By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
Kaitlin Sandeno went from winning Olympic medals to helping heal hearts as the spokesperson for the Jessica Rees foundation’s NEGO (Never Ever Give Up) campaign to give “Joy Jars” to children suffering from cancer, which claimed young Jessica’s life – Jessica was a Mission Viejo swimmer. Sandeno talks about that, and her adventurous life, in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. Man, how do you look so amazing this many years after competition?
Kaitlin: Well, thank you first of all. Good genes, I guess. My sister is the same way. I tell my sisters, “You get prettier and prettier each year.” They’re older than me, and I am thankful, because that bodes (laughs) well.
2. How did you get involved with NEGU?
Kaitlin: It all came about when Jessie Rees was diagnosed in March of 2011 with an inoperable brain tumor. She was with the Mission Viejo Nadadores. They put together a swimathon for her at JSerra High School. Some of the Moms asked if I could come and bring some National Team members. I came down with Katie Hoff, Charlie Houchin, Michael Klueh, and Emily Brunemann. We got to meet Jessie. It was so heartwarming to see the event and to meet her. We stayed in touch via Facebook, and when she passed away, there was a celebration of life service for her, and I thought, “I definitely need to be there.” I was supposed to do this photo shoot for a French photographer, and we ended up doing a shoot with NEGU written all over my body – the artist did a great job painting me for three hours, and the pictures were amazing. Jessica’s father Erik emailed me, and said, “These pictures are incredible, thank you so much.” I wrote back, “Use them as you want if any good can come out of it.” He said, “Don’t do this because you feel like you have to.” I told him, “No, I have been so drawn to your little girl. I have had ups and downs, and whenever I tell my story, I always point out that I never gave up.” So to me, nothing is more rewarding than making a difference. It’s such a blessing the way the stars aligned and I was able to meet this angel and how she lives on in all of the lives she’s making better. Because of her, we spread love and joy to children fighting cancer, and sadly, it is everywhere – you either have gone through it, or you know someone going through it. This NEGU mission has grown so fast, so quickly, just from the grass roots of it. To reach out and be able to contribute with all of these amazing people is so refreshing; there are so many icky things going on in the world today, so I think it’s great that a lot of wonderful people want to make a difference.
3. What a great cause. As to swimming – hard transition here! – how about our women’s Olympic team this year?
Kaitlin: They are getting stronger and stronger each year now. I don’t think people outside of the swimming community realize how difficult it is to make our team because swimming is so competitive within our own country. Don’t get me wrong, the Olympics are the pinnacle, but it’s no easy task to make this team. I was proud to sit back and watch our team in London, both as an Olympian and an American.
4. Training for the IM – was that harder than being a freestyle specialist or a one-stroke swimmer?
Kaitlin: There was never a dull moment because I was always doing a different event (laughs) every day. It really mixed up practice. There was never a setting where I was tired of one stroke or the other; literally, I can say I swam a little bit of everything. It’s almost like (laughs) a bragging right!
5. How about Missy Franklin’s attitude in London?
Kaitlin: Oh yeah, that was very refreshing. It’s so cool to see an up-and-coming star be so genuinely excited and happy. Just the smiles on Missy’s face were so pure. They are so real. She’s very easy to relate to, especially for young girls. As athletes, it’s important we have these strong role models for the next generation to look up to, and Missy is filling that position really well.
6. What did you think of the Call me Maybe video?
Kaitlin: You know, it really made me realize the importance of social media. Do you remember talking to me in 2008 when I was sitting in my condo and you were telling me how important it was that I get on board with this and get a Facebook account? You gave me such a hard time about (laughs) it! A few weeks later I joined, and I am also on Twitter. That video went viral, and I think it helped promote these athletes – 15 million views gets people talking profusely about how amazing this team is. Swimming has done a nice job with that, and it’s shown how important social media is in brand building. It just blows my mind.
7. You were injured when you stopped swimming – how did you get better?
Kaitlin: After I was done swimming it took me a while to want to work out. I had that shoulder surgery as soon as I was done. I got to a point where I was like, “I don’t feel good, I have to figure this out.” I like working out now. I don’t work out like I’m crazy, but I did kind of re-learn how to work out, where I am not pushing myself too hard but I do enough to stay in shape and enjoy it. I still try to figure out what I am doing in the gym in terms of burning calories, doing interval training and so on. But I do enjoy going to the gym. I am a self-professed lover of sweets and I am known to indulge, but I just keep it all in moderation. I am also around people who enjoy fitness, which helps.
8. So I hear you are playing some soccer again – aren’t you pretty good at it?
Kaitlin: I played soccer with my niece’s team the other day. It’s always been a part of my life. I love wakeboarding in the summer, and I loved snowboarding too but I left that behind (after breaking her wrist). I don’t want to brag (laughs) but yes I am good at soccer. My parents were at the game I played in and they said, “You still have it.” I would really love to join a league but I am on the road a lot, and I wouldn’t want to miss practices or games. And the other night reminded me what a great workout it is, sprinting and walking.
9. How about the class Natalie Coughlin showed this year taking on a new role – and again bringing home gold but more importantly her leadership as a team captain?
Kaitlin: When you look back at people who have made a huge impact in the sport, Natalie is one of them. That’s a huge honor to have that status as a captain. She is the most decorated female swimmer, so her accomplishments speak for themselves. She’s also a great person.
10. You came back in 2004 after winning bronze in 2000, and cleaned up with one of each medal – what was that like, and how did it change from 2000 to ’04?
Kaitlin: In 2000 I felt like I had a lot of eyes and pressure on me. In 2004, I had a lot of injuries leading up to it, so I was kind of doing my own thing under the radar. So to have that kind of meet in Athens was kind of like a fairytale. In 2004, I was enjoying it, having the time of my life, and the stress didn’t creep in. That’s not to say you can’t perform under pressure – look at Michael Phelps, he has always had the pressure, and always risen to the occasion.
11. How did you feel watching Michael Phelps perform in London?
Kaitlin: He legitimately looked like he was happy to be there, and excited for his performances – even emotional on the podium. I was really happy to see him happy. I am proud to be friends with him and proud to see how he handled himself. I saw a maturity – I have known him since he was 15. I thought he represented himself really well in London, so classy in his interviews. I was just proud of how he handled everything. Even in the 400 IM when he didn’t medal, he handled it so well – and then look how he performed the rest of the meet – that’s the right way to go out.
12. Do you remember the 800 in 2000, where you won bronze?
Kaitlin: Bronze in 800 (laughs), oh my goodness, I’m like, “That’s such a blur – I don’t remember that.” But that gave me my first taste, to win one of those Olympic medals everyone was talking about. I got to the medal stand and I was like, “I want to do that again!”
13. Silver in the 400 IM in 2004 – how is that memory?
Kaitlin: My goal was to break 4:40, and that was a barrier I had been after for several years. Bob Bowman called it an out-of-body experience. To see my time I just went ballistic. I had overcome so much to break my first American record, and it belonged to Summer Sanders, who I always looked up to. A gold medal would have been sweet, but I was proud of that time and that performance.
14. So as a medalist in the 800 in 2000, what did you think of Katie Ledecky in London?
Kaitlin: That race was crazy! I was watching that; I will admit I am guilty of not following swimming that much anymore, so I had not heard that much about her. Wow, I thought, who is this girl? Can she hold this pace all the way through? That was a very, very impressive swim. That’s hard to sit through, to wait that long for her only race, yet look at what she did. Amazing.
15. You know Dana Vollmer from 2004 and then you both missed in 2008 – how proud of her are you for coming back in London since you saw what she went through?
Kaitlin: Dana Vollmer, incredible. You know, it’s that whole attitude of never ever giving up, the determination that just screams “Champion!” A lot of parents wonder what it takes to be the best, and it does involve a lot of training. But what separates good from great is mental toughness, and what Dana did was show mental toughness on her part.
16. What about your relay gold medal in the 4x200 in Athens – what did that mean to be with Natalie, Dana and Carly Piper to break a 17-year-old world record?
Kaitlin: I think it meant a lot because for the most part swimming is such an individual sport, training up and down in that black line. In 2004, it was my first time ever to be put on an international relay. It was a huge honor when I was told, “You are going to be the anchor,” and I took a lot of pride in that. To be on the podium was just so incredible, and to put our record in the books brought a sense of “team” because of what we accomplished.
17. Do you think Phelps silenced critics once and for all?
Kaitlin: What he accomplished we will never see again in our lifetime. We truly got to witness the greatest athlete in our sport. I got to train with him – I get to brag about that. That’s my number 1 question wherever I go, “Do you know Michael Phelps?” I can say yes. They also asked if I have (laughs) his phone number and the answer is yes. Then they asked if they can have it, and the (laughs) answer is, no.
18. Moving to Michigan when you were hurt and pushing through to 2008 Trials – I remember us talking a lot then, and that move, regardless of the result, was a very important part of your development as a person, wasn’t it?
Kaitlin: I get that a lot, “Do you regret moving to Michigan since you failed to make a third (Olympic) team?” Definitely not. I am a huge believer that everything happens for a reason. That move and that period weren’t for swimming; I made amazing relationships, and met people who have made lasting impressions on my life. That made me grow up and mature. Looking back on it, I benefitted in so many ways personally. It allowed me to spend more years with Erik Vent, who was and is one of my closest friends. Training with Michael Phelps, Klete Keller, Peter Vanderkaay, and Erik and the rest was priceless. There was never a dull moment. The cherry on top more than anything was that I got to spend almost three years with Jon Urbanchek, and I am so thankful and blessed for that. That man is one of the most incredible people I know, both as a coach, but more importantly as a friend.
19. How about your ol’ Club Wolverine buddy Allision Schmitt and what she did in London?
Kaitlin: I just love her attitude and how she makes other people around her feel better. Yeah, it’s great to be an amazing swimmer, but it means even more to be an amazing person. I applaud her parents; they are so incredible. She’s such a shining star, so effervescent, refreshing and fun. Then she gets in the water, and you are like, “Wow, you are really good!” You don’t think those go together, to be so happy and wonderful outside the pool, and then get in and tear it up. But she is just something special. She was in high school when she trained with us, and she’s just such a great person.
20. How do you feel looking back about what swimming has meant to you?
Kaitlin: Oh my gosh, I’ve always been so grateful to the sport for everything it gave to me, the opportunity and experiences. It just shaped who I am. It’s not everything I am, but it has shaped parts of me and I appreciate it. Once an Olympian, always an Olympian. Once a swimmer, always a swimmer. For me, I am able to use this platform, as an Olympic swimmer with these medals, that get people fired up, and help them be even more motivated to do something great, in or out of the water. This is about something so much bigger than myself, and it’s an honor that I can use it to make a difference in other people’s lives – there’s nothing better than that.