By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
Long-time USA Swimming corporate partner Phillips 66 has been a sponsor since 1973 and involved in the sport overall for seven decades. Today, Phillips 66 believes they can improve lives through energy, and in that spirit, usaswimming.org is highlighting swimmers of all levels who have benefited from Phillips 66's contribution and chosen to give back to the sport of swimming or to their community.
Despite busy schedules making appearances, signing autographs at the much-visited Aqua Zone and catching up with old friends and swimming colleagues, Olympians Kaitlin Sandeno and Margaret Hoelzer made time Wednesday afternoon to visit QLI (www.qliomaha.com), the country’s largest provider of post-hospital rehab services to individuals with brain and/or spinal cord injuries while in Omaha, Neb., for the Olympic Trials.
The duo were greeted with Olympic-themed music and applause from the numerous residents at the 60-acre facility, and after short introductions, both Sandeno and Hoelzer spoke a bit about their swimming careers, motivation to become champions and overcome adversity and inspiration and drive in their post-swimming careers.
Both continue to do appearances and speak on behalf of select organizations – Hoelzer, who retired in 2010, for the National Child Advocacy Center, and Sandeno, who called it a career in 2008, for NEGU (Never Ever Give Up).
“I love visiting nonprofits like QLI that do such great work,” said Sandeno, a member of the 2000 and 2004 Olympic teams. She retired from swimming at the conclusion of the 2008 Olympic Trials, which were also held in Omaha. “Hopefully I can provide inspiration for them to never give up because they provide a lot of inspiration for me.”
After answering questions about their swimming, the Olympics, lives in California (Sandeno) and Alabama and Seattle (Hoelzer), they spent 30 minutes signing autograph cards and photos for QLI’s staff and residents, who have suffered brain and spinal cord injuries due to a variety of car accidents, falls, work-related accidents, etc.
With Olympic medals stretched out on the table in front of them, residents and staff alike were able to pick them up and read (on the back) for which events and Olympic Games they were awarded. The comments ranged from the different shapes of the medals (they change per Games) to their weight and color.
“Wow, they are so much heavier than I was expecting,” one resident said as she held Sandeno’s gold medal from the 2004 Athens Olympics. “I would think it would be hard to wear around your neck for too long.”
In all, Hoelzer, who won two silver medals as well as a bronze at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and Sandeno, a bronze medalist in 2000 and gold and silver medalist in 2004, signed over a 100 autographs and were great sports, taking numerous photos with residents and staff. Sandeno even smiled through a bear hug from a resident who was particularly excited to see her.
Despite a brain injury that left him unable to speak, QLI resident Brian Gut had a conversation with Sandeno via his electronic Lite Writer, a mechanical device that vocalizes words typed via a keyboard. A former swimmer himself, Gut asked her where she was from, how she liked the 100-plus degree weather in Omaha and what events she swam in the Olympics.
Both left having made an impact upon the lives of the residents via their stories and interactions – and were impacted as well by the inspirational lives people with brain and spinal cord injuries lead.
“It was a great opportunity to meet people who live such courageous lives every day,” Hoelzer said. “I left with a new appreciation for life in general and am inspired by these people.”