“I’ve never had that many in a given year,” Thorne said. “In 22 years of coaching, it seems like every year you get an exchange student out and most of the time it’s a situation like, ‘Well, it’s a hobby, or just something to do.’
“With these kids, they’re all helping to score points.”
While some have adjusted more fluidly to the challenging daily training demands of varsity swimming than others, the overall consensus from Thorne is that the Bucs’ collection of foreign talent has been a huge surprise.
The group includes Japan’s Takuya Kobayashi; Germans Lucas Feiler and Janno Heins; Spain’s Luis Remolina; and Switzerland’s Dominik Schmidli.
Kobayashi has been the biggest breakthrough, as he’s developed into one of the Bucs most accomplished swimmers this season. He’s qualified for the Division 1 state finals in five events, but he’ll likely focus on just the 200- and 500-yard freestyle races.
At next Thursday’s O-K Red Conference meet at East Kentwood, however, Kobayashi will battle in the 200 individual medley and the 100 butterfly, a tribute to his versatility in the pool.
“I started swimming when I was just 3,” he said. “I quit, though, 2 years ago to switch to water polo.”
Kobayashi was one of the Bucs’ leading goal scorers in water polo during the fall and has made the transition to competitive swimming an easy one.
Kobayashi is living with teammate Aaron Venema’s family during the school year.
The pair has formed a tight bond in and out of the pool, as Venema was the first to fully grasp his new roommate’s talent in the water.
“At first, I thought (Kobayashi) would be kind of an intermediate swimmer,” Venema admitted after a meet earlier this season. “But he’s no joke.
“I remember one day we were practicing, and he’s like, ‘OK, now I’m going to swim hard.’ And he just blew by me. He’s already better than me.”
Called “Tak” by his teammates, Kobayashi quickly won them over with his humility and his cheerfulness.
“I remember I asked him at the start if he was any good, and he said, ‘Yeah, I’m alright,” said Heins. “He’s not arrogant at all, he’s very humble. I like that about him.”
“The students here are a lot more cheerful. I like that,” Kobayashi said. “They’re always smiling. If you need help, they’re always there. That’s very different from Japan.”
What would make Kobayashi smile is to make his mark on the Grand Haven record books. He currently is just 4 seconds shy of breaking the school record in the 500 freestyle at 4 minutes, 44 seconds, set in 2008 by Aaron Beebe.
“That would mean my name on the wall,” he said, as he pointed to the wall of records inside of the Grand Haven Community Aquatic Center. “My name is so strange, so people would think he must be an exchange student. That would be so cool.”
Feiler came back to swimming after a 3-year hiatus from the sport.
“I just came out myself. I heard there was an opportunity to swim during the winter, so I thought I’d give it a try,” he said.
Feiler spoke with no heavy accent as he grew up in a bilingual household. His mother was born in the United States but later moved to South Africa, while his father is German.
“My mom taught me both English and German,” he said. “Actually, a lot of people ask me why I speak so well.”
Fellow German Heins entered the pool as a rookie, and initially had difficulty picking up breathing techniques while competing.
“Swimming has helped me meet so many new people and new friends,” he said. “But I didn’t realize how much you had to dedicate yourself to the sport. It’s every day for 2-3 months and do nothing else. It’s been exhausting.”
Remolina said he began competing in what would be considered the fifth grade in Spain.
“We compete for our own in Spain,” he said. “It’s not a team win like here. It’s only the person who gets first or second.”
Remolina has dabbled in a number of events, from the butterfly to the 400 freestyle relay. His personal highlights this season have been winning his heat in both the 500 freestyle and 100 backstroke.
Schmidli has added great depth to the Bucs’ diving squad. His biggest accomplishment was overcoming a specific fear off the board.
“The reverses really scared me,” he said. “It took me a long time to learn and to get used to. But I can do it now.
“This is my first time (diving),” he added. “A friend who was doing diving and told me I should join because it was pretty fun. I did and it is really fun.”