Smarties, do I have a treat for you! I am so excited to introduce you to Smarty Mom extraordinaire Leslie Berens, the proud mother of three, one of whom just happens to be Ricky Berens – yes, THE Ricky Berens – Charlotte’s own Olympic swimmer. I was just giddy when she said “yes” to being a Smarty mom – I felt like Oprah must feel when she lands a big interview – because she’s the Real Deal. She’s more than “Ricky Berens’ mom” – she’s a legit athlete and coach in her own right. She’s fascinating to talk to – I mean, wouldn’t you want to interrogate a mother who’s been “around the block” and soak in all of her experience and advice? Yep, I got to.
Leslie has always been active – growing up in Indiana with three brothers, she first asked her mom to let her swim at age 7 because all of her friends could swim and she couldn’t. She went on to play 4 different high school sports (swimming, basketball, tennis, and volleyball – the latter three she learned in high school). She and her friends started hearing about Title IX through the news, and Leslie knew she wanted to get a scholarship to college in some sport somewhere. She went on to be one of the first female recipients of a volleyball scholarship at Miami of Ohio. Amazing.
The next part of her story sounds like a lot of ours: she married, moved to Charlotte, and started raising her family. They lived in Olde Georgetown, and she would take her older two children, Jessica and Ricky (then toddlers), to swim every day at the neighborhood pool. She’d also swim laps for exercise there. They soon approached her to be the swim coach of their summer swim league – she accepted and went to SwimMAC for advice for swimming and coaching. She’s been with both swim clubs ever since (about 20 years) plus she’s the swim coach for the South Meck swim team.
Just being around the pool all the time watching their mom coach and swim made her kids love the sport – it’s pretty amazing how one small decision affected the path of the family! All of her kids were about 9 when they started swimming year round for MAC (a very deliberate move on their part – she and her husband didn’t want their kids getting burned out). And as they say…the rest is history.
They all played other sports growing up but fell in love with swimming. Her oldest, Jessica, swam until she was 16 and now works in the healthcare field and is an “exercise enthusiast.” Her middle, Ricky, is headed to his second Olympics in swimming. And her youngest, Tim, is a rising junior at the University of South Carolina where he swam for awhile before getting injured.
She and her family are in London as we speak supporting Ricky and all of his teammates – several of whom are from Charlotte! Leslie – hope you and your family hear our cheers bouncing all the way over the pond to you!
Smarties, meet Leslie Berens!
Smarty Mom Leslie’s Stats:
Married to: John Berens, 30 years
Kids: Jessica, 26; Ricky, 24; Tim, 20
Hometown: Born in Pittsburgh, grew up in Indiana
Alma Mater: Miami of Ohio
‘Hood: South Charlotte
Tell us what it was like to be one of the first women to play collegiate sports right as Title IX was implemented by the NCAA. It was all so new but I remember working very hard to try to get a scholarship some where in some sport. I played 4 sports in high school and lettered in all of them. I decided to push hard in volleyball and play at a college since I probably wouldn’t play volleyball my whole life-golf swimming and tennis I could do for a lifetime. I went to a camp at Miami of Ohio and the coach liked my hustle and offered me a scholarship. I was thrilled and now all of us old timers are called the “pioneers” of women’s sports. We packed 15 girls in a van and drove for hours to compete-now they take planes and chartered buses.
As Ricky’s second Olympic Games begin, what are you feeling (as his mom)? There is a relief now that the Olympic trials are over for him and our family. In 2008 it was magical and unexpected and this time we were all thinking can he do it again? There is definitely a “high” when you make an Olympic team and realize your son is one of the top swimmers in the USA. Realizing how much work he has put into his training and seeing him using his gifts is a true blessing and we give glory to God for this experience. Our hearts will still be pounding though when he dives in to swim in London!
Describe the feeling of knowing you had a part in raising an Olympic athlete. The feeling is like “seriously” This really happened in our family? Looking back on it now and the things I did with the kids when they were little I laugh. Ricky’s success comes from all members of his family helping in some way over the years. Keeping sports fun but yet shooting for excellence was always part of our experience. I do laugh when I think I gave birth to an Olympian-and it was a tough birth!
How old were your kids when they started to really get serious about swimming? Did they always love the sport, or is it something they learned to love? Swimming was something that fell into our lap and they learned to love the sport the more we spent time with it. I coached a summer league team when Jessica was 4 and Ricky was 2. They hung around the pool all day long. I learned how to coach/teach the sport better every summer and taught the skills to the kids but we always had the element of fun and team thrown in a long the way. At The age of 9/10 and Tim (my third child) at the age of 12 they decided to swim year round at SwimMAC Carolina but they did other activities until they were 14. At fourteen, all three kids decided to devote themselves to the sport of swimming and see what goals they could reach.
What are some ways you encouraged your children to persevere in sports and school without being too pushy it? Balance was key for us. We never demanded straight A’s and we never demanded “being #1.” We worked very hard to raise well rounded kids that were polite, respectful and did their best no matter what it was. If their best was a B or last place then that was all we asked. The great thing I love about sports is what it teaches kids. There were times they failed and lots of times that I fail as a mom but I always learn from the experience and what could I improve on the next time. The kids learned that too. When they got disqualified in swimming they learned from it and never did that again. If they got a bad test grade they learned from it.
What advice would you give parents of younger children who show real skill and talent in a particular sport or activity? Pace yourself!!!!!!! I have said that for years. We didn’t know how good Ricky was-we never mentioned the word Olympics ever in our house until he made the team in 2008. We just enjoyed the sport and enjoyed watching our kids swim and accomplish new goals. When I see a 6 year old swim fast and then the parents get all excited and want to send them to a swim camp for the summer or buy them all the necessary equipment I tell them to slow down. You want them swimming until the age of 18 and beyond. Let them enjoy the “growth and maturity in the sport.” Let them learn from every experience a long the way. Let them earn that big Speedo swim bag or that expensive swim suit. Looking back on what Ricky has done, we see the plan and the times he didn’t reach his goal we now see why. He had to learn from those disappointments to make him the swimmer he is today.
What do you love most about coaching (South Meck’s swim team and Olde Georgetown’s summer swim team)? What surprises you about it? That’s an easy question. I love seeing kids number #1 using their gifts or talents that God has given them and not wasting it. Even if they are not the best on the team, they can swim and dedicate themselves to something then that is what I love to see. #2 is seeing a swimmer or young person reach a goal. Improve so much that they knock off time, learn a flip turn, and figure out how to do the butterfly, on and on. #3 I love motivating and inspiring young people. Go after something-see what you can do! I hate apathy!
Now for the fun stuff…
Who is your celebrity crush (because for some of us – it’s Ricky hee hee)? Matthew McConaughey
What is your favorite date-night spot? My husband and I don’t go out much in Charlotte. Our kids are always on us to go on more date nights. Our magical place though is our lake house that is only 45 minutes away. A little piece of Heaven on Earth and we always have great dates there! Never have argued once at the lake house!
Behavorial trait you are happy your kids didn’t inherit from you? I have so many bad traits but probably my inability to relax and sit still. I can’t sit long enough to read a book or just sit doing nothing. My 26 year old daughter is a bit busy like me but she can kick back and relax better than I. Ricky and Tim relax the best in the family especially when they are not competing.
Guilty pleasure? WINE!
What’s your family’s favorite home-cooked meal? I’m not much of a cook but when they were young and even today we like to have fondue for birthday dinners with chicken, shrimp and steak. We’d sit and eat and cook for hours. It’s our longest time sitting at the kitchen table together and it has been so fun over the years.
What’s your favorite thing to do with your kids when they are all back home? Go out to dinner (since I don’t like to cook fantastic meals) and ride in one car together. Now that they are adults it is fun to hear them talk about each other and make fun and laugh about when they were little. Ricky makes us all laugh and he always has! And our joke is that we have to have a coupon when we go out to dinner and they think that is ridiculous so we argue where we are going and if we have a coupon.
Favorite sport to watch (besides swimming!)? Golf. I personally attempt to play golf so I understand what I am watching and the competitiveness of it all and how mental that game it. How pros play 4 days in a row to win amazes me.
If you could go back in time and talk to yourself when you were a new mom, what would you tell her? Sit more and play with the kids. But remember I can’t sit so that was hard for me. I was a “keep them on a schedule” kind of mom so I wish I would have thrown the routine out the window a little more. But then maybe that helped them to learn discipline which is a good trait to have in life!
Thank you, Leslie, for sharing your time and your story with us!