In June 2008, a high school junior stepped up to the diving block by lane two in Omaha, Neb., and dove into the pool.
Two and a half minutes later, she looked up at the scoreboard and saw her third-place finish.
Caitlin Leverenz raced one of her fastest 200m breaststrokes ever that day at the Olympic trials.
But she just barely missed qualifying for the squad that later traveled to Beijing for the 2008 Olympic games.
“Coming that close (to making the Olympic team) and not making it was a heartbreaker,” Leverenz says.
Leverenz has not yet forgotten how close she came to being an Olympian. Her memory of the event is a constant reminder of how hard she has had to work to achieve her level of success.
Now a junior at Cal, Leverenz has been working her way back to the Olympic level, all while setting school records on the way.
“It’s been hard to count (the records) because I’ve broken a lot of my own over the years,” Leverenz says.
Her career did not begin this way, as she did not feel ready to compete at a high level coming into her first year.
“Freshman year, I was a little more out of shape than I should have been,” Leverenz says. “And I was not practicing like an Olympian.”
Despite her dissatisfaction with her performance freshman year, Leverenz was awarded the Pac-10 Freshman/Newcomer of the Year award, a testament to the standards she had set for herself.
Determined to change her lackluster performance, Leverenz’s drive led her to the top of the Cal swimming program. She got into the best shape she possibly could and has since set school records for the 200 and 400 individual medleys.
Leverenz’s improvement was visible the next year as she broke one of her own school records in the 200 breaststroke to claim another second-place finish in the NCAA Championship in Texas. The Bears won the national title in what would be the final meet in the career of the team’s top seniors, Amanda Sims and Hannah Wilson.
Since the graduation of last year’s stars, Leverenz has held the keys to Cal’s success. This year, she has been the leading scorer on the country’s top ranked team. Along with her individual success, she has been team leader, making her teammates better and stepping up in big moments.
This has been the year that the junior showed her signs of greatness. At the Arena Invitational in November, Leverenz won two major events. Her second victory came on the last day and propelled Cal to a late win. Two months later against No. 3 USC, after the Bears had dropped the first two races, she won two individual events en route to a comeback victory over the Trojans.
Leverenz has accelerated her swimming when it matters most, coming through at the Pac-12 Championships when the Bears had lost all momentum. She had a historic third night of the tournament, winning the 400 IM and leading a team medley, rallying the Bears from second to a 100-point lead with two signature victories.
“Caitlin raced really well and she has deserved all of the praise she has been getting,” teammate Cindy Tran said. “She is a great swimmer and does great things for us.”
The swimmer’s success has been so stellar that she reminds people of a name difficult to approach in Cal swimming history: Natalie Coughlin. Leverenz’s Cal career could turn out to be more celebrated than that of the 11-time Olympic medalist. She already has the edge in collegiate team titles and has a career ahead of her that could perhaps rival Coughlin’s.
Despite not being the oldest member of the squad, Leverenz has saved the Bears from sure losses time and time again. Her ability to bring out the best in her teammates, while also performing at a high level, gives her a rare combination not seen in many athletes.
“Caitlin has had an incredible run for this team,” said associate head coach Kristen Cunnane. “Her performance has been extraordinary.”
Leverenz has lifted the team every time it has been down this season. When the Bears needed a spark in the feeblest of times, she came through and swam one of the greatest races of her life, surpassing Coughlin’s school record in the 400 IM in the Pac-12 Championship.
Leverenz does not compare herself with the U.S. team champion, but she knows that their paths could be linked, especially if she follows in Coughlin’s path and excels for the U.S. national team. Leverenz is the only swimmer to challenge Coughlin’s title as greatest Cal swimmer ever, and her road to international success has begun in Berkeley.
Leverenz has been a champion and a leader for the past year, but the stage has been set for her to prove her individual worth. Cal enters this year’s NCAA Championship as the favorite, and Leverenz could show her leadership and lead the team to a championship. More importantly, she would have two team titles under her name — two more than Coughlin.
Later this summer, Leverenz will once again compete in the U.S. Olympic trials. She has not forgotten the pain of missing out on her dream four years ago. Leverenz’s determination and hard work has made her one of the greatest this campus has ever seen, and she hopes it will translate onto the national level at the Olympics this summer in London.
“I have been working toward this since I was 13,” Leverenz says. “Making this team would be like a dream come true.”