By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
It’s safe to say that Kaitlin Sandeno has found her true calling with her life-affirming opportunity with a nonprofit that has grown to be near and dear to her heart.
In her view, her involvement with the Jessie Rees Foundation: Never Ever Give UP (NEGU) – initially as the organization’s national spokesperson and currently as the director of sports relations – is a true blessing, one from which she gains new insight about life and for which she is grateful every day.
“I get to do something that I absolutely love every day,” said Sandeno, who became involved with NEGU in May of last year. “I have so much joy and passion for this foundation and everything it represents. I feel like there is truly nothing more rewarding than making a difference in a child’s life, especially one who is fighting hard to live.
“My swimming career consisted of a lot of ups and downs, and ultimately it was about never giving up. So representing and working for a foundation whose motto is Never Ever Give Up is beyond fitting.”
Jessie was a Junior Olympic swimmer from the Mission Viejo Nadadores who was diagnosed with two inoperable brain tumors in 2011 when she was 11 years old. She battled for 10 months and two days before getting what Sandeno calls her “angel wings” in January 2012.
While she dealt with her condition, she started making “Joy Jars,” 64-ounce containers filled with age- and gender-specific toys, in the hopes of spreading hope, joy and love to children fighting cancer while encouraging them to NEGU.
“I met Jessie when she was first diagnosed at a fundraiser thrown for her and her family,” Sandeno said. “I wanted to help in any way possible. After meeting with Jessie’s dad, he threw out the idea of me becoming the national spokesperson, and I was so honored.”
One of the things Sandeno said she enjoys most about her role with the foundation is getting to travel throughout the country spreading the word about NEGU and handing out Joy Jars to children battling cancer.
While she admits it can be physically draining being on the road as often as she is (can be a couple of weeks at a time living out of suitcases – something she’s familiar with from her swimming days), Sandeno said she knows the work she is doing and joy she is helping spread in Jessie’s honor is what’s most important.
“Seeing a child’s face light up when I walk into their hospital room is absolutely priceless,” Sandeno said. “It’s unbelievable to sit back and watch the effect these Joy Jars have on a child’s day or how big they smile when I place my Olympic medals around their necks.
“Since we are a new foundation, new doors are opening every day. It’s exciting to see how fast we are growing. I want to continue spreading hope, joy and love to children fighting life-threatening illnesses and incorporate as many pro athletes and Olympians as possible.”
A decorated Olympian herself after winning gold, silver and bronze medals at the 2000 and 2004 Olympics, Sandeno definitely has the resources and connections to make this happen.
She retired at the conclusion of the 2008 Olympic Trials when an injury and respiratory illness prevented her from being at her best and she missed making her third Olympic team. But even before coming to Omaha for the event, she knew the meet was going to be her swimming “swan song.”
“I knew I was going to retire in 2008 regardless of the outcome at Trials,” said Sandeno, who won a relay gold and set a world record as a member of the U.S. women’s 800 freestyle relay team at the 2004 Athens Olympics. She also won a silver (400 individual medley) and two bronze medals (400 and 800 freestyles) in her Olympic career. “I was battling a knee injury and illness weeks prior to Trials, but I still wanted to go and compete in my last meet.”
After the meet, Sandeno returned home to Southern California and spent time traveling along with making appearances and doing swim clinics. She had shoulder surgery, and then started working with Nike Swim for a while before deciding to do personal technique coaching and opened her own swim school.
And although she doesn’t swim anymore (although she did get back in the water last year to rehab a broken wrist to regain mobility and flexibility), she knows she has left behind a legacy of which she is proud and reflects upon often and fondly.
“I hope I’m remembered for my tough and grueling events and training schedule,” said Sandeno, who stays in shape by working out with a trainer once a week when her schedule allows and lives an “active, healthy lifestyle” thanks to her swimming background. “I want to be remembered as a tough racer who was a positive role-model in the sport.”
And in life.