Fowler: Berens ends swimming career on top

July 31, 2012 

— Shortly after Michael Phelps set an Olympic record by winning his 19th medal Tuesday night, Ricky Berens pulled Phelps and their other two relay teammates aside.

“I told all those guys that for me this is the end of my career, too,” said Berens, who grew up in Charlotte and would be on a short list alongside Melvin Stewart as the best two swimmers in the city’s history.

Just like that, at age 24 and in the prime of his swimming career, Berens declared his retirement. He had just won his second Olympic gold medal in the 4x200 relay final – he won his first in the same event in 2008.

I talked to Berens about it a few minutes after that. With Phelps dominating the media attention, we were alone in the midst of a crowd in a London hallway outside the Aquatics Centre.

“I’ve been swimming for so long,” Berens said. “I’m very excited about the way my career has gone. I don’t think I could get any more out of what I have and I’m ready to move on. I love swimming. I love what I do. But there’s more to life than swimming. And going away with two Olympic gold medals and a silver (which he won in the 4x100 relay earlier in these Olympics) – I’m going out on top.”

So what’s next?

“That’s the exciting part,” Berens said, and what he meant was that it was exciting to not know exactly what he was doing for once instead of knowing that he was about to head for the pool again.

“I’m giving myself until Jan 1 to take a break,” he continued. “I’m going home to Charlotte for a week and then to California (where he has been training, along with girlfriend and Olympic medalist Rebecca Soni). I need to plan some things out and figure out what life is after swimming.”

Berens, who went to South Mecklenburg and has a degree in finance from the University of Texas, said he might go back to school to pursue a Master’s degree in sports management. “I’d love to stay in athletics or swimming,” he said.

Now I would hasten to say that some swimmers retire for awhile after the Olympics and then come back a year or two later. On the U.S. team right now there are several high-profile swimmers who did exactly that.

That could happen with Berens, too. He’s very young to retire in a sport where athletes often compete into their late 20s. Everyone inside swimming had pretty much taken for granted he would try for and likely make the 2016 Olympic team as well.

Once in our interview Tuesday night, Berens said he was “pretty positive” about retiring. That was a lot more of an honest answer than saying he was completely sure of what he was doing.

For who is completely sure of anything at age 24?

What is clear is that Berens needs a major break from swimming. He has had swim goggles on for half his life, and he’d like to take them off and see the world. Hard to blame him for that.

You won’t meet a nicer guy than Berens. Even when he’s very disappointed, like he was after not making the final in his one individual race at the Olympics (the 200 freestyle), he is unfailingly polite. He is almost always smiling. His parents – John and Leslie Berens, who still live in Charlotte – raised him right.

Maybe Berens will ultimately reconsider this decision. Maybe he’s done forever. Either way something will work out well for Berens, who is smart, handsome and disciplined the way every good swimmer has to be.

But if this really was it, then the last competitive swim of his life resulted in an Olympic gold medal, a national anthem and some teary-eyed pictures. You can’t do much better than that.

Scott Fowler: 704-358-5140; sfowler@charlotteobserver.com

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