High School Sports

Aces learn to cope in wake of tragedy

On March 16, East girls swim coach Joe Hutchinson chose to have a meeting instead of practice. It was a meeting filled with raw emotions.

The meeting was the day after the team lost a friend and teammate in Yuna Choi, who died, along with her mother and 9-year-old brother, in a wrong-way accident on the Kansas Turnpike. The Choi's father, Eunseo Choi, was not traveling with the family at the time of the accident.

Another friend and teammate, Hana Choi, Yuna's twin sister, survived with serious injuries.

The meeting was difficult as the team gathered to mourn.

"That's the first time that it hit a lot of us," sophomore Madelyn Ong said as she pressed her hand to her forehead and closed her eyes. "For the first time, 'This is actually happening. It's real.' "

"We really had to face what was going on," East senior Stacy Mar said. "I think it was definitely a good step in the entire process of healing."

Hutchinson said the team initially sat and looked at each other. Then the team set up a visitation schedule to see Hana Choi, to let her know she wasn't alone.

Two weeks have passed, but the Chois are still in the forefront of the East swim team's thoughts.

On March 25, before the Aces' first meet, the emotions surfaced.

"We had a moment last week, before the meet got started, and it was pretty emotional, pretty sad," Hutchinson said. "I wasn't really sure how it would go over. I thought it was something that we needed to do."

Mar agreed.

"I think we got through it really well, and we managed to support each other," she said.

On Thursday, after East's meet with Southeast, the Aces planned a team dinner and time to work on a scrap book for Hana to take with her to a rehabilitation hospital in Chicago.

The Aces have laughed as they remembered how Hana and Yuna bickered, and cried as they thought of never seeing Yuna. They remembered how both girls always seemed to have smiles on their faces.

Kaitie Shinsato's lasting memory is of the twins walking into school together. Ong said the twins are special because there's nothing negative to be said about them.

Hutchinson was able to tell the girls apart when they were together, and it was easier to do when they were swimming. Despite wearing the same suits, caps and goggles, he could tell them apart by their strokes.

East swim teams are usually close, something Hutchinson stresses. Because of the accident, those bonds have tightened.

"I have never felt closer to the entire team," Mar said.

Practice and meets have helped, too.

"It helps you escape reality for a little bit," Ong said. "... But it's just during practice."

There is a connection in the pool that goes beyond the team bonds, though.

"They were so involved in swimming," Mar said of the twins, who were middle-distance swimmers. "So we're still with them."

It's a constant memory.

The emotions will be raw for an unspecified time, and it will be different for each team member.

"I think as we go through the season, it's not that it's going to be forgotten or looked past," Hutchinson said. "It will get easier and easier as we go, to get to our new normal."

And there's sure to be tears along the way.

"Obviously," Mar said. "But eventually there will come a point where we smile when we think of them."