Born On: March 13, 1983
Hometown: Lake Forest, CA
Resides In: Irvine, CA
Education: University of Southern California '05
In 2000, Kaitlin Sandeno sat atop American swimming. She qualified for the 2000 Summer Olympic Team where she made three Olympic finals and won a bronze medal in the 800 meter freestyle. She lived in the heart of the Orange County swimming community, and was the ‘next big thing’ in American swimming.
And she was only in high school.
Sandeno was only 17 years old when she made her Olympic debut, but she already had an incredible maturity and internal awareness about herself.
Even as a teenager, where she was the star of most teams she was on, she recognized the importance of the “team” part of swimming. She knew that even in individual endeavors, it was key for a team of athletes to support each other and push each other to new heights in the water.
Sandeno’s first Olympic experience was particularly unique, as the 2000 Summer Olympics were during the American Autumn. That meant that she couldn’t simply finish her high school exams and focus for the summer. She had to juggle training camps, elite competitions halfway around the world, and math homework all at the same time. But she came home, and was crowned Homecoming Queen later that year.
Her maturity was evidenced further between the 2000 and 2004 Olympics. Even with an 800 freestyle Olympic medal around her neck, she recognized that she didn’t need to be pigeon-holed into just being a ‘distance freestyler’. Kaitlin came home from Sydney not just with an eye toward how to become a better 800 freestyler, but looking for how she could become a better swimmer.
As a freshman in college in 2002, she faced debilitating back injuries, but still won three All-American awards, and two years later was a double NCAA Champion. She used the collegiate experience to learn how to handle the load of multiple races in the same day.
She rode that momentum onto the 2004 Olympic Team in Athens, where she won Olympic medals in three events: none of which were the 800 free. At that meet, she added a bronze in the 400 free, a silver in the 400 IM, and was a member of the gold-medal winning 800 free relay: one of the most legendary relays in American history.
That group included Natalie Coughlin, Dana Vollmer, and Carly Piper: swimmers who are now behemoths of the sport but at the time were each making their Olympic debuts. That made the 21-year old Sandeno the relative veteran of the group. This was a position that she was made for, and a moment that she was made for. She stepped up and anchored the relay to a gold medal and a World Record; and this wasn’t just any World Record - the group made dust of a record that had stood for 17-years.
But for all of her success in the pool, she always understood that swimming is a sport that is as much about life outside of the walls of a natatorium as it is numbers and medals. She developed this perspective through the daily battle pitting the swim life with just life, as the majority of her career took place while doing other things – going to school, serving as a volunteer assistant at USC, and living her life. She always viewed swimming as an important part of her, but also as a vehicle to grow mentally as a person.
Sandeno’s demeanor wasn’t a maturity shown in the ability to get up in front of a camera and repeat well-practiced, generic answers. Instead, she had the unique ability, even as such a young star, to be honest about what she was doing and where she wanted to take her career. This was a self-awareness that most athletes can only develop years after they hang up their goggles and have had time to reflect, but she had it from day 1. This is probably why she always swam at a level well beyond her age.