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Kao ’18 Reflects on Stellar Swimming Season, Spiritual Growth 

By catherine elvy, staff writer

As a student athlete, Derek Kao readily has embraced the importance of teamwork and brotherhood, priorities the Yale College senior hopes to take into the medical field.

As a member of the men’s swimming team, the California native was proud to make a splash for the Bulldogs at meets across the region, including the 2018 Ivy League Championships. Likewise, Kao also sports a growing passion for reflecting his faith, both in and out of the pool.

“Yale swimming has taught me what it means to be part of a greater cause and purpose,” said Kao.

Notably, the pre-med student has flourished spiritually since arriving at Yale, especially via the mentorship he has received from Christian Union’s ministry.

Though there were some trials after arriving on campus, Kao said he has “grown in perspective in defining what it means to be a Christian.”


As such, the student leader allows the currents of his faith to flow openly, even to teammates. “I’ve had the opportunity to share my faith and have some good talks,” said Kao. “Athletes ask tough questions.”

Kao is especially proud to be part of the Class of 2018 contingent of the Yale men’s swimming and diving team.

Yale finished third at the Ivy League Championships. As well, the men set school records in 11 of the 21 events and posted numerous personal bests. Among them, the Bulldogs posted  strong performances in the 200-yard breaststroke, including Kao, who finished tenth at 1:57.85 for a major personal best.

“Our team broke so many records for the season. It was one of the fastest teams in Yale’s history,” said Kao.

Also during an Ivy League Championship 100-yard breaststroke event, Kao and Tim Dorje Wu ’21 both achieved major milestones when they became the first Bulldog swimmers to complete such a race in less than 54 seconds.

When he is not in the pool, Kao is helping to fulfill his role as a member of Christian Union’s student executive team. “[Christian Union] has been one of my main sources of support at Yale,” Kao said. “Over time, they have become really great brothers, the people I turn to for support and to hang out with. I’ve learned so much from them, as well.”

Kao is serving this year as the ministry’s campus kindness director, a job that has involved the distribution to the greater student body of treats, hot drinks, roses for Valentine’s Day, and thank-you cards for Thanksgiving. Kao also participates in Unorthojocks, Yale’s only athletic a cappella group.

Remarkably, Christian Union played a pivotal role in Kao’s decision to attend Yale. As a star high school athlete who was recruited by Yale, Kao selected the university after an encounter with a swimmer who also was part of Christian Union’s ministry. Click to Tweet

“I felt that if he was able to hold onto faith while on the team, that would be something I could do,” said Kao of the campus visit during his senior year.

Upon his arrival in New Haven, Kao immediately dove into a freshman Bible course via Christian Union. Since then, Ministry Director Clay Cromer has played a significant role in mentoring Kao on how to navigate collegiate culture and the consuming nature of athletics.

As well, Kao expressed appreciation for Cromer’s insights on how to reflect Christ’s heart to his teammates and his insights during a decision about whether to share off-campus housing with senior teammates. 

“Having Clay as a mentor helped me understand how to treat others as God wants me to treat them,” he said.

In turn, Cromer credited Kao for his vibrant, steadfast faith. “He’s well-grounded and connected to Christ, the True Vine,” said Cromer. “People open up to him, whether they are peers in his Bible course, younger students in the ministry, or fellow athletes on the Yale swim team.”

As he approaches gradation, Kao said he hopes to funnel some of his passion for swimming into coaching opportunities, including one this summer with a children’s league in Los Angeles County. “Swimming has been a huge part of my life,” he said.

During the fall, Kao will begin studies at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai to establish the foundation for a career as a surgeon. The molecular biophysics and biochemistry major hails from a family of faith-filled medical professionals, including a father who is a dentist and an uncle who is an ear, nose, and throat surgeon.

“I have seen the way they help other people,” said Kao of his family in Southern California. He especially was touched as he watched his uncle offer to pray for patients.

Also during his years  at Yale, Kao has been involved with the Yale chapter of Volunteers Around the World. During the summer before his junior year, Kao participated in an affiliated medical outreach to Peru where he helped pack supplies and take patient histories in remote mountainous communities.

The experience made quite an impact. He plans to revisit Peru this summer via Kingdom Pioneer Missions. The effort also is a precursor to the types of medical missionary trips he plans to incorporate into his medical career.

Just as he is committed to serving as a team player in the pool, Kao looks forward to being part of the team centered on the Great Commission.

“Ultimately, success comes as a result of collective effort and not solely any one person’s work,” said Kao.
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