Daniel Li remembers the first time he took a dip in the pool.
He was 5 years old when his parents took him to the local YMCA to get him to learn how to swim.
It involved a lot of crying. Lots and lots of crying.
“I hated the idea of putting my head under water,” he said.
Eventually he grew into it, and then it became a regular Sunday routine for him.
That childhood habit has paid off.
Now a senior at San Marino High School, Li is a two-time CIF State champion, and is a CIF Southern Section winner and record holder.
The latest addition to his accolades: commitment to Stanford University.
“I think it’s wonderful,” San Marino swim coach Casey Holcomb said. “He’s an incredible athlete and swimmer, and I wish him the best. He has the opportunity not only to succeed at the collegiate level in swimming, but also academically.”
Li made his commitment in January, but announced his decision much later due to a university rule that required him to be admitted to the school before sharing the news.
The Titans senior was originally drawn to Ivy League schools such as Harvard and Princeton — universities that offered both standout swimming and academic programs. Eventually, the Titans senior narrowed his choices to Stanford and Princeton.
When it came to decision time, Li reached out to colleagues who experienced a similar predicament to help with his final pick.
“What really made the difference was pretty much the athletic environment for both schools,” he said.
In terms of academic support, Princeton was not as helpful as Stanford, Li said. For example, it would be hard for Li to make up a test if it occurs during a swim meet. The financial package Princeton offered wasn’t as attractive as Stanford’s deal either, he added.
Another factor in his decision was competition, not just from conference opponents, but within the respective swim programs as well. He said Stanford’s team is a bit faster than Princeton’s, so it would be “better to race faster people.”
The Titans senior’s specialty is the 100-yard breaststroke where he holds the CIF Southern Section Division 2 record of 52.43 seconds in last year’s finals, the best time across all four divisions. He was busy during that meet, adding the 200 individual medley title following a 1:47.98 finish, and was part of the group that won the 200 medley relay in 1:32.42.
He also defended his 100 breaststroke crown at the CIF Swimming and Diving Championships in Fresno back in May, finishing the race in 52.83, an improvement from his title-winning mark of 53.79 in the same event the year before. Both times are considered All-American finishes.
“He’s putting the San Marino breaststroke record out of reach [this year],” said Holcomb, who added Li will eye the school record in the 50 and 100 freestyle races as well.
Location played another key role in Li’s decision. The senior plans to study computer science, and with Stanford situated in the heart of Silicon Valley, it was an easy choice for Li. Of course, the Bay Area is much closer to home than the East Coast.
“I knew the area much better than I knew New Jersey,” said Li, who has spent his entire life in California.
Li’s commitment was made before all the drama surrounding the Pac-12 conference, which formerly included UCLA, USC, Oregon and Stanford, among other universities in the West.
After UCLA and USC announced their jump to the Big Ten in June 2022, other teams such as Colorado, Oregon and Washington followed suit and joined other conferences, leaving the Pac-12 in disarray.
Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley, joined the Atlantic Coast Conference, facing the likes of Duke, Miami, Clemson and the University of North Carolina beginning in 2024.
“It’s definitely going to be a hassle to travel to dual meets — having to fly halfway across the country every time,” Li said. “… I’m pretty indifferent about it. I’m just worried about the travel and stuff.”
Though traveling could cause headaches, Li said quality racers who are coming into the conference will make up for it. He has met swimmers from national meets who have committed to ACC schools and compete in the same events he swims in and looks forward to competing against them.
Still, a senior season awaits him, and it all coincides with Olympic trials, which means a lot of juggling for Li in his final high school year.
“I think he just wants to do well for the team, and he wants the team to do well,” Holcomb said. “But he has his own personal goals for the breaststroke and the [individual medley], which are his two main events.”
Holcomb has coached San Marino since 1996, and of all the swimmers he’s mentored, Li stands out above the rest.
“As far as all-around swimmers, I haven’t had anybody like him,” said Holcomb, who teaches AP government at SMHS with Li being one of his students.
Li began competitively swimming when he was 7 when his parents hired a private coach for him to work on his skills. He joined the Rose Bowl Aquatics when he was 12 and is still part of the organization today.
Li was in eighth grade when the pandemic lockdowns started to shutter communities, and pools. With no pool at home and no facilities open, he focused on cardio training. This included plenty of burpees and push-ups.
COVID restrictions started to ease when Li entered his freshman year, and it was back to work for him at the Rose Bowl.
For now, he’s focused on improving on the small things like his pullouts and turns, and adding a bit more cardio for the competition ahead. But when it comes to meets, it’ll be business as usual.
“I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing because it’s working,” Li said.
In the meantime, Li hopes to bring a positive atmosphere at San Marino during the season. He especially hopes to uplift the younger Titans swimmers, mostly juniors who he sees competing at the Rose Bowl.
“I see them putting in the work, but the problem is, sometimes, they get way too nervous before their race, so if I can do anything to ease that pressure off of them, then I feel like I’ve done my job,” he said.
First published in the Sept. 28 issue of the San Marino Tribune