The Sandeno File
Name: Kaitlin Sandeno
Date of Birth: March 13, 1983
Parents: Tom and Jill
Siblings: Amy and Laurlyn
Brothers-in-Law: Mike and Steven
Nieces and Nephews: Michael, Thomas, Luke, Sarah and Max (on the way)
High School: El Toro, Class of 2001
College: University of Southern California
Age Group Team: Nellie Gail Gators
Current Team: Trojan Swim Club
Coaches: Renee and Vic Riggs, Nellie Gail Gators; Mark Schubert, Trojan Swim Club
Favorite TV Show: “The OC”
Favorite Movies: Comedies
Favorite Music: Hip-Hop
Favorite Food: Sushi
Favorite Dessert: Frozen Yogurt
Free-time Activities: Shopping and going to the beach
For 21-year-old Kaitlin Sandeno, life is good.
Fresh off the meet of her life at the Olympic Games, where her four swims yielded a tidy little royal flush of sorts, a gold, silver, bronze and fourth-place finish, she laid claim, during the eight-day competition, to being one of the most versatile female swimmers in the world.
Sandeno’s silver medal in the 400 meter IM alone, in which she demolished a 12-year-old American record while recording an astonishing five-second lifetime best, catapulted her into superstardom.
But when coupled with a sparkling anchor leg in the USA’s stunning upset in the 4 x 200 meter freestyle relay, it’s clear that the Southern California native has elevated her swimming to a lofty realm where few inhabit.
“I didn’t want it to end,” Sandeno says of her Athens experience. “It was such an emotional ride. I got home to Orange County, and when I was with my mom and my sister, I just started crying. I was so sad it was over, and I was so proud of myself.”
Sandeno has just emerged from afternoon workout. The two of us are seated at a table inside a crowded coffeehouse near the University of Southern California, where Sandeno lives, goes to school and trains. Two days after the Olympic Trials, she signed a lucrative deal with apparel conglomerate Nike. Her life competing as a Trojan is over. Her life as a professional, however, has already reached warp speed.
She fills me in on a whirlwind post-Athens itinerary that included hobnobbing with “Today Show’s” Matt Lauer and Katie Couric, carousing with “Access Hollywood’s” Billy Bush and being a featured presenter on MTV’s Video Music Awards.
If Sandeno is finally coming down to earth after such a dizzying and tiring ride, she’s offering no indications. Her hazel eyes still sparkle, her storytelling is as highly charged as ever, and her mouth repeatedly breaks into one of her trademark vibrant smiles.
Rebounding from Adversity
Things, though, have not always been so picture-perfect for Sandeno.
Four years ago, as a 17-year-old who grew up in El Toro and trained with the Nellie Gail Gators, she was pegged to do virtually everything in sight in Sydney, including rewriting the national anthem. She had qualified in three events, the 400 meter IM, 200 meter fly and 800 meter free. The expectations were enormous.
“In 2000, all the magazines had me predicted to win this medal and that medal,” she recalls. “I came home with one bronze medal.”
Even though she still considers her 800 freestyle podium finish a success, the overriding feeling was that she had somehow underperformed.
Then, just months later, as she was getting ready to dive into life as a collegiate athlete at USC, one of the most celebrated programs in the country, her world began to crumble. What began as little more than a sore back, turned into a seemingly inescapable spiral of agonizing pain.
“On Christmas day, I was laying flat on my back,” she says. “Nobody knew what was wrong with me for six months. One day, I’d think I was getting better, and then the next day, I’d be worse. It was just so frustrating, mentally and physically.”
Sandeno was on the verge of walking away from the sport.
“She basically wasn’t able to train at all her freshman year,” says USC head coach Mark Schubert. “What she did at NCAAs (a fourth in the 400 IM and a sixth in the 200 fly, among other things) was miraculous.”
When the proper diagnosis finally came in, a rare malady that may or may not have been a stress fracture, there were still no guarantees that any amount of physical therapy and treatment could ever return her to form.
“Mentally, I’ve always been a confident swimmer, but that really suffered,” Sandeno says. “This Olympics was the first meet where I was completely back. You don’t get any farther from each end of the spectrum. I was about to quit two years ago, and now I’m at the top of my game.”
Expanding her Horizons
Life between the lane lines isn’t expected to change much for Sandeno, the professional. There’ll still be the heavy training, the repetitive drills and the challenging mix of sets designed to unlock the precious tenths of a second that will produce the PRs that she knows will bring her continued success.
Outside the water, though, she’s already begun to eagerly explore a vast network of avenues that seem endless.
“She really has no limitations, either in the pool or out of it,” says her manager, Evan Morgenstein.
Product endorsement, motivational speaking, sports and entertainment broadcasting, modeling, Sandeno’s interests and talents are as versatile on land as they are in water.
“I just want to get out there,” she explains. “I’ll do anything that I feel is going to be a positive type of influence.”
“The thing that Kaitlin and I have in common is that even though we both love swimming, it’s just one part of our lives,” says fellow Olympian and close friend Diana Munz. “We do what we need to do in the pool, and then move on to other things. I think that’s really important.”
Schubert, who admits he was initially taken aback by the timing of Sandeno’s decision to turn pro, is now one of her biggest supporters.
“She’s always had some pretty ambitious goals professionally,” Schubert says. “And I think that goals and dreams are things that should be pursued.”
On this afternoon I’ve managed to catch her during a brief lull in all the excitement. Sandeno sits across from me like a colorful butterfly in a nylon net. Yes, she’s respectful and patient as she tries to describe what the past several weeks have meant to her, and how they’ve changed her life. But it’s clear from the occasional, almost imperceptible flutter of her wings, that she’s secretly longing to take flight once again.
It is precisely this type of radiant energy and youthful wonder, this “all-and-everything” instead of “all-or-nothing” approach toward life, that has corporate suitors clamoring to get her under contract.
Those who come into her radius want to draw nearer, not necessarily because of who she is, but because of what she exudes. The Sandeno aura is at once captivating, at once energizing and at once inspiring.
The java drinkers around us feel it. Even though her famous blonde hair is pulled back out of view and there’s not a swim cap or pair of goggles in sight, they can somehow sense that she’s, well, “somebody.”
Sandeno’s is the face of not just the new professional female swimmer, but also the new professional athlete.
Back in the 1920s, beautiful film star Clara Bow was dubbed the original “It Girl” for possessing a wondrous collection of traits such as sex-appeal, charisma, free-spiritedness, radiance, confidence and irrepressible spunk.
But times have changed. Women have grown more and more empowered with each new generation.
The new “It Girl,” as personified by Sandeno, has matured into a “Fit Woman.” Yes, she’s still fun-loving, self-assured and ebullient, but she’s also athletic, strong, assertive and eager to do her best to change the world for the better.
Setting the Table
The U.S. women’s team was not expected to do much in Athens. Once the U.S. Olympic Trials were over and the statistical data was crunched, re-crunched and crunched again, the medal prospects appeared pretty bleak.
There was Natalie, Amanda and possibly young Katie Hoff, then well, there was Natalie, Amanda and possibly Katie.
Rather than dwell on the dire, though, the national media decided, instead, to turn its attention to the men’s side where the likes of Michael Phelps, Brendan Hansen, Aaron Piersol, Ian Crocker and a host of others seemed more than capable of not only scooping up a fishnet of medals, but of, perhaps, gathering enough to make up for any predicted deficiencies on the women’s side.
Thanks to Sandeno, though, all that changed with the very first individual women’s event of the competition.
Coming into the meet, Sandeno was pretty much an afterthought.
“This Olympics made my first one feel like the Junior Olympics,” she says. “I was so much more relaxed and so much more experienced. I really just went in wanting to do my best times. I wasn’t expected to do anything.”
This time around, all the focus was on 15-year-old Hoff, who’d soundly defeated the veteran Sandeno in the distance IM less than six weeks earlier in Long Beach. While Hoff was clearly on the rise, and billed as the potential successor to defending Olympic champion Yana Klochkova, Sandeno was, well, still the same Sandeno.
At the 2000 Trials in Indianapolis, Sandeno swam 4:40.91. In Sydney, in a race in which she placed fourth, she touched the wall in 4:41.03. And in Long Beach, a quadrennial later, her best efforts could only produce a 4:40.39.
“I’d been stuck on 4:40 for four years,” she says. “After Trials, I was really, really focusing on my breaststroke.”
Sandeno worked particularly hard at Team USA’s two training camps, and credits technical whizzes Jonty Skinner and Bill Boomer with helping her to iron out any visible wrinkles in her four-stroke arsenal.
“It was all about the little things, on my fly, I changed my breathing pattern so I wouldn’t be hurting on my backstroke,” she says, “and on my backstroke, I was using my hips more. We just did a lot of stroke technique.”
“She was really dedicated to making improvements,” says Schubert.
When Hoff failed to advance from the morning session, it was left to Sandeno to represent the U.S. against Klochkova, In Sydney, four years before, the Ukrainian world record holder had defeated Sandeno by nearly 7-1/2 seconds.
This time, however, Klochkova found herself embroiled in a fight for her life.
During the front half of the race, Sandeno flexed her usual muscles in the fly and the backstroke legs. Nothing surprising there. When she turned back onto her stomach and refused to wilt during the breaststroke, though, she seemed like a different swimmer.
“It just seemed like that night I finally learned how to swim the 400 IM,” she says.
“I could see it coming throughout the last year,” says Schubert, who is still amazed at a 4:41 timed effort Sandeno produced at the end of one particularly grueling mid-summer training set. “It was great to see her put it all together.”
Whereas Sandeno had split a 1:21.89 (40.64/41.25) during the breaststroke in Long Beach, she blistered a 1:19.79 (39.79/40.00) in Athens. Whereas she’d struggled home in 1:05.48 (32.89/32.69) just several weeks earlier, this time around she hammered out a remarkable 1:01.86 (31.80/30.06) freestyle leg while scaring the absolute daylights out of Klochkova who, in the end, barely nipped her by 12-hundredths.
Not only did Sandeno’s 4:34.95 silver medal swim destroy Summer Sander’s longstanding American record, but it also vaulted her up the list into becoming the third-fastest performer in history.
Perhaps even more importantly, though, it emphatically stated that despite predictions to the contrary, the U.S. women’s team hadn’t gone anywhere, wasn’t about to go anywhere and was planning on being every bit as everywhere as the heavily-favored U.S. men’s team.
“She went out there and swam her heart out,” says Munz. “A lot of first-time Olympians saw that and got so excited. It was a huge pick-up for all of us.”
“It was my first time in swimming that I could really remember getting out of the pool and being proud of myself,” Sandeno says, alluding to how her sharp competitiveness usually leads to her being overly hard on herself. “Everything just came together so perfectly.”
A Lust for Swimming and Life
Perhaps Sandeno’s voracious lust for life is due, in part, to how low she’d slipped. The career-threatening injury surely gave her pause to consider her still-young life. When you’re flat on your back for extended periods of time and unable to do even the most mundane of physical tasks, there’s not much more to do except reflect.
“It was a long little journey,” Sandeno says, reflecting back upon her most tumultuous period. “But I’m a big believer that things happen for a reason.”
The lesson she needed to learn could be as simple as never taking her swimming for granted.
Resurrections have a way of changing people. Not necessarily externally, but internally.
The Kaitlin of 2004 has a far greater appreciation for the sport, and her role in it, than the Kaitlin of 2000.
But one thing that has always remained a constant is her appetite for testing her limits.
At the Trials, it seemed as if Sandeno were entered in every event, much like Phelps. She was such a regular fixture in the evening finals, in fact, that one of the spare timer’s chairs should have been reserved exclusively for her.
Sandeno, though, downplays all the focus on her versatility.
“I think it’s a great feat (swimming a lot of different events), but I think I’d be bored if I didn’t do it,” she says. “If I just swam the 400 IM and was done the first day, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. I think it just goes back to when I first started swimming.”
She has never been adverse to experimenting, and she’s never afraid of expanding her horizons.
“The thing that’s good about being a 400 IMer,” says Schubert, “is that you can branch off into other directions without it affecting your training.”
“I think that’s one of the things that Nike saw in her,” says Morgenstein. “She swims freestyle and all the strokes. She was going to be doing a lot of swims, for example, in Athens.”
“I’m just willing to try different events,” Sandeno says. “I just like challenges. It’s fun.”
Another Record off the Books
Because of her back injury, Sandeno feels she was limited on the training necessary to keep up her endurance for the 800 meter freestyle. Rather than mope about the misfortune, though, she set her sights on new events such as the 200 meter freestyle.
She’d swum the 200 free at the U.S. Olympic Trials specifically so that she could be part of a relay team, and her 1:59.55 third-place finish had ensured her of at least a leg in the preliminaries.
“I’d never been on an international relay before,” Sandeno explains. “My goal at the Trials was to make that 800 freestyle relay.”
“It may sound funny, but that was her biggest goal heading into Long Beach,” says Schubert.
Soon after her stirring 400 meter IM in Athens, it became clear that Sandeno was having the meet of her life. Every dive into the pool was producing magical results. She found herself slipping into one of those magical zones which every competitive athlete dreams about.
To have such a thing happen at the Olympic Games of all places, well, things just don’t get much better than that.
The very next day produced another medal, a surprising bronze in the 400 meter freestyle. Her 4:06.19 was nearly a two-second improvement on her lifetime best.
“I was having so much fun,” Sandeno says. “I couldn’t sleep at night. My heart was beating so fast because I was so excited to swim again. I was just so excited to be there.”
One day later, her 200 meter fly produced yet another PR, but this time she was touched out of another trip to the podium.
“I was a little disappointed with the 200 fly,” she confesses. “I wanted to go faster than a 2:08.”
She had a chance to make amends, though, some 20 minutes later.
Women’s team co-captain Lindsay Benko, whose swimming was off-form, volunteered to give up her place in the finals of the relay for Sandeno.”What she did was so mature and so admirable, to give up her spot,” says Sandeno of her close friend and Trojan Swim Club teammate. “She wanted the four fastest girls at night.”
That day, Sandeno, who had gone to Athens prepared to swim in the morning relay only, not only discovered that she would be competing in the finals, but also that the coaches had unanimously agreed that she should be the anchor leg.
After the gun went off and teammate Coughlin ripped off a 1:57.74 opening leg_a time that would have earned her gold in the individual 200 meter freestyle, Sandeno sat behind the blocks continuing to shake out her legs after her butterfly.
“I knew we were doing well,” she says. “I could see that we were under the world record, but I didn’t really want to think about it.”
Lap by lap, teammates Carly Piper and Dana Vollmer continued to build upon what Coughlin had started. And the Americans, scarcely projected even to contend for a medal in the event, were not only winning handily, but were still beneath the pace of the last of the East German team’s drug-tainted world records from the 1980s.
“I got on the blocks and I told myself, `Don’t mess this up,” laughs Sandeno. “Just don’t mess this up.”
She didn’t, not even close. Sandeno roared home in 1:58.17, the third fastest split in the entire pool behind Coughlin and Vollmer, and the Americans shattered the record and earned gold in one of the competition’s most stunning upsets.
“I think I was screaming before I put my hand on the wall,” Sandeno says. “I couldn’t get out of the pool fast enough. It was the perfect ending to such an awesome experience and such an amazing meet. I didn’t want it to end.”
Life Is Good
A quartet of male patrons politely intrude once our conversation has ended. They beam and stammer and gush over one another when Sandeno confirms that, yes, she is indeed who they think she is. Then, fidgeting some more, they wonder if she would possibly consent to a group photo.
The Sandeno smile reappears for perhaps the 50th time since we sat at our table, and she moves toward them to accommodate their request. Once again, it seems, her radiance has touched lives.
And I wonder to myself, a short while later, as I watch her serenely peddling away on a brightly-colored beach cruiser bicycle with a cell phone pressed to her slightly cocked head, how many more lives she’s destined to touch not just today, but in the many years to come.
Life for Sandeno is, indeed, good. Very, very good.