South Charlotte

Athlete of the week: From South Meck High pool to world stage

Ricky Berens graduated from the University of Texas earlier this month with degree in finance.

While most college students are busy looking for a job, Berens, a Charlotte native, is continuing his remarkable run from standout swimmer at South Mecklenburg High School to All-American at Texas to Olympic gold medalist in Beijing in 2008.

"Looking back now, it is hard to believe what I have accomplished in the last four years," said Berens, 22. "Going to Texas was one of the best decisions I've ever made in my life. Where I am now has a lot to do with going to Austin, swimming and training with the best, learning from the best."

After a spectacular high school and club career at South Meck and Mecklenburg Aquatic Club in Charlotte - where he set more than 70 records in the pool and earned all-state and all-American status - Berens chose to go the Texas, one of the most accomplished swimming programs in the nation.

Berens proved he belonged among the elite in Austin, and Texas swimming coach and 2008 U.S. National swim coach Eddie Reese took notice. Reese wasn't the only influence on Berens, as he swam with Longhorns teammates and Olympic-level swimmers including Aaron Piersol and Eric Shanteau.

Then Berens took another step, taking his talents to the Olympics Trials in Omaha, Neb., months before the Beijing Olympics.

"Going into that event, I had never really done anything on a national or international level in a meet with those kind of stakes," Berens said. "But I was confident that I could finish in the top six (in the 200-meter freestyle) and get a spot on the team."

After a dramatic week in Omaha, Berens finished third overall, qualifying for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.

"Just making the Olympic team is a huge accomplishment," said Leslie Berens, Ricky's mom and South Meck head swimming coach. "Then getting to train with some of the best swimmers in the world, like Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte and Peter Vanderkaay, that was a thrill in itself for Ricky."

Berens continued to excel, earning a spot on the 800-meter freestyle relay with Phelps, Lochte and Vanderkaay. The quartet won a gold medal and set a world record, becoming the first 800-meter relay team to break seven minutes.

"You can't ever really describe how it feels to win a gold medal," Berens said, who swam the third leg. "When my turn came, we were way ahead and I knew we were going to win. So I just dove in and tried to do my part. The rest is something I will never forget the rest of the my life."

When it was over, Berens went back to work in Texas. In 2009, he won two gold medals (400 and 800 freestyle relay) at the FINA World Championships in Rome. Then he capped his collegiate career in 2010 by helping Texas win a national championship.

Berens currently lives and trains in Austin, first getting ready for this week's Short Course World Championships in Dubai. Then his focus will shift to the 2011 World Championships in Shanghai before preparing for the Olympic Trials in Omaha in 2012.

After that, Berens hopes to add the 2012 Olympic Games in London to his resume.

"Right now I am just taking one season at a time," said Berens, who is dating Olympic gold- and silver-medal swimmer Rebecca Soni.

"In the long-term I am on four-year plan to get ready for London," said Berens, "but that is still a long way away."

Patty Waldron, a 28-year MAC coach, was just one of the many coaches at the club to help train Berens.

"I think Ricky is truly one of the special athletes in our sport," Waldron said. "He is definitely one of the best athletes to ever come out of Charlotte."

Though Berens has traveled the world extensively, he has never forgotten where he came from.

"I remember being at MAC when I was a kid like it was yesterday," Berens said. "A lot the success I've had today has a lot to with the people I worked with and things I learned there."