Saipan Import

Switching from events measured in meters to those measured in yards requires more than a little practice. But for Ashland High senior swimmer Kai Staal, that adjustment is barely worth a shrug compared to the rest of the life changes he's experienced since moving here from Saipan — a western Pacific island — last summer.

When describing his move from a tropical island chain to Ashland, Staal used the phrase "culture shock," and he wasn't exaggerating.

The school he attended in Saipan had 60 students. That includes two Caucasians, counting Staal.

His swim team consisted of himself, a 16-year old, "and about 20 little 10-year-olds."

One of Staal's favorite pastimes in Saipan was, of course, spear fishing. It's real simple: you swim 50- to 60-feet below the surface, hold as still as a statue until your lungs are about to explode, then impale the fish (try to do THAT at the duck pond!).

Family time was a little different, too. Here, for instance, he's not likely to skip practice because his dad calls and says that the waves are huge, grab the surfboards, we're leaving now.

But when his grandparents offered their home so that Staal could spend his senior year at Ashland High, it proved to be an offer too good to pass up. Not counting a lack of good Asian food, Staal, who was born in Ashland, so far has no regrets about the move.

"It's great," he said prior to Thursday's practice at Southern Oregon University. "I really enjoy it, personally. In my school back in Saipan there were no electives, so we took mandatory classes only. They were like college prep classes. Here, there's a lot more freedom.

"And, it's been really fun meeting all these new kids."

What wasn't fun for Staal, initially, was meeting the Oregon School Activities Association, which informed him in the fall that he was ineligible to compete for any Ashland High sports team. It was a crushing blow that forced him to spend most of the water polo season watching and rooting for his teammates poolside.

Luckily for Staal, he had a secret weapon on his side.

"My grandpa is a retired lawyer," Staal said, "and he's like, 'We've got to fight this.'"

They did, and Staal's battle for his senior season of eligibility eventually came down to a conference call with the OSAA, during which Staal made his case. With everything on the line, Staal delivered a 10-minute speech that explained why the OSAA's strict transfer policy, designed to deter high school recruiting, in this case should not apply.

Staal hung up the phone, then braced himself for the expected one- to two-day wait.

Turns out, the OSAA didn't need two days. Or two hours. Twenty minutes later, Staal got the answer he was looking for.

"I felt like I did a good job with my speech and kind of went inside my room and thought about it, and then I heard my grandma screaming," Staal said. "And I was like, 'What happened, what happened.' I couldn't stop smiling."

"It felt great," he added. "I thought I would have to be an assistant coach or something. I've never had the experience of being on an actual high school team. It turned the year around kind of."

It's worked out pretty well for the Grizzlies, too.

Besides being "a classy kid," says Ashland head coach Steve Mitzel, Staal also happens to be one of the best swimmers on the Grizzlies' roster. He's already shattered Ashland's 100-yard breaststroke record (1:01.84) — set in 1986, it was one of the program's longest-standing marks — and appears poised to set a new standard in the 50 freestyle as well.

Mitzel believes the success will continue.

"I think he's going to be in the top three in the 50 free and the 100 breast (at state)," Mitzel said.

But it's Staal's attitude that has most impressed Mitzel, who says that the team's newest addition is much more than just a naturally gifted swimmer.

"I'm not worried about breaking records," Mitzel said, "I just feel fortunate to have him on the team. Since I've met him, he's done nothing but impress me.

"I think the best thing that he's brought to the team is, even when he's under the weather, he's on deck and he's constantly looking to coach somebody and to help somebody. He'll fine-tune a freestyle stroke, or he'll talk about their turn. "… I like to bring those kind of kids in here and use them as a role model for the other kids."

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