For many students here at the University of Idaho, traveling to college can make for a difficult adjustment. Many students experience homesickness and longing for families that are hours away.
For senior freestyle swimmer and applied computation major Maryann Kok Cher Ling, home is an entire ocean away in Malaysia. But, she said that doesn’t stop her from leading her team and making big plans for the future.
Born in the city of Shah Alam, Kok Cher Ling said she began swimming when she was eight years old to blow off some steam and avoid burnout with her academic studies.
“I originally started swimming to better balance life and studies,” she said. “My friends got me into it and before long I was competing and it had taken over my life.”
That passion for the sport is what brought Kok Cher Ling to a very unlikely destination here in northern Idaho.
“Obviously Maryann brings a very unique worldview to the team,” head coach Mark Sowa said. “She had never been on a team before coming to the University of Idaho because the sport is much more individual-focused in her home, but she has become one of the best teammates I’ve ever coached.”
Once she arrived at Idaho, Kok Cher Ling was an immediate contributor. She took first place in the 50-meter freestyle five different times during her first year at Idaho, and she also took the top spot on the podium four times for the 100-meter freestyle.
“Often she puts too much pressure on herself, but her performance is always great and she is one of the best sprinters this team has seen,” Sowa said.
Throughout that first year, Kok Cher Ling experienced plenty of homesickness that contrasted heavily with her success in the pool.
Like many students studying far from home, Kok Cher Ling said she talked with her parents frequently.
“I was talking to my parents a lot and getting homesick. I’m very used to being comfortable in my own world, so I had to learn how to open up and connect to my teammates and my new home,” Kok Cher Ling said. Unlike many students, home was not within a five to eight-hour drive, making the adjustment even more difficult, she said.
“It all worked out once I really bought into the team,” she said. “Unlike at home, the team here is always together. We do so much to create a strong bond between teammates and that atmosphere has done so much to help me grow as a swimmer and person.”
That team atmosphere has produced good results so far this season. Kok Cher Ling and her relay teams were victorious in the 200-meter freestyle and 200-meter medley relays against the College of Idaho Oct. 6. She also was victorious in the 50-meter freestyle once again.
“I’m very excited to see how the rest of this season turns out because we’ve put in so much work and I feel like we’re going to be very prepared once the WAC championships come around,” Kok Cher Ling said.
She put up career bests in the WAC championships in 2016, and her best times of the 2016-17 season also came during the end-of-season meet.
The swim and dive team has a long and compartmentalized season unlike most other collegiate sports, but Sowa said he already believes that Kok Cher Ling is going to have an amazing year and a bright future.
“Her story really makes you appreciate the uniqueness of college sports,” he said. I think that story is going to culminate in some wonderful success for Maryann this season and in her future after college.”
There is plenty to be excited about, between her significant contributions to the team and her grad school aspirations. Kok Cher Ling proves that great things can be accomplished even when one is thousands of miles from home.
Jonah Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jonahpbaker