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Retirement wasn’t Berens’ cup of tea

Scott Fowler is a national award-winning sports columnist for The Charlotte Observer.

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    A few tickets remain for Friday and Saturday night’s UltraSwim finals, which start at 6 p.m. One of the best races Friday night will be the men’s 200 freestyle at 6:12 p.m., which will feature most of the top American swimmers in the event.


After a brief retirement that lasted about as long as a bad celebrity marriage, Charlotte’s Ricky Berens is back in the pool and will compete Friday through Sunday at the UltraSwim meet at Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center.

It is a “back to the future” sort of year for Berens, a two-time Olympic gold medalist who spent his college days at the University of Texas and now has returned as a volunteer assistant for the Longhorns. He is back swimming, back at his old college pool training for his old coach and back to being very fast.

“I’m at the top of my game,” said Berens, 25, who will swim the 50, 100 and 200 freestyle events in Charlotte. “So after thinking about it some more, I decided there’s really no reason for me not to keep going.”

But he’s not ready to commit to training for the 2016 Olympics, which will be held in Brazil.

“That sounds overwhelming,” said Berens, who has a degree in finance from Texas and eventually wants to work in a college athletic department. “I’m just going to take it one year at a time. This year for sure, and then we’ll see.”

Berens had a big UltraSwim meet in Charlotte a year ago, upsetting Michael Phelps in the 200 freestyle final before a pumped-up home crowd.

“It was just about the first time I had ever actually beaten Phelps in a legit race,” Berens said. “So that was pretty cool.”

The South Mecklenburg graduate’s best event is the 200 freestyle (which has a Friday-night final at the UltraSwim). That was one of Phelps’ best events, too. So Phelps’ retirement following the 2012 Olympics also gave Berens another reason to return, Berens said.

“It opened a spot,” he said.

In March, Berens accomplished a longtime goal by establishing a new American record in the 200-yard short-course freestyle – his first individual U.S. record – with a time of 1 minute, 31.31 seconds.

Berens’ original retirement statement came in an interview we did in a London hallway last July, minutes after he won the second Olympic gold of his career. After telling his relay teammates he was done, he told me: “I don’t think I could get any more out of what I have and I’m ready to move on. I love swimming. I love what I do. But there’s more to life than swimming.”

But those words came at an emotional time for Berens, and even at the time I thought and wrote that the retirement might not stick. It doesn’t for so many swimmers. Most male swimmers now can compete into their late 20s and even their early 30s, which means Berens is in his athletic prime.

So Berens thought about it and, a couple of months later, decided to rejoin old coach Eddie Reese in Texas and become a volunteer swim coach for the Longhorns while also getting back in the water himself.

For the 2012 Olympics, Berens trained mostly in California in part to be near his longtime girlfriend Rebecca Soni, who is an even better-known Olympian. It is well-known in swim circles that their high-profile relationship has cooled a bit.

“We are in two different cities now,” Berens said. “We still talk all the time. We are working on things.”

Soni will be in Charlotte this weekend doing some appearances but will not be in the UltraSwim itself. Berens said Soni was taking the year off from competitive swimming.

“As for this meet for me,” Berens said, “it’s not life or death, so that’s nice. I’ve been traveling a lot and I’m not sure how I’ll do. But it will be fun – being home with my family and seeing a lot of friends. I just really enjoy coming back to Charlotte so much.”

NOTES

Ledecky, Jaeger win early events: The UltraSwim meet started with a bang Thursday night as records were set in both of the evening’s events.

Thursday was a long-distance day, with only the men’s 800 freestyle and the women’s 1500 freestyle on the docket. Two 2012 Olympians – Katie Ledecky and Connor Jaeger – won those events in meet-record times.

Ledecky, 16, was a surprise gold medalist at the 2012 Olympics in the 800 freestyle at age 15. She was one of the few swimmers to compete in only one event at the UltraSwim and had a flight scheduled to leave Charlotte Thursday night. She is a high school sophomore in Bethesda, Md.

“This was my breakthrough meet a year ago,” Ledecky said. “Last year I was intimidated by all these Olympians. I guess I am one of them now.”

Ledecky’s time of 16:04.58 – almost four seconds faster than the previous meet record – was slightly ahead of Chloe Sutton. Chile’s Kristel Kobrich was third.

Jaeger, 22, is a distance specialist coming off both team and individual NCAA championships at Michigan. He swam the 800 in 7:53.35 – the old UltraSwim meet record was 7:58.04. Matias Koski was second and Zane Grothe was third.

“I felt we were out pretty fast, and I was able to build on my turns,” Jaeger said. “It felt like a pretty decent race.”

He will swim at least three more events in the meet.

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