Kim Flores, left, is a special needs student who swam a dramatic 50-yard freestyle event Wednesday at the Empire League championships. Tori Gomez, right, helped him train for the race. They are both seniors at Kennedy.

Miller: Kim Flores gets loudest cheers after a last-place finish


LA PALMA – He finished last, so far behind that, by the time he was done, everyone else was out of the water.

Not that it really mattered, the pool deck empty anyway, all within reach already soaring above, lifted to mystical heights by the kid’s powerful spirit.

“It was absolutely incredible to see that many people all come together for one person,” teammate Tori Gomez says. “It was an amazing experience.”

Wrote one parent on Facebook: “I felt like I won by what I had witnessed.”

Kristina Hays authored that sentence after Kim Flores’ last-place finish, four hours after. Even then, she says, she was still struggling to not cry.

If your faith in the ability of sports to wonderfully unite is at all shaken these days, understand that this scene unfolded Wednesday during a preliminary heat of a high school swim meet, one featuring kids on the junior varsity.

The event’s star, however, was a Kennedy High senior, a special-needs student with Down syndrome.

Most of the estimated 700 people there – this was the six-team Empire League championships – had no idea who Kim Flores was as he entered the pool. Fifty phenomenal yards later, all those strangers were embracing Kim in beautiful cheers and adoring chaos.

“I keep playing the video,” says his mother, Meriam, who was unable to attend the meet because of her job. “Every night after work, I keep playing it and I keep crying.”

She has forwarded the cell-phone footage to relatives back in the Philippines, the Flores family having arrived in America only six years ago. Her sisters and her brother, Meriam assures, also keep crying.

The idea to have Kim join the Kennedy swim team came from the coach, Eric Corona, who last year saw Tustin High stage a race for special-needs students during a meet. As Corona watched, he says he kept thinking one thing, “Why aren’t we doing this?”

So he asked that question to John Teutimez, a special-education teacher at Kennedy. Teutimez loved the possibility and the fact that, in Kim, he had the perfect candidate.

Kim was comfortable in the water and already involved in extracurricular activities, like the school’s choir program. And he isn’t bashful, Kim needing little prodding last week to show off the dance moves his classmates love to see.

“He just doesn’t stop,” says Gomez, a senior recruited by Corona to serve as Kim’s personal coach. “He always wants to do more. I had to stop him a few times and tell him, ‘OK, let’s slow down and just focus on this.’ He is so strong-willed that he won’t give up.”

Originally, Corona planned to have Kim race in Kennedy’s final dual meet of the season. But, as he watched the kid’s swift progress – Kim only started practicing in early April – he realized a bigger stage would be more appropriate.

They assigned Kim to Lane 1, allowing Gomez to walk along the side of the pool and coach him during the race.

But first, just like all the Kennedy swimmers, Kim insisted on using a Sharpie to write his event and heat number on his forearm so he wouldn’t forget.

He swam the first half of his race – the 50-yard freestyle – with little notice. Once he reached the wall, as Gomez had coached him, Kim paused and counted out loud with her to 10, allowing him to catch his breath.

Then, as he started back, something unexpected happened. A sensation began to simmer and quickly rose to a boil as everyone realized what it was they were watching.

“I saw other teams, other coaches and swimmers, even the officials, cheering him on,” says Hays, a former swimming star at Kennedy whose son, Karl, is a freshman on the team. “I started bawling. Here I am, Ms. Competitive. I couldn’t believe it.”

By the time Kim touched the wall, everyone in the pool area might as well have been right there with Gomez, standing by Kim’s side.

He emerged from the water exhausted but smiling and, several hugs and high-fives later, stood encircled by his teammates.

Then the kid who arrived for this interview wearing braces on his teeth and the Batman logo Sharpied on his cheek shared another message – a more personal one – on top of the message he had just delivered with his swimming.

“He said, ‘You don’t give up. I know that I’m special, but I’m confident, too,’” Gomez says. “All of us were about to burst into tears. He inspired us all.”

Four hours later, using her Facebook page, Hays thanked Kim and all of the students at Kennedy for what she had just seen. She wrote about respect, friendship and love, about clearing obstacles and conquering differences.

She also wrote this: “Kim’s swimming and spirit touched everyone on that pool deck and I honestly believe each one of us is a better person for it.”

Moving words inspired by a moving performance, the most victorious of last-place finishes at a meet that, like never before, succeeded in identifying a champion.

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