Former Olympian Ricky Berens is home watching swimmers like rookie Ryan Held stand on the podium next to Michael Phelps and collect gold.
In London and Beijing it was him.
“I’m excited to watch in a different way,” Berens said last week from Texas.
“It’s definitely a little weird because I’ve seen a different perspective. … I kind of miss that. But I definitely don’t miss the stress.”
In Beijing in 2008, at just 20 years old, Berens slotted into the 4×200-meter freestyle relay to win gold and set a new world record (6:58:56). His teammates were swimming heavyweights Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, and Peter Vanderkaay.
In London four years later, Berens competed in the 4×100 (silver medal) and 4×200 (gold medal) freestyle relays as well as the 200-meter individual freestyle.
Each Olympics, an entire village is constructed to house the athletes. In total, about 10,500 athletes descended on Rio de Janeiro. Most stay at the village, but not all—the U.S. basketball teams stay in a luxury liner moored at the Maua Pier.
Arriving at the village is where it all begins. Berens gives an insight into what that’s like.
“There’s so much excitement going on,” he said. “You’ve been training for four years, you’ve been in training camps, you made the team, you’re having fun with the team, and now you just want the meet to start.
“You get to go see the pool for the first time, you get to walk into the Olympic Village, you get to go see the cafeteria and all these other athletes.
“It’s that world that you’ve always thought about of what it’s like to be behind the wall. To be on the pool deck—you see it on TV and then you’re actually there.
“You’re on top of the world.”
Berens said he looked to Michael Phelps and the other veteran Olympians in Beijing. “They keep you on task and focused, so you really rely on the older guys for guidance.”
Winning a gold medal in Beijing was “a dream come true,” said Berens.
Berens swam third leg in the relay, grabbing his spot after edging out teammate Klete Keller’s time in the preliminary round.
The team sailed to victory 5 seconds ahead of silver medalists Russia.
“It’s one of those things you dream about when you’re a kid. You never actually think it’s going to happen,” Berens said.
He said he barely remembers the moment. “I was an immature 20-year-old running around,” he said. “It’s like a huge massive release and celebration. It’s just an amazing feeling.”
Back For More
The London gold was different.
At 24, Berens was the veteran.
“I was a different swimmer,” he said. “I was more prepared. In London, I had been in the relay team for 4 years. I was expected to be there. I was expected to be part of it. There was a bit more pressure.”
The Americans didn’t have it quite as easy this time but pulled out the magic to beat the French by 3 seconds.
“It was a much more intense gold medal,” Berens said. The rest of team included Ryan Lochte, Conor Dwyer, and Michael Phelps.
The 4×100 free relay was the reverse result, with French phenom Yannick Agnel relegating the Americans to silver with an astonishing anchor leg.
Berens swam his first individual race in London in the 200-meter freestyle. He came in ninth in the semifinals and just missed out on placing in the final—which was won by Agnel.
Competing at the Olympics is a special moment for athletes, said Berens.
After working so hard, “to be able to accomplish something like that is just unfathomable,” he said.
Then of course, winning is the ultimate dream.
“The feelings you have from winning, [you’ll] never have that the rest of your life. And to be able to say you’re a gold medalist and you’re one of the fastest people—that’s just crazy.”
“It’s … something I get to hold next to me for the rest of my life.”