A swarm of fans surrounded Ricky Berens and it was a scene he wasn’t used to experiencing at South Mecklenburg High School. On Dec. 20, the Olympic swimmer returned to South Meck for the first time since he graduated in 2006. He returned to school to talk about setting goals, persevering through the tough times and staying focused on “winning the gold.”
“You have to set goals no matter what you are trying to accomplish,” said the 22-year-old swimmer. “If you don’t set goals, you will be just a wander.”
Berens described his experience at the University of Texas at Austin. He said even though he wanted to make a career in swimming, he wanted to make sure his grades were “good enough” to get into business school. In 2010, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in finance. That type of determination that was instilled when he began swimming at the age of 4, he said.
“Swimming is a full-time job. Even when I was in high school, I remember practices before and after school. Getting home at 6 p.m., eat dinner, do homework and do it all over again. We would have meets on Saturdays,” said Berens.
Berens’ mother, Leslie Berens, head swim coach at South Meck, began coaching her son until the age of 9 when he started swimming competitively. In his sophomore year in college, he qualified for the 2008 U.S.A. Olympic team by placing third in the 200 freestyle.
“When I was about 14 years old, I broke Michael Phelps national record. I swam 1:48:24 in the 200 fly,” he said. “I knew then, I had a chance to go on to college and swim. Back in high school though, swimming in the Olympics was just a thought in the back of my mind.”
When the two-time Olympic gold medalist remembered his days in high school, he never recalled the swarm of female fans wanting pictures with him and autographs.
“Things have changed so much. I just remember being a normal kid. I loved walking around in between classes and talking to everyone …I remember ‘A’ lunch being the worse lunch to have. It was always the earliest,” he laughed.
“Swimming is only a sport that comes around every four years. So, you are not as recognizable as some celebrities. It’s just fun to see the reactions, because ‘Hey, I went to this school and I was just a normal kid.’”
Berens grew up to earn the world record in the 4x200-meter freestyle relay and to compete in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. He competed in the 4x100-meter and the 4x200-meter freestyle relay races, as well as the individual 200-meter freestyle.
“The important thing to remember now is to stay focused on your goals. You’ll eventually see the hard work pay off,” said Berens.