By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
Chuck Katis’ love for magic began almost as early as his love for swimming.
Now, more than a decade later, the two go hand-in-hand in many ways.
A recent graduate of and All-American swimmer for the University of California-Berkeley, Katis and his twin sister, Jayme, started The Magic of Miracles, a nonprofit where a team of magicians perform for and teach magic to young cancer patients and others in need (Alzheimer’s patients, etc.) across the United States, before they were even teenagers.
The nonprofit’s presence is largely in Virginia, Maryland, Massachusetts and California, but with magician recruits traveling frequently (Katis included), they spread their message of good will and joy wherever they go.
Via the website, www.magicofmiracles.com, donations are accepted to purchase magic sets, books, DVDs, cards, and stuffed animals to leave behind with the patients. All gifts are tax deductible.
Katis said the push to start the nonprofit came from their mother, Joanne, who instilled in them a sense of responsibility to their community and a desire to give back to others whenever possible.
They started their pledge to give back by giving away stuffed animals – including Beanie Babies – to their local police department to give to children affected by crime or trauma.
A few years later and older, the twins got back into the idea of the program and started running drives around town for their project "Beanies for Angels." They collected friends' and classmates' stuffed animals, packaged them in groups of 100 and delivered them to every Fairfax County fire and rescue station.
“We definitely owe our desire to help others to our mother,” Katis said. “She always wanted us to know that there is a world beyond our own, and people everywhere need help, and it’s our duty to do something to help them.”
During a family trip to London, Katis became enamored with a street vendor performing magic – card tricks, mostly.
Mystified by his sleight of hand, he said he knew right away it was something he wanted to learn to do himself. His mom bought him a magic kit, and the rest, as they say, is history in the making.
Now, with his “partner in crime” and “better half” Jayme living out in the Bay area near him, Katis said he believes together – along with the growing number of magicians interested in donating their time and talents to The Magic of Miracles – they can take their nonprofit to new heights.
“Having Jayme here with me has been great, not only for The Magic of Miracles but also for my swimming; we joke that we have our Wonder Twin powers back again,” said Katis, who originally hails from Virginia.
“(Cal Coach) Dave (Durden) always kids me that I swim much better whenever Jayme is at one of my meets, and now that she’s here in the same area with me (Jayme swam for and graduated from Virginia Tech this year), I expect great things in the pool.”
Speaking of his swimming, upping his performance under the tutelage of some of the best coaches in the sport is one of the major reasons Katis transferred from his “dream school” Harvard to Cal at the beginning of 2014.
Combined with the departure of Harvard Coach Tim Murphy to Penn State, Katis said he realized if he was going to elevate his game to the levels he knew he could reach, he needed to move.
Through a connection to Cal Assistant Coach Yuri Sugiyama, Katis learned Cal was in need of breaststrokers at the beginning of the 2014 spring season, so he made the move and hasn’t looked back.
At the 2014 Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships last summer, he had some of his best results – making the B Finals in both the 100 and 200 breaststroke events – despite only a few months at Cal.
With more than a year working with Durden and his staff under his belt now, Katis said he’s expecting even better times and results this summer at Nationals – all in preparation for next summer’s Olympic Trials back in Omaha.
“I’ve definitely noticed improvement since coming to Cal, both physically and mentally,” Katis said. “When I was looking at colleges, I never considered Berkeley because I had wanted to go to Harvard ever since I was a little kid.
“But this transfer has worked out very well for me. I’m a big believer in destiny, and I know now this is where I’m supposed to be. I think it’s the magician in me.”
In addition to training full-time for a shot on next year’s Olympic team, Katis is also flexing his entrepreneurial muscles with his start-up mentagrate (www.mentagrate.com), which bridges the knowledge gap between college students in a smart, algorithm-driven network that matches questions, answers and users.
“The idea is to guide busy, over-committed college students to success,” Katis said. “When I was a student at Harvard, there were a few nights where I struggled with homework – largely because I had missed some classes due to swimming and college life – and I had no resources to help me.
“We'll be launching at five elite institutions (Harvard and Berkeley included) most likely this fall. Being out here in the Bay area with so many people involved in the tech world, this makes sense to do this here and do it now. It’s going to be great, especially for the busy student athletes who miss a lot of class because of travel, etc.”
Despite his affinity for magic, Katis isn’t fooling himself that the rest of this year and early next will require much more hard work and dedication to get him where he wants to be in swimming.
His recent success has ignited his internal fire to push himself further than he ever thought he would – and it’s going to take more than smoke and mirrors or pulling a rabbit out of his hat to make it a reality.
But he’s ready.
“Just like with magic, swimming involves taking a vision and working relentlessly to make it a reality,” Katis said. “Now, because of all of my training and racing, I can visualize dropping 5 seconds or whatever and taking the necessary steps to get there.
“I’ve always loved swimming, and I competed at 2012 Olympic Trials, but I don’t know that I ever truly believed or wanted to believe that I could take my swimming higher. Being here at Berkeley with these phenomenal, unparalleled coaches and tremendous athletes to train with and race every day has definitely improved my confidence to believe that the Olympics are a real possibility.”