How Kaitlin Sandeno Has Had an Effect on Swimming Beyond the Pool

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

The Kaitlin Sandeno Effect on Trials & Swimming Goes Beyond the Pool

Kaitlin Sandeno has been around the sport of swimming for almost her entire life. 

Sandeno, a two-time Olympian and four-time Olympic medalist, is a model of everything that USA Swimming represents; someone who has achieved excellence not only in the water but in life as well. 

Even though Sandeno has been retired from swimming for more than a decade, her passion for the sport has not only remained the same but has grown in her time away from competing. Nowhere is this passion seen more at its fullest capacity than at the Olympic Trials, where she has become one of the most consistent presences on the pool deck.

As swimmers throughout the United States are getting ready for the final tapers in preparation for Trials, Sandeno knows exactly what this preparation process is like. She has been on deck for every Trials since 2000, swimming in three, attending one, and serving as the deck host for the three most recent. 

The Swimmer Trials

The 2000 Olympic Trials at the IU Natatorium in Indianapolis were Sandeno’s first, and even 24 years after those Trials, it’s not lost on her how fortunate she was to have such a remarkable meet.

“I’m so grateful Indy was my first Trials,” she said. “To be able to make the Olympic Team at your first Trials is pretty surreal when you think about it.”

She would carry over the success she saw at Trails to the Olympic Games in Sydney where she won a bronze medal in the 800 free, while also learning valuable lessons that would help shape the rest of her swimming career.

While the 2000 Olympic Trials were special to Sandeno, nothing was quite as special as the 2004 Trials in Long Beach.

To grasp why these Trials have remained special to Sandeno, one has to look at the journey she went on between the 2000 Olympics and the 2004 Olympic Trials. After returning from Sydney, she graduated high school and went to swim for Mark Schubert at USC. But once on campus at Southern Cal, it would only begin the long journey to 2004. 

From suffering a stress fracture in her back to being involved in a car accident in 2003, Sandeno wasn’t sure that the 2004 Olympics were even a possibility.

“The period between 2000 and 2004 was really rough for me. It was filled with a lot of injuries, illnesses, and a car accident,” she said. “Making a second Olympic Team really didn’t seem realistic for quite some time. It makes me emotional just thinking about them and just the importance of family. My Family being at Long Beach and knowing that they were in my corner through such a rough season leading up to it was just so special.”

The journey and hardships from Sydney to Athens would pay off for Sandeno; at the Athens Games, she won three medals and found her golden glow.

The Last Trials

In 2008, Trials found their new home in Omaha and for Sandeno, she knew it was becoming time to find her life outside of the pool. 

“I’m glad I got to know when it was my last meet because I got to go out on my terms.” Sandeno said of the 2008 Trials. Little did she know at the time, but her swimming career would come to an end almost like the end of a movie.

Following the final of the 200 IM, where Kaitlin touched eighth, she made her way to the side of the pool where she was greeted by Natalie Coughlin, who simply said to her: “I’m going to miss you. I’m going to miss this.” 

Sandeno’s swan song would be even more magical as the crowd gave her a standing ovation and NBC gave her a farewell interview. All of this gave her memories that she continues to hold on to.

“It was just a very memorable, even though the meet didn’t go in my favor, I’ll never forget that moment.”

Four years later in 2012, Kaitlin returned to Trials for the first time not as a swimmer and it was an adjustment.

“Being there in 2012 was hard because I love to race, and the emotions of the meet were still so fresh.”

While the 2012 Trials in Omaha would serves as Kaitlin’s “swammer” Trials, it wouldn’t be long before she found her way back onto the Trials pool deck.

Back on Deck

In 2004, during an appearance on the Today Show during the Athens Olympics, when prompted with the question of what she wants to do after her swimming career, Sandeno told anchor Katie Couric that she wanted her job.  

Little did Sandeno know at the time that she would take on the Today Show equivalent for USA Swimming at the 2016 Olympic Trials.

“In 2015, I received an email from Mike Unger about having a role at Olympic Trials and I thought this is really cool.” 

Hosting USA Swimming’s Deck Pass Live every morning of Trials, while also serving as the Deck Host along with Brendan Hansen for the finals sessions, Kaitlin became a face synonymous with the 2016 Trials.

In her role with USA Swimming, Sandeno holds the type of job that only a handful of people currently get to hold and it is not something that gets lost on her. 

“It’s extremely flattering, especially to get asked back for the third time,” Kaitlin said. “For me specifically, my comfort zone is the fan engagement. I really want the fans to get to know these swimmers on a personal level because they can relate with these athletes. I will never forget that Katie Ledecky came up and said, ‘You do such a great job getting the fans engaged and the swimmers feel it,’ and to have her say that really put into perspective the role that Brendan (Hansen) and I have.”

Making a Difference

When it comes time for a swimmer to decide to hang up the goggles for the final time, it is never an easy decision. Choosing what to do after one leaves the pool is often even more difficult. However, what Kaitlin Sandeno has been able to accomplish not just in the pool but out of it, is something that everyone can look up to.

Ultimately, Kaitlin’s impact on Olympic Trials and swimming is one that extends beyond what happens in the pool. She has shown through her career as a swimmer and host what it means to be able to swim at Olympic Trials and what it means to represent USA Swimming.

“To be an ambassador for this sport is truly one of my favorite things to do in life,” she said. “To be able to share my story, my experiences, and to represent the swimming community is a really high honor.”

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