South Charlotte

Olympic champ returns to home pool

Ricky Berens is a celebrity at the Olde Georgetowne pool.

On May 10, kids and parents alike gathered to ask the Olympic gold medalist questions, watched him swim and lined up for autographs at a swim clinic to benefit Tyler's Treehouse.

"This is where I grew up every day. I swam here until I was 18," said Berens, who graduated from South Mecklenburg High in 2006 and spent four years swimming at Texas. "I just wanted to finally give back to the community."

The clinic raised $1,170 for Tyler's Treehouse, an organization dedicated to supporting St. Jude Children's Research Hospital with the search for the cause and eventual cure of brainstem glioma, a form of cancer that results in tumors near the base of the skull. The organization is named after Charlotte's Tyler Scott, who died from the disease in 2006 at 5 years old. Scott swam on the Olde Georgetowne swim team.

"It really hits home for me because he was me running around here at 5 years old," said Berens, 23.

Berens, whose mother, Leslie, still coaches at the pool and at South Mecklenburg High, was joined by fellow Olympic gold medalist Rebecca Soni at the clinic. Berens was part of the winning 4x200-meter relay at the 2008 Beijing Olympics; Soni won the 200-meter breast stroke at the same games. Both now live and train in Los Angeles and were in town for last weekend's Charlotte UltraSwim.

Howard Scott, Tyler's father, said Berens contacted him just a couple weeks ago to set up the clinic. Berens is also raising awareness for Tyler's Treehouse at UltraSwim.

Berens was the first winner of the $1,500 scholarship from Tyler's Treehouse, which goes to one graduating high school senior from the Olde Georgetown swim team. Berens, who already had a scholarship from Texas, gave the money back to the pool.

"This whole program means a lot to Ricky, and he thought this would be a good way to give something back," said Scott.

At the clinic, Berens and Soni answered questions from swimmers and parents, then put on a short swimming lesson, even racing some of the swimmers after giving them a head start. At the end, Berens and Soni signed autographs.

Participants were asked to make a donation of at least $5. The money raised will be a part of the $200,000 that Scott and his wife, Dana, will give to St. Jude to go into a restricted fund for research into brainstem glioma.

Scott and Berens said they hope they can do similar events in the future.

"It's a great organization. I'm glad I can help," said Berens.