Columbus High junior Panachai Kongja might have had the longest journey of any swimmer to get to the NSAA Swimming Championships that start on Friday in Lincoln.
Kongja is a foreign-exchange student from Thailand who went to school in Oregon last year.
While the junior has only been in the United States for two years, swimming is nothing new to him.
Kongja joined a swim team when he was 11 years old.
His hard work has paid off as the Thailand native will be competing in four events this weekend.
He'll be swimming in the 200-yard medley relay, 200 freestyle relay, 100 breaststroke and the 400 freestyle relay. Konjga and 12 others make up this year's Columbus High state swimming contingent.
"It feels really good," he said. "It's been a great season. I'm really excited."
Kongja first joined the swim team in Thailand when his dad wanted him to learn basic swimming skills to survive in the water.
Just a year later, he started competing on the swim team, eventually finding a passion for training and winning.
"It's fun practicing, hanging out with friends and racing," Kongja said.
Kongja also competed in swimming in Oregon last year where he helped Scappoose High to a sixth-place finish in the 200 freestyle relay at the OSAA State Championships.
He's hoping to have another successful outing in his first Nebraska state championship.
"This season my goal is to just to make it to finals," he said. "It would mean so much to me. It's been my dream to swim fast and compete in the U.S., especially at state, the highest level of competition."
While Kongja is all business in the water, on the pool deck and elsewhere, teammates and coaches say he's always sending out positive vibes.
"He's an amazing guy," junior Josue Mendez said. "He's great to have on the team. He has an amazing attitude.
"He's something different. We've always had foreign exchange students, but nothing compared to him. He's a very good swimmer. We're excited to have him next year again."
Kongja isn't the only Discoverer going to state.
Columbus junior Josue Mendez, senior Jayven Krepel, sophomore Jaden Miller, junior Caleb Kirkpatrick, junior Ben Jacobs, junior Maddisen Schulz, senior Emily Miksch, junior Morgan Johansen, freshman Shae Drymon, junior Kaira Dallman, senior Madeline Hundall and senior Macy Blaser are the CHS athletes that'll be competing this weekend.
"As a swim team, we always try to be better every year," head coach Alyssa Dillon said. "I'm really excited. Although it's my first year with the team, we qualified all six relays, which didn't happen last year.
"Also last year, we only had three individuals qualify, and this year we have five. The fact that we had more qualify for state this year is awesome."
Columbus was shut out of Saturday finals in 2019. The Discoverers are hoping to change that and make 2020 a two-day trip.
Finals are for the top 16 times in preliminary heats. Currently, top Columbus times are outside the top 16.
The girls 200-yard medley is the highest rated event for CHS, sitting in 21st place on the psych sheet.
The boys 200 medley is their highest-ranked event as well, currently sitting in 23rd place.
"On our relays, we really have to push it," Dillion said. "That's one of my personal goals is to get one event into Saturday's finals. That was one of my goals from the beginning of the year."
On top of all six relays qualifying, Schulz will be competing in the 100 backstroke, Miksch will swim in the 100 breaststroke, Mendez will compete in the 100 breaststroke and Krepel will race in the 100 backstroke.
Miksch, who will be swimming at the University of Nebraska-Kearney next year, said that she feels more relaxed going into this year's championships.
"If anything, it doesn't feel as important," she said. "This isn't my last year of swimming. But I think if it would have been, I would have been more sentimental. I'm just really excited to go have a good time. I'm not really super nervous."
Miksch currently holds the 22nd fastest time in the breaststroke.
Friday's action begins at 9 a.m. at Bob Devaney Sports Center.
Peter Huguenin is a sports reporter for The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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