Henderson-Kunz.
The USC-bound senior, who attends Arts & Communications Magnet Academy (Beaverton, Ore.) but
competes for Westview because his school doesn't have a swim team, already had five individual state titles and three first-place relay finishes to his credit heading into this season.
Henderson-Kunz began swimming at age 5, following the lead of his older sister, Christine, who swam for St. Mary's of Portland and graduated in 2004. She taught him the importance of hard work and perseverance: Despite an allergy to chlorine that caused severe asthma attacks if she was in the pool for too long, Christine kept on competing.
"I've never been able to match her work ethic, unfortunately," says Henderson-Kunz. "It's a goal of mine."
Considering his competitiveness, he'll probably achieve it.
"He's motivated by continuously breaking his own goals," says his sister.
During the early stages of his swimming career, Henderson-Kunz wondered if
the sport was right for him and even
contemplated quitting when he was in
"It seemed liked there were better things to do," he says.
But once he talked with his parents, Henderson-Kunz understood that swimming could pay off in the long run, and he grew to once again love the pool. And after he began practicing with Bergen, Henderson-Kunz's talent began to flourish.
"He's pretty much done it all," Henderson-Kunz says of his coach. "He's helped refine my stroke and my training habits and helped instill my drive to win."
By the time Henderson-Kunz was a freshman, he was ready to announce his arrival on the Oregon high school swimming scene. At the Class 4A state meet, he won the 100-yard free (Oregon high school events are measured in yards, national events in meters) against a field composed of upperclassmen.
"You could tell there was a big size difference between him and the rest of the sprinters," says Westview swim coach Melinda Miller. "For him to go out there and win the 100 was awesome."
Henderson-Kunz also swam on the winning 400 free relay team as Westview finished second in the team standings.
While his performance as a freshman was impressive, it paled in comparison to what he delivered the following year. In the 100 free at the Class 6A state meet, Henderson-Kunz blew away the field with a first-place time of 45.20, which shattered the state record of 45.73 set by Casey Harmon of Beaverton in 1993. He added a victory in the 50 free for good measure.
Later that summer, he and current Stanford star Austin Staab tied for first and set a meet record in the 100-meter free (50.84) at the Speedo Junior National Championships in Indianapolis.
During his junior year, Henderson-Kunz earned a silver medal in the 400 free relay while competing for the U.S. National Junior Team at the Victorian Championships in Australia.
Back at Westview, he broke his own Oregon record in winning the 100 free (45.00) and
captured his second straight state title in the 50 free (20.68) while leading the 400 free (3:09.61) and 200 free (1:26.36) relay teams to first-place finishes last year. The 400 free relay time set a state record, while Henderson-Kunz's marks in the 50 and 100 ranked in the Top 10 nationally in the 17-18 age group.
Still, Henderson-Kunz isn't satisfied.
"The state titles are great, but they mean nothing if you don't improve," he says.
But while swimming is largely an individual sport, Henderson-Kunz takes pride in competing for the Wildcats. It would be easy for him to focus solely on club swimming, but Henderson-Kunz has always enjoyed the camaraderie of the Westview squad.
"Even though I don't go there, I still feel like a part of the team," he says.
After high school, Henderson-Kunz will
concentrate on developing into an Olympic-level swimmer like the ones he was so impressed with back in Omaha. Bergen, for one, thinks his prized pupil has what it takes.
"He's got the skills," says Bergen. "He's got the body and the frame to get in the physical condition. Can he put it all together? That's the big question, and I think he wants to and I think he will."
Jon Mahoney covers high school sports for ESPN RISE.