A splash of balance

As his teammate touches the pool wall, Ryan Xiao dives in. After 10 yards of kicking, he surfaces, taking explosive freestyle strokes that propel through the water. By the end of the leg, Xiao closes the gap, bringing Cedar Shoals from sixth to third place where the Cedar Shoals Aqua Jags would finish. 

Joining the team in 2019, Xiao is in his fourth season with the Cedar swim team. While Xiao competes in multiple events, he mainly enjoys the 200-yard breaststroke and the breastroke leg of the four person relay. 

“It (breaststroke) has been my best stroke since I was a kid. It’s not one of the hardest because it’s not as physically demanding as the butterfly stroke is. It’s more technique, and since I’ve been swimming from a young age, it’s been easy to hone in on the technique,” Xiao said. 

Along with swimming for Cedar, Xiao has also swam with the Athens Bulldog Swim Club (ABSC), a top year-round swim team, for over 10 years.

“My mom and dad wanted me to do a sport, so I first tried soccer and wasn’t great at it. My older brother had been swimming at the time so I gave that a try and I have been doing year-round swimming ever since,” Xiao said.

A nationally accredited swim team with multiple gold medals in state and national competitions, ABSC has been involved with Olympic-level swimmers, such as gold medalist Maritza Correia and ten-time Olympic medalist Allison Schmitt, and participants made appearances in the World Student Games, the highest level of competition for the club. Earlier this year, Xiao finished 7th out of 14 in the finals for the 200-yard breaststroke at the 2023 Northeast Divisional Championships.

Up until last year, Xiao’s swimming career had been pretty smooth sailing. 

However, last September, after losing 10 pounds in a month and seeing an endocrinologist, Xiao was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes: a chronic disease that occurs when the pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin or if the body is unable to effectively use the insulin. Since receiving his diagnosis, Xiao has been adapting to his new lifestyle.

“It’s been a difficult adjustment but it’s also interesting and is a new experience,” Xiao said. “The doctors said it’s a big change in my life and that I’m going to have to get used to it, but 2 million people have it so I think I’ve really adjusted well.” 

While Xiao doesn’t have specific dietary restrictions, he does have to cut down on certain foods he really enjoys.

“Prior to being diagnosed with diabetes, I ate a lot of fast food like McDonalds, but with the diagnosis, I have to try not to eat as much of it,” Xiao said.

Head swim coach Makayla Powell says diabetes hasn’t negatively affected Xiao’s swimming career. Besides missing an occasional swim meet for doctor’s appointments, Powell notes the positives having diabetes have brought to Xiao as a person. 

“If anything it’s made Ryan more of a leader. He’s able to overcome something that’s super difficult that I’m sure nobody can imagine happening to them. To be able to take it in his stride and overcome it and not have it completely disrupt his life is really admirable,” Powell said.

Xiao qualified for the 2024 State Championship in the boys 200-yard freestyle relay. Powell sees Xiao’s qualification as beneficial for the entire team.

“I think it’s a morale boost,” Powell said. “It feels like a validation of your hard work. Even for those not making state cuts, you feel proud that your teammate is able to do that and go represent at state.”

Outside of swimming and managing his diabetes, Xiao focuses his time playing the french horn in Cedar Shoals’ wind ensemble. After playing the trumpet in middle school, Xiao saw switching to french horn as an opportunity to grow. 

FANTASTIC FRENCHIE: Junior Ryan Xiao plays the French Horn at the pre-LGPE band concert on February 15th, 2024. While Xiao participates in a few extracurricular activities, such as band and Beta Club, he recognizes that swimming limits his options. “I don’t do too much in clubs. I really wish I did. But, swimming takes a lot of time, it’s a lot of dedication,” Xiao said. Photo by Ethan Greene.

“I play french horn mostly because I didn’t want to play trumpet. I thought it was pretty boring. I heard about french horn because it had interesting parts, and I heard it was a hard instrument too, so I wanted to challenge myself,” Xiao said.

In addition to band, Xiao fills his school schedule with honors and AP classes. Powell, who was his ninth grade English teacher, describes Xiao as a lively character in the classroom.

“He is very smart but also very funny. It was always a very entertaining time. As a student he’s very dedicated, he always gets his work done. He’s very talkative and he is never afraid to answer questions or have a discussion,” Powell said.

Looking to the future, Xiao doesn’t foresee swimming in his college plans. He would like to dual enroll at UGA his senior year and has a few ideas for where he’d like to attend college and what he will study.

“I think I’m going to stay in state and probably go to Georgia Tech. But If I did have a reach school, I’d probably apply to Columbia. I think New York is a cool place and my oldest brother lives in New York,” Xiao said. “In terms of majors, maybe Business Management. Maybe something STEM related. Maybe computer science because that’s what my brother is doing, or maybe pre-med.”