By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
Kim Vandenberg won bronze with the women’s 4x200 free relay in Beijing, following up the silver she took at the2007 worlds in the 200 fly. The UCLA product, who turns 30 on Dec. 13, is still swimming. She has traveled the world several times over, training in Europe, and continues to mix sport and travel – in some of the most ravaged areas of the world as an ambassador for Kids Play International – as she explains in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. Can you tell us where you went on your trip?
Kim: In October, I spent two weeks volunteering in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, Cambodia with Kids Play International (http://www.kidsplayintl.org) The organization was founded by three-time Olympic Skier Tracy Evans in 2008 with the mission of using sport as a catalyst to promote gender equity in communities impacted by genocide.
2. What did you do on the trip?
Kim: We visited local schools, orphanages, and women’s centers to connect and play sports with the children and young girls within the community. We focused on creating equal opportunities for the girls to play with the boys in all the games. We would have one girl and one boy partner together in the soccer exercises, for example, so they learn to work together and respect each other. A few of the days we had the chance to sightsee and explore the beauty of Cambodia, we took a boat tour of the fishing villages, woke up at 4am to see the sunrise over Angkor Wat, plus I got to swim in some incredible pools.
3. How did you get involved with that?
Kim: Tracy and I met through a mutual friend over email last year and then connected in person January of this year when I was visiting my relatives in Utah. We had coffee together discussing sports, travel, and most importantly Kids Play International. She asked me to become one of the Ambassadors of the organization and of course I wanted to be involved!
4. A broad question, but what did you learn about those places?
Kim: We were working with children who live in complete poverty, some don’t even have shoes or pants. Looking in from the outside, it seems like they have nothing but honestly I have never seen people who are so genuinely happy, their smiles radiate light and create this contagious positive energy. I fell in love with them every day. We spent one day visiting the Killing fields and genocide museum which opened my eyes to the unimaginable torture and atrocities of the Communist party Khmer Rouge. It was very intense to see and to absorb the stories of the Cambodian history.
5. What was the reception like where you went – how did those people respond to your visit?
Kim: Everyone was very welcoming, the children especially. When we arrived at the orphanages, the kids would come up to us smiling and instantly start holding our hands and speaking with us. Most of them were very open, however there were some children who have suffered from serious post traumatic stress and kept their distance. I also found that most people were open to talk to us about their families’ experiences during the genocide, which I found enlightening. Everyone loved playing sports with us as well which was exciting to see.
6. How did the trip affect you as a person?
Kim: The trip was one of the most incredible journeys I have ever experienced. Travel always brings perspective but this time that perspective was taken to another level. Every day was a learning experience, listening to the stories of the children in the orphanages or the women’s centers. I was able to appreciate all the opportunities I have been given throughout my life more than I could have imagined. I am so thankful to be able to do what I love and pursue my dreams. My self-perceived troubles pale in comparison to the realities these people live in on a day to day basis. Even in all the poverty and suffering, the Cambodians seemed to all share a gentle spirit. The kids were beyond thrilled to be given one little sticker or to be given a new tee shirt, their appreciation for what they have was pure. I am very much looking forward to returning next year.
7. I saw you played some soccer – what role do sports have in those children’s lives, and what do they play besides soccer – do they swim?
Kim: Unfortunately a lot of the children do not have access to sports fields or pools. Part of Kids Play International's goal is to fundraise to create multi sport fields in Rwanda and Cambodia. We saw local villagers swim in the rivers (which are polluted and brown) but there were no local YMCAs where children can go swim. If accessible, the kids do play soccer and some volleyball. Sports give children freedom to play, to laugh, and the ability to challenge themselves. Some of the other sports we played were volleyball, baseball, yoga, and some relay races. Tracy focuses on teaching the kids the Olympic values of excellence, friendship, and fair play.
8. What struck you most about the living conditions?
Kim: While we were walking through one of the villages, one family welcomed us into their hut which was built over a small river. The younger woman was cooking vegetables while her mother was speaking with us in Cambodian, although we couldn’t understand what she was saying, It was fascinating watching the women interact in their humble environment. The water was polluted and still the children were playing in it, the families slept on the floor of the hut with no bed, often with no pillow or blankets.
9. What did you eat and how was it?
Kim: The food was delicious! It was so fresh and healthy, I absolutely loved the curry dishes with brown rice and fresh vegetables. I also was a big fan of the fresh coconuts, banana chips, and sweet potato chips.
10. What did you learn about that part of the world that made a lasting impression on you?
Kim: The connections we were able to make with people without speaking the same language was powerful, Just the ability to communicate through a simple smile. When I saw the kids in complete bliss over playing with a soccer ball; it was a reminder to be in the moment and enjoy the simple things in life.
11. You and Natalie went to Spain, how was that, and what was it like travel-wise logistically – what was a fun or interesting thing you got to do?
Kim: Before Cambodia, I was in Spain with Natalie on a USO tour. It was definitely interesting to meet the Marines and listen to their personal stories, I was very intimidated and impressed by them. Natalie and I were able to explore the Moron Air base which was incredible! We met fighter pilots as well as the crew that refuels the aircrafts in flight. It was such a learning experience for me, It was an honor to be there. Plus, it was fun to see Natalie again; I miss training with her everyday – we swam together at Cal in 2011-2012.
12. You must have a good feeling for Spain and their appreciation of sport, what kind of impression did that country make on you compared to what we hear in the news (about the unemployment, etc)?
Kim: I’ve always loved the culture of Spain. I spent a few days in Seville after the USO tour before I flew to Cambodia. I found a local gym at which to train and enjoyed watching the different classes going on, one class was a mix of dance and yoga which looked like fun. In general, I have found that the Spanish are welcoming, passionate, and full of life. Plus the prosciutto there is out of this world.
13. You and Natalie worked with the kids of military personnel, what did that mean to you and how does it compare to the stars of the sport who motivated and inspired you when you were that age?
Kim: Natalie and I had a great time workings with the kids of the military personnel. It's important to give back and inspire the younger generations of swimmers, I remember when I was their age I idolized Misty Hyman, Gary Hall Jr. and Lenny Krayzelburg.
14. How were the kids as swimmers and what did it mean to you to give them some direction and motivation?
Kim: The swimmers were enthusiastic and were of all ages ranging from 6-16. We explained to them a few of our favorite drills and demonstrated correct body position. We had a good time working with them, answering their questions, and getting to hear some of their stories.
15. What are you doing career-wise right now and where are you living?
Kim: I am still living in New York City. I just finished an internship with Photographer Rebecca Handler. I have always been interested and inspired by photography, so getting experience in the field was something I have always wanted to do. I loved getting to work with such creative people in an environment that encouraged exploring the imagination. It gave me a nice balance to my athletic lifestyle. Now, I am currently working on an active swimwear line Vandeau with a former Ralph Lauren Designer here in the city.
16. Are you still swimming and are you competing again? If so, when?
Kim: Yes, I am still swimming on my own. I am competing in Brazil at the end of this month and again in Russia before Christmas. I will probably do a few of the Arena Grand Prix meets as well. There is a swim meet in Brussels at the end of January at which I would like to swim, we’ll see! I often feel like there’s so much to do with not enough time.
17. Looking back on your amazing career, when we first talked you were at UCLA, could you ever have expected in 2013 to have been an Olympian, on all those international teams, and gone so many places?
Kim: I never would have imagined that I would have been able to travel the world doing what I love. It’s been magic.
18. What do you think of the current state of USA Swimming on the women’s side, and who are you watching and why?
Kim: USA Swimming has always been full of depth and talent. I am watching Elizabeth Pelton, Gillian Ryan, and Lia Neal. They are all strong swimmers with positive attitudes, resilient and highly motivated. I admire those qualities and I’ve always enjoyed watching them race.
19. Looking back, please share one or two particular memories from your competitive career that standout in your mind?
Kim: That’s a hard question! There are too many memories that stand out but I would say racing the world record holder Jessicah Schipper at the World Championships in the 200 fly and making the Olympic team in 2008 were my top two.
20. You have done so much outside the water with your career, and that is so admirable – how has swimming shaped who you are now as a mature adult?
Kim: Swimming has given me so many gifts throughout the years, the gift of perseverance, the gift of humility, and the gift of appreciation. Swimming has been such a big part of my life since as long as I can remember, I realize how blessed I have been to have been given incredible opportunities to swim with some of the fastest swimmers in the world. I hope I can give back to the community that allowed me to explore my own self perceived limits and grow as a person. I continue to give swim clinics around the world and enjoy working with the kids on goal setting and sharing my experiences with them.