By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
Caitlin Leverenz could have been more than content with two team NCAA Championships in college at Cal-Berkeley, and all the individual All-American honors. But after finishing third in the 200 breaststroke and fourth in both IMs (200 and 400) at the 2008 Olympic Trials, she wanted another chance. And she made the most of it in 2012, winning the 200 IM at Trials, and taking second in the 400 IM. She followed it up with a bronze in the 200 IM at the Olympics and finaled in the 400 IM, claiming sixth in London. She’s not done yet, though she is at a different place in her life, as she explains in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. How’s swimming going?
Caitlin: It’s going awesome. Especially since I graduated, which is really exciting. Now my full energy can be on swimming, which I am really excited about.
2. Different settings on the alarm clock now?
Caitlin: I have never had that in my life – there has always been school, so focusing on swimming now is really nice. I am at Cal in our tiny pro group. We have a really good group though, really tough racing all the time. My goal is to make Pan Pacs this summer and the Olympic team in 2016.
3. So life has changed out of the pool for you?
Caitlin: I am engaged! His name is Collin Smith, and he plays water polo at Cal. We have a puppy, Tebow, who is 5 months old and is a great stress reliever! We’re on the way to take him for a walk now. I’ve gone surfing with Collin – he’s from San Diego so he taught me how to surf.
4. Do you look back on college swimming and understand how you handled it all time-wise?
Caitlin: I was just telling someone during the summer when we are going through hard training and all we do is sleep because we’re so exhausted… I think, “How did we add in school on top of all this?” I literally don’t know how we did it.
5. A degree from Cal Berkeley though, that’ll open doors throughout life, won’t it?
Caitlin: It was so worth it. I am proud of getting through that degree, getting into this university and working through it. Having the degree means so much. Cal is challenging, even when people say, “Oh, that one class is an easy class,” it means you will still work hard at Cal. Everything is challenging. It’s competitive.
6. You go from the best swimmers in the pool to some of the best students in the world in the classroom?
Caitlin: There is competition in the classroom, absolutely. It’s the Number one public university in the world and I wouldn’t have changed coming here for anything. I am so proud to have my degree from this university.
7. Who was the Caitlin at 2008 Trials compared to the one at 2012 Trials?
Caitlin: I think I was just such a different person. I was young and immature in 2008 – immature just age wise, and how I thought about swimming, what I knew about myself and my swimming. The environment at Cal for academics and swimming has allowed for an immense amount of growth. I came in as an ignorant, naïve teenager, not knowing what I was getting myself into, and I come out of it as someone who is very confident, and someone who knows what they need to do. I have learned so many life skills.
8. Did the close misses in 2008 affect you at 2012 Trials?
Caitlin: That experience absolutely helped me in 2012. There are great things going on with Teri McKeever being an amazing coach, and that contributed to my successes as well. I think those factors really helped with my personal growth.
9. Winning two of Teri’s three NCAA titles while you were there – does one stand out?
Caitlin: Every NCAA Championship, from the team titles to each individual title, is so different; I am proud of them all in different ways. Swimming is such an individual sport, but college swimming makes it a team sport. I had one of the best meets in my life at 2012 NCAAs, but I wasn’t swimming because I wanted to break records or win individual honors, I just knew that if we all did our best we could do amazing things together and win NCAAs. There are so many ways being part of this brings out the best in everyone. People ask me to compare Olympics to NCAAs, and those are just totally different feelings in totally different environments. But in different ways, they both mean a lot.
10. What’s it mean to swim for Coach McKeever?
Caitlin: I really respect and look up to Teri. I just can’t thank her enough or say her praises for everything she has done for my swimming career along with my personal growth. It’s an honor to keep swimming for her and to be in this environment. It’s an environment she holds sacred; she doesn’t just let anyone train with us, or swim at Cal for that matter. It’s an honor to stay at Cal.
11. What about swimming with Dana Vollmer even though she’s in different events?
Caitlin: Dana is just awesome. Our group is pretty small, so sometimes I have done a bit of training with Tom Shields and some of the guys in the pro group, like Anthony (Irvin) and Nathan, and some of the foreign swimmers. That also got me training again with Natalie (Coughlin, who trains with the men’s group full-time), and some foreign swimmers. But they are just on the other side of the pool. So even though we are under different coaches, we still work together. Unfortunately, I don’t get to do a lot of practice with Natalie and Nathan, which is too bad because all that power work and sprinting looks incredible – but I’m obviously (laughs) not a sprinter!
12. You still do the IMs, at this point is it hard to constantly get up for the 400 IM?
Caitlin: I think that’s kind of been something I have learned to embrace, and that is, the way to be better is to make myself uncomfortable. The 400 IM is just an uncomfortable event. I also swim doubles and triples at Grand Prix events – I know you can choose your own event, but for me, I get better wearing myself down and racing when I am tired, finding things that are tough and more of a challenge. I work through that, and it makes me better. My journey has definitely included accepting those challenges rather than changing up my program, but that’s just a personal choice and different things work for different people.
13. I have been interviewing you since before high school, and here you are, a college graduate – you are a veteran now, aren't you?
Caitlin: There are so many times I look back and think about all the teams I was on, and it seemed like I was always among the younger ones, and now I am about to be on the older end – that’s weird to me! But you know, we have teens that are swimming fast times, and that is so good for the sport and USA Swimming. I did that too back in the day, I’m proud to have been one of those swimmers. I think looking back on it, I didn’t appreciate it as much as I do now, being able to race fast people at that young age.
14. Are you still doing breaststroke as well?
Caitlin: I am still kind of struggling through some breaststroke. I can’t believe I was around 2:25 (in the 200 breast) when I was 13 or 14 years old. I had that fast time so young, and since 2008 I have not been able to get back there. But the other strokes have come along, and that makes my breaststroke better.
15. You make it sound like you are slow in the breaststroke but you’re anything but that, right?
Caitlin: I focus now on the IM, and in order to be good, I have to use my breaststroke as a weapon, so among IMers yes, my breaststroke is still among the better ones. But I like training for the IM, there’s a lot of different stimuli with changing strokes, and the evolution of training the IM has been exciting. I still swam breaststroke collegiately a lot, and on the medley relay. I think my butterfly is getting to the point though where it’s as good as my breaststroke.
16. It doesn’t hurt training with the world’s best flyer in Dana, does it?
Caitlin: Dana is phenomenal in terms of how she helps in the pool. She is the first person who will stop what she’s doing to help a teammate get better. Even if I told her, “Hey, I am switching to the 100 fly, will you help me?” she would stop what she was doing and say, “Heck yeah I will!” She is so committed to Teri and Cal and our program. Dana and I have done a lot of work together in the past year. We are really different people, and for a long time we weren’t the greatest of friends – we got along for the sake of the team. But in the last year we have been able to embrace our differences and become better friends. She’s such an amazing athlete and person. So we swim different events and go about our routines in different ways, but we’ve each learned from how the other does things to make us both better when it’s all said and done.
17. I used to love hearing your stories about your hometown of Tucson growing up – what kind of memories do you have now, years later?
Caitlin: I loved growing up in Tucson and for me Tucson is my home and where my family is. That’s where a huge part of my success came from, and where the foundation was set for the rest of my life. I had the greatest mom and family – I still do (laughs) have the greatest Mom and family! – but looking back now I realize how important that was to my success. When I go do clinics I tell the kids, “Go home and thank your parents because when you get older and have even more success you will realize you wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without their love and support.” My Mom did everything, from waking me up, making me breakfast, and taking me anywhere, or picking me up and driving me home at all times of the day and night. She listened to me patiently after successes and failures, and talked to me in a way that reached me. She would cheer me on when I did great or when I had a poor race, she just loved watching me. To me, that’s huge.
18. You mentioned Dana’s impact, from having your own frustration from 2008, how much admiration do you have for her going from 2004 to 2012 after missing in 2008, and her still being the best in the world?
Caitlin: Watching Dana break the world record and win the gold medal was huge. That was someone who I trained side-by-side with every day. Seeing her win like that was inspiring. I think the night after that was the final of the 200 IM, and Teri just looked at me and said, “Let’s not go home empty-handed.” I don’t think many people thought I would medal. I was definitely not the favorite. But I was willing to put myself out there and race, and by the time I got to the Olympics, I felt like I belonged there. You see my reaction, and you can’t tell if I’ve won gold, silver or bronze – it felt as good as gold though. I am still so proud, and get teary eyed thinking about it.
19. Having Missy out there, what’s that been like?
Caitlin: Missy is an awesome person. She has just stepped up in making the team better with her presence and training and how she is in the pool, but more than that just from the kind of person she is. We share the same faith and enjoy that together in Bible study, just diving in feet first and being so excited to be a part of that. She was so excited to help us grow as a team, and it was inspiring to see someone who is so young be so mature in so many ways. She’s blessed with a gift and she uses it to make other people feel very special.
20. What’s it like having Michael Phelps back on deck?
Caitlin: It is really cool! Michael, especially in 2012, was such a great teammate. That team was so special, but he was a big reason why it was so special. One thing I will never forget is that I was finishing a training swim at the pool after everyone else was done. I got out, and there is Michael, waiting for me. “I didn’t want you to be by yourself,” he said, and he rode the bus back with me. He really cared about people on that team so much more than anyone knows. I mean, he had no reason to wait for me other than he truly cares about people. I thought that was pretty great. When I saw him in Mesa (at the Arena Grand Prix last month), I said, “It’s great to see you again.” I feel honored to have swum with that man. He is so great as an athlete and such a legend in the sport, and has developed into such a leader.