Already one of the most decorated individual high school swimmers in area lore in his first two years at Crescenta Valley High, the one achievement that had eluded Young Tae Seo was a CIF Southern Section Division II team championship.
It wasn't for lack of motivation or focus on the task, says Falcons Coach Jan Sakonju.
"That's the great thing about him, [the CIF team title] has actually been his goal since he was a freshman, to get us there," Sakonju says. "He's always been very team-oriented. You don't always get that in such an individualized sport, but he's always pushed for our team to excel and that's what also makes him a special athlete."
Seo has always displayed the ability and willingness to use his stunning individual talent for the greater good of the team — with Pacific League team titles and top-three team finishes in CIF highlighting his first two years as a Falcon — but never so much as in his junior season.
In addition to scoring a bounty of points with individual wins in the 200-yard individual medley and 500 freestyle, Seo swam the anchor leg of the 400-freestyle relay win that clinched the program's first championship since 2000.
"My favorite part of the CIF finals was the 400 free relay," says Seo, who was caught on the front 50 by Damien's Jason Haney, but held him off in a photo finish by .42 seconds at the end to win the relay and allow the Falcons to edge the runner-up Spartans, 301-293. "That I will never forget. We watched it over and over again when we came to school as a team and we still get nervous watching that, we get so excited."
No other boys' swimming team in the area equaled what the Falcons accomplished this season, just as no other individual athlete was able to claim as much success as Seo.
As a result, Seo was voted the All-Area Boys' Swimmer of the Year by the sportswriters and editors of the Glendale News-Press, Burbank Leader, Pasadena Sun and La Cañada Valley Sun for the third year in a row.
"I'm happy that I won again at CIF," Seo says. "The team won, that's the best part. We enjoyed it. We didn't get nervous this time, we just had fun. It was the best high school year ever, I will never forget it."
Seo and the Falcons began the season with the clear goal of ascending to the pinnacle of Division II after stumbling as the favorite last season. Adding to the urgency was the fact that senior Louis Wojciechowski — one third of the Falcons' core trio along with Seo and junior Harrison Thai — was in his last year at CV.
But while the Falcons' focus may have ultimately been on the last meet of the season, it didn't stop Seo and Co. from dominating just about every other meet they swam along the way.
Early in the season, Seo picked up a couple of wins in the 200-individual medley and 200 breaststroke in the Falcons' dual-meet clash with powerhouse Loyola, which would go on to place third in Division I.
In the March 16 Pacific League relays, which the Falcons dominated with six total wins, Seo was a part of three winning combinations. It was only the beginning of league dominance for CV, which would go unbeaten in league and put on another stellar show at the league finals on May 3.
The Falcons went into the league finals at Burbank High having just crushed archrival Arcadia, 117.5-52-5, on April 25, in a meet that saw Seo double in the 200 and 500 freestyle, to secure at least a share of the league title for the 20th straight year.
In clinching an outright title in the league finals, Seo won the 500 freestyle handily and played a big role in clinching two relay titles, including the 400-freestyle relay team along with Thai Wojciechowski and Edward Yi that established a new league record.
"He's just a good teammate to have," Wojciechowski says. "He'll probably end up wining both [of his CIF] events again next year. He's got a bright future ahead of him because he can swim pretty much anything."
But really it was all just a precursor to the CIF finals May 12 at Riverside Aquatics Center, where Seo and Co. approached the pressure and expectations with a more relaxed attitude than the previous year.
"It was very special because we are going to lose Louis next year," Seo says of the team's mindset. "We're not going to have the same three. It was special because I was a part of that team and we just had fun. We didn't focus on trying to win."
But win they did, starting with the first event of the day, in which the Falcons team of Seo, Thai, Jacob Ksendov and Antonio Camarillo captured the 200-medley relay in 1:35.51.
Seo also won the 500 freestyle in 4:28.95 and the 100 breaststroke in a mark of 55.91 that was just .10 of a second off his own 2011 meet record.
But he would be asked to bring it home in the most important swim of the day when the meet came down to the 400-freestyle relay, in which Crescenta Valley needed only to finish ahead of Damien to avoid second place or a shared title.
Seo was slotted into the anchor leg of the relay, normally Wojciechowski's role, in order to give Seo a few extra moments of recovery time after his breaststroke race, Sakonju said.
The Falcons had a considerable lead by the time Wojciechowski turned in the stellar final swim of his high school career, but Damien and Haney weren't conceding anything. And despite being caught by Haney, neither was Seo.
"I knew he was going to bring it," Wojciechowski said of his teammate. "I knew he wasn't going to lose it at the very end."
With as many occasions as Seo has had to celebrate personal success, the group revelry that exploded on the pool deck and continued into the pool following the thrilling win showed one of the area's ultimate competitors in a different light — surrounded by joyous teammates, chanting his name and celebrating his role in the ultimate team achievement.
"He was the anchor that had to hold off that Damien swimmer to win that last race," Sakonju says. "I think there's probably very few moments in any athlete's career that they get to experience that, so I was extremely happy for him. ...When they had won that title, just the pride that he felt that he was very much a part of that.
"When you see somebody who does everything so right — work hard, train hard, be dedicated to his teammates — it's like a perfect sports story."
It was far from the end of the story for Seo, though, who hardly took a break between chapters. Since the season ended, Seo has kept busy, making hisU.S. Olympic TeamTrials debut in June at the CenturyLink Center in Omaha. He didn't make the London-bound squad, but it doesn't figure to be his last trials or the last word on the subject for an athlete who doesn't take defeat lying down.
"Since he was a freshman, his work ethic has just been phenomenal," Sakonju says. "In winning CIF we've had all these recognitions that we've had to attend and he's not been able to attend any of them because he's been going to practice or he has a swim meet. He never stops working. During the season it's the same thing. ...That work ethic has certainly translated into tremendous success."
And, of course, a great deal of Seo's motivation no doubt rests on what he and the Falcons can do next season.
"It's senior year so I'm going to have fun," Seo says. "I'll try to get the 200 IM record again and try to get the national high school record in the 100 breaststroke, but that's pretty hard, so I have to work on it.
"And [we'll] try to win another title for CV."