July 19, 2012
By Jeremy Wu
As someone who has had no problem cutting through the water at high speeds, Caitlin Leverenz has relied on her faith to stay afloat throughout her illustrious swimming career. To help her confront trials and obstacles along her journey, Leverenz turned to a higher power to draw the strength and wisdom she has needed.
Leverenz's Olympic dreams date back to 2000, when as a nine-year-old sitting in her Tucson, Ariz., home she had her eyes glued to the television as the drama of the Sydney Games unfolded. These were the Olympics of Lenny Krayzelburg, Janet Evans, Jenny Thompson, Brooke Bennett and Kaitlin Sandeno.
Since she began swimming at the age of seven, the words "take your marks" had always struck a familiar chord of excitement, but this time, it was different. When the announcer boomed the phrase on TV, she knew from that moment that she wanted to swim at the pinnacle of her sport.
"I remember thinking that one day, someone could be watching me," recalled Leverenz, who will be a senior for the Bears in 2012-13. "And the idea that I could have an American flag in front of my lane was just incredible."
The attention span of a nine-year-old is fickle, but Leverenz is wired differently. From that day on, she dedicated her life to training as a swimmer.
With numerous awards and accolades and a resume replete with Pac-12 Swimmer of the Year, NCAA champion and All-America honors, Leverenz is as close to realizing her dream as she has ever been.
Even with all her success, Leverenz knows just how fragile anything in life can be, something she discovered just before the start of her senior year of high school when her age-group coach unexpectedly disappeared from her daily routine.
For Leverenz, a lifetime of work and the relationship she built with her coach over a 10-year span became a source of energy. At the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials with her support system by her side, Leverenz finished fractions of seconds behind some of the fastest swimmers in the world. She earned fourth place twice and had one third-place finish, good results but just shy of earning a berth on the Olympic team.
Months later, so much of what she knew about her world walked out the door when her coach moved away without a word to her.
Though her senior year at Sahuaro High School was rough, Leverenz continued to swim. This time, she had a new perspective and was able to take a step back and look at all aspects of her life. Having had someone who helped shape her leave so suddenly plagued her with the question, "What in life is really here to stay?"
"During my senior year, I got to know God and Jesus and developed a relationship with them because it was what I wanted," said Leverenz. "I know my faith will wax and wane as naturally as anything, but God is never going away and He is unchanging. The strength that I get from that can help me through anything."
Though she had grown up with religion in her home and had always felt that God was in her life, Leverenz had never made the conscious choice to trust God on her own until her senior year.
Upon her arrival at Cal, Leverenz made it a point to continue to grow and cultivate the relationship she had with God and joined Athletes in Action, the nationwide sports ministry. Now through the support of her teammates, coaches and other student-athletes, Leverenz has grown a new confidence in herself to accomplish great things in the pool.
"I look back today," Leverenz said of the 2008 Olympic Trials, "and I know that God had a plan for me and that it wasn't right for me to make an Olympic team back then because I wasn't swimming for Him. I was swimming for my parents and the people who had expected me to do this, for my coach and my own expectations of myself and my own pride."
Being as open as she is about her faith hasn't been without its own set of challenges, but one thing Leverenz appreciates about her surroundings is that people respect and understand that her beliefs mean a lot to her.
"I don't think it's my job to thrust my faith upon my team and convert everyone," Leverenz said. "I love that Berkeley has so many different faiths. It has been challenging when people pointedly ask questions, but I love learning what others believe and this is the perfect place to do that. I think it has all really confirmed my own faith more than anything else. I love and respect that people believe in different things, but I will still hold fast to what I believe always."
While her faith remains at the center of her life, Leverenz has drawn strength and inspiration from people she feels God has surrounded her with. Her head coach at Cal, Teri McKeever, has been one of those major figures during her journey.
"When I got here, Teri asked me if I still wanted to be an Olympian," Leverenz said. "When I said yes, she let me know that she wouldn't be afraid to tell me when I needed to improve or to do better. I loved and respected that so much. She has been such a huge impact on me both personally and in the pool."
Though by her own standards, Leverenz experienced a subpar freshman season despite being named the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year. She has since become a household name among the nation's elite swimmers. Chosen the 2012 Pac-12 Swimmer of the Year, her performance in the pool has helped the Bears claim the past two NCAA team championships, and she was tabbed Swimmer of the Meet during the 2012 title run.
Now, Leverenz has a much better perspective and a clearer picture of what her goals are at this point in her career.
Before the start of the Olympic Trials in late June, Leverenz acknowledged the taboo associated with talking about earning a spot on the Olympic team, but she is quick to offer up the caveat that she believes nothing in life is ever guaranteed. No matter the outcome, she has already proven to herself and to the swimming community that she is indeed here for business.
"I'm really excited and I'm in a really good place going into trials, both emotionally and mentally," said Leverenz. "I think I'm much steadier and that I can handle whatever happens. If not making an Olympic team is the worst thing that ever happens in my life, then I think I have a pretty great life."
That life became even greater when she earned a spot on the 2012 Olympic team at the trials. With the start of her senior season fast approaching, Leverenz is busy preparing her heart for what's ahead. As Cal's newly elected captain for the 2013 season, she relishes the opportunity to provide a positive influence on her teammates and uphold a standard of excellence set forth by McKeever.
"When people talk about me, I want them to say that I'm a person who cares," said Leverenz, "a person who is honest, and a person who is accepting of everyone no matter what their background or faith, someone who is genuine."
This story originally appeared in the summer 2012 issue of the Cal Sports Quarterly.