When Caitlin Leverenz was 13 years old, she picked up a book that changed her life.
“I read Natalie Coughlin’s book … and that was when I knew I wanted to go to Cal,” Leverenz says.
Even before she read Coughlin’s biography, Leverenz adored the superstar. From the moment she read the book, though, Leverenz knew she wanted to reach Coughlin’s success — starting with a career at a top collegiate swim program.
At the time she read the book, Leverenz had just made the national junior team. Her potential and aspirations at the time were boundless.
But Coughlin’s 12 Olympic medals and countless accolades would be no easy accomplishment to match. Leverenz knew that in order to even come close to Coughlin’s success, she would need to take her goals one step at a time.
Cal became that stepping stone for Leverenz. As arguably the nation’s top swimmer of her high school class, Leverenz could have committed to any program.
But Leverenz chose Cal in a heartbeat. In her mind, there was only one college that had the tools Leverenz needed to emulate Coughlin’s success.
For three years at Cal, Leverenz did everything she could to retrace Coughlin’s footsteps. Leverenz wanted to make the Olympics and win medals like Coughlin.
This past summer in London, Leverenz inched closer to Coughlin in the record books. She reached her goal when she received an Olympic bronze medal in the 200m IM.
But as a part of the Cal women’s swimming team, Leverenz surpassed what Coughlin accomplished in Berkeley. Leverenz made a name for herself by leading the Bears to back-to-back NCAA team titles — something that Coughlin was never able to do.
Now as the elder of the program, Leverenz is the Natalie Coughlin-like figure in the team, influencing younger swimmers around her.
But all this success might have not happened without her re-evaluating what swimming meant for her.
When Leverenz was a child, swimming was something to do after school, something to beat the scorching Tucson, Ariz. heat.
Leverenz started swimming at the age of six. Leverenz’s mother, Jeannine, just wanted Caitlin to have a hobby. But Jeannine underestimated Caitlin’s passion and potential for swimming.
“Another mom told my mom … ‘You’ll see that look in her eyes when you pick her up and know she’ll be over swimming forever,’” Leverenz says.
“My mom said she never saw that look in my eyes.”
Jeannine slowly found that young Caitlin excelled at swimming. To help her chase her dream of becoming the next Coughlin, the Leverenz family made many sacrifices in order for Caitlin to succeed.
Jeannine took time away from her three other children to focus solely on Caitlin’s swimming career.
“For me, Caitlin’s potential changed how I thought I was going to raise my family,” Jeannine Leverenz says. “I never thought we would center everything on one child’s sport.”
Jeannine’s sacrifice was paying off, as Leverenz made the junior national team when she was 13. Then in high school, Leverenz was edging toward qualifying the Beijing Olympics.
In 2008, Leverenz narrowly missed out on making the U.S. Olympic team, falling short by less than a second in the 200m breaststroke.
But that year, Leverenz also suffered a different kind of heartbreak.
After the Olympic trials, Franz Ressuguie, Leverenz’s childhood coach of 10 years who trained her to become an almost-Olympian, suddenly walked out of her life with no explanations. Jeannine hypothesizes that Ressuguie left because Leverenz didn’t qualify for the Olympics.
Leverenz and Ressuguie haven’t talked since since that day.
Ressuguie’s departure was such a traumatic experience for Leverenz that swimming took a backseat. She wondered why she was swimming and questioned her motives as an athlete.
“I lost someone who I trusted and was part of my family,” Leverenz says. “I was on and off depressed, and I didn’t really know how to handle it.”
Despite such an emotional experience, Leverenze continued to swim. But she looked outside the pool to ease her mind.
She joined Young Life, a Christian ministry group that works with children and teenagers. Through Young Life, Leverenz explored a life outside swimming, helping people around her.
Her life outside the pool gave her a renewed purpose of what swimming meant. Through her God-given talents, she wanted to make an impact to the younger swimmers looking up to her.
Leverenz wanted to become a Coughlin to a younger set of swimmers.
With a new purpose to swimming, she entered Cal. Her freshman year, Leverenz won the 2010 Pac-10 Freshman/Newcomer of the Year award — the same award Coughlin won in 2001. Leverenz would lead the team win the NCAA championship her sophomore and junior years.
Then, finally, Leverenz qualified for the 2012 Olympics, overcoming the hurdle she couldn’t surpass four years ago.
A new cycle has started in the Cal women’s swimming team.
As the lone senior in the team, Leverenz is the centerpiece and the leader of the program. The new freshmen now look up to Leverenz in the same way Leverenz looked up to Coughlin.
Members of the most recent recruiting class such as Olympic gold medalist Rachel Bootsma and Elizabeth Pelton — who narrowly missed out on an Olympic berth — now see Leverenz as a mentor.
“I like to think I can influence their journeys somehow during their four years,” Leverenz says. “Both of them are tremendous athletes and work really hard in the pool, and I’m proud that they’re on my team and wearing Cal caps.”
Even outside the pool, Leverenz continues to be a leader. She is a member of the Athletes in Action organization in Berkeley — a Christian activist group — and leads her teammates in Bible study sessions.
Like Coughlin, Leverenz is the face of the program — but in a different way. Leverenz isn’t known for the gold medals or the celebrity status like Coughlin but for her leadership and heart. She is quietly redefining the team as a swimming dynasty.
Leverenz is writing a new chapter for the next great Cal swimmer to fulfill.
Johnny Zhang covers women’s swim. Contact him at [email protected]
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