Kai Williams started swimming at an early age and was a member of the prestigious Club Wolverine during his formative years in the pool. But he says he didn’t fall in love with the sport until he jumped in the water at Pioneer High School.
“My career really started at Pioneer,” he says. “I really fell in love with the sport at Pioneer. You have 30 of your best friends with you five hours a day in a competitive environment and I like to compete. That was perfect for me.”
Williams swam for three years under the direction of longtime coach Denny Hill and one year for current coach Stefanie Kerska at Pioneer. He said both outstanding coaches helped set him up for success.
“They taught me how to work hard,” says Williams, who graduated in 2015 as the MHSAA state champion in the 200-yard freestyle. “They taught me how to train. They really showed me that whatever you put into your workout you will get out of it and I still believe that today.”
While at Pioneer, Williams was a seven-time NISCA All-American, 10-time MHSAA All-State selection, three-time USA Swimming Scholastic All-American and also was a three-year member of the varsity water polo team.
Pioneer was state runner-up his sophomore season. Kai’s brother, Koa, is on the Pioneers this season.
“Because of my brother I follow them,” he said. “They are having a great year.”
Williams also is having a great year at Michigan. But it took some time to reach great.
Williams says going from a state champion in high school to trying to compete just to get into the lineup at Michigan “took some adjustment.”
“I just tried to soak it in and keep working hard,” he said. “Being around some of the best swimmers in the world results in the best quality training so that’s how I approached it. When you have that quality of athlete pushing you every day you are going to get better and that helps you develop your own skills.”
Michigan’s roster comes from all over the globe. There are swimmers from Austria, Japan, Brazil, Australia, Mexico and Germany – and of course from all over the United States.
“Michigan is a very competitive team and they recruit internationally and are recruiting some of the best swimmers in the world,” says Williams. “A lot of guys see some big improvement here over the course of their careers. People probably plateau near the end a little bit. I’ve gotten lucky and have gotten better every year.”
Williams certainly has gotten better.
For example, one of the highlights of his freshman year was when he finished 36th in the 200-meter freestyle (1:52.57) at AT&T Winter Nationals – which, of course, is pretty impressive.
Fast forward to last season during his junior year. Williams made the All-Big Ten Second Team after finishing 11th in the 200-yard freestyle (1:36.34), 12th in the 200-yard backstroke (1:44.08) and 26th in the 500-yard freestyle (4:24.41).
His senior year is going splashingly well.
The Wolverines defeated Ohio State last week 202-98 in a dual-meet. Williams took first in the backstroke, winning by more than 2.5 seconds with a time of 1:46.06. At the UGA Fall Invite this season, Williams finished sixth in the 200-yard backstroke (1:42.63), sixth in the 200-yard freestyle (1:36.62), eighth in the 100-yard backstroke (48.40) and 21st in the 200-yard IM (1:48.15).
“This has been my best season and I’m really happy with how I’m doing and the team is really good,” he said.
Michigan is currently ranked fourth in the country in men’s swimming. The Wolverines traditionally are one of the best teams in the competitive Big Ten and often among the elite in the nation.
“The goal starts with winning the Big Ten and then take a shot at winning the National title,” Williams said. “There are a lot of good teams in the Big Ten. Indiana is fantastic this year.”
The Hoosiers recently beat U-M in a dual-meet but they will meet again when it matters most in the Big Ten championships.
After college, Williams plans on going to work and put his Michigan degree to good use. He is an electrical engineering major and is still deciding what exactly he wants to do after graduation.
Whatever he decides, it appears swimming is in its final lap in his life.
“This year is the end of the line for my swim career,” he said. “I’m taking it in every day and really enjoying it this year. Really savoring the last months of school.”
While he still has some races to swim, Williams says his career highlight so far is just making the team and being part of the Wolverines. He’s not only a part of the team, but a key contributor to this season’s success.