Mark McDermott

Ricky Berens, who beat Michael Phelps, heads to London looking for gold

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Ricky Berens will compete in the 200 Meter Freestyle race in London. Photo courtesy BMW

Ricky Berens received the greatest tweet of his life on July 2.

He was in Omaha, Nebraska, where the Olympic trials for swimming had just ended, and he was a bit dejected. Berens, who lives in Manhattan Beach, was a likely selection to swim on the U.S. men’s relay teams. But he’d finished third in the individual 200 meter freestyle, narrowly missing a chance to compete in an individual event in London later this month and somewhat quelling his Olympic dream.

There was no shame in it. Berens finished behind Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte, widely regarded as the two greatest swimmers in the world, and he’d already won a gold as part of the 4x100m team swimming with Phelps at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

Yet after a lifetime of dedication to an individual sport, every swimmer ultimately wants to swim alone in the Olympics. Berens had beaten Phelps in the 200 freestyle in his hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, in May, and had gone into the trials strong and hopeful.

“It’s great swimming those relays,” Berens said. “I love doing it. Those relays are probably the most fun events to be able to do at a swim meet. But I set my goals. I wanted to do something different: make two relays and make an individual race. That was what my goals were going into the meet, and leaving I was kind of disappointed I hadn’t reached that but then I got a nice little tweet.”

Berens, 24, was in his hotel room and just about to leave for lunch when he happened to check his Twitter feed. That’s when he saw it: Bob Bowman, Phelp’s coach, had announced that Phelps – who won golds in eight events in 2008 – was removing himself from the 200 freestyle to better focus on the other seven events.

“Wait! What!” Berens wrote, as he retweeted Bowman’s tweet to his followers.

He turned to his roommate, swimmer Erick Shanteau. “Dude,” he said. “I think I am swimming the 200 free at the Olympics.”

He tweeted again. “Words can’t describe how I am feeling right now. If Twitter is right, I am swimming the 200 free at the Olympics!!!!! This is nuts!!!”

Berens still wasn’t absolutely sure. Moments later, however, the announcement was made official by a U.S. Olympic spokesperson. Twitter was right. Berens was in the Olympics.

“It was just a huge surprise,” Berens said. “It was kind of like not making the Olympic team, and then making the Olympic team. It was just a huge shock for me, and I was extremely, extremely, excited.”

In the next half hour, bursting to share the news, he called several friends and family members. No one picked up. He left his room in search his girlfriend, Olympic breaststroke champion and fellow Manhattan Beach resident Rebecca Soni, and finally found her in the hotel spa. He told her he was joining her in London.

That night, he was finally able to sign the old red English telephone booth that someone had brought to Omaha. Every member of the Olympic team had signed it, but he hadn’t been able to until Phelps withdrew.

Berens, 24, said that competing in the 200 meter freestyle is his ultimate dream come true.

“It’s just something special, you know, standing up behind the blocks by yourself knowing you are getting ready to race the greatest in the world,” Berens said. “It’s just a different feeling. On a relay, you are going to be swimming with two other guys and celebrating with three other guys. Here it’s all about you, your parents…It’s just something very, very special that very few people get to do in their life, and it’s something I’ll remember the rest of my life.”

The 200m freestyle may be the most competitive race in the swimming world at present, with top competitors like Lochte, Germany’s Paul Biedermann, China’s Sun Yang and France’s Yannick Agnel vying for the gold.

“Everybody and their mother swims the 200 freestyle,” said Berens. “It’s just the race to be in right now…At the Olympics, it’s going to be a stacked race from all over the world. It might have been one of the biggest reasons Phelps pulled out of that race because it’s just so stacked.”

Berens will be regarded as a longshot to win the race, but his victory in March at the Charlotte UltraSwim over both Phelps and current world champion Lochte served notice that he is a force to be reckoned with. After that race, Berens told a surprised media contingent that his strategy to beat Phelps was simple – just get out ahead of him and don’t look back.

“I like being ahead,” Berens said at the post-race press conference, laughing. “It’s a lot easier to stay ahead than it is to try to run down Michael Phelps.”

“Ricky is swimming well,” Phelps said after that race. “He’s been improving a ton from meet to meet, so I think it’s good for him…and also good for the team.”

“It’s tough to get out there,” Berens said in an interview last week, a day before leaving California for the Olympic training camp. “But man, it’s definitely easier to hold him off than run him down.”

Berens, who swam at the University of Texas in Austin, credits much of his improvement to his relocation to Southern California last year. He made the move in part to train at USC – where nearly two dozen Olympians from all over the world have been training – as well as to be closer to his girlfriend Soni.

The couple has flourished living in Manhattan Beach.

“We swim totally opposite events, but it’s nice having somebody on the same schedule, someone who understands the workout that you are doing and why you are so tired every day, why you are eating so much,” Berens said. “And it’s fun to have her around. It’s very exciting now since we are both on to London, something that we have worked so hard together for. It’s going to be something special to experience that with somebody.”

Berens said that Uncle Bills Pancake House, the Kettle, and the North End Café are among his local “go-to” restaurants, and he regularly works out at Spectrum Club in the Redondo Beach Marina.

Both Soni and Berins credit the active, outdoor lifestyle of the Beach Cities as a key factor in their training.

“I wanted a big change before these Olympics,” Berens said. “Swimming outside doesn’t hurt.”

The couple can be seen on The Strand regularly with the third member of their local training crew, a wild-eyed dog named Kody. “That’s Rebecca’s dog, but I claim him as my dog, too, now. He is a character. He’s a rescue dog…He’s great, he’s one of the laziest dogs, but he has these spurts of energy and just kind of goes with the flow.”

Berens said there is small contingent of Olympic swimmers training at USC who surf together in El Porto, including Syrian swimmer Azad Barazi, a fellow Manhattan Beach resident.

Always upbeat by nature – he is one of those people whose default expression seems to be a wide-eyed smile –

Berens seems to have fully hit his stride.

“Life is good out here,” Berens said. “I am kind of living the dream right now. I wake up, swim, workout, and I get to do what I love doing. Swimming is a pretty tough sport, sometimes. There is not a big change of scenery. You are staring at a black line all day long during workouts, so that kind of gets old. But we definitely have fun with it. I am a happy person. I just go with the flow.”

But he isn’t going to London only for the fun of it. Berens said he fully intends to bring a gold medal home.

“That,” he said, “is the plan.”