May 21, 2020

Kaitlin Sandeno - Olympic Medalist

Kaitlin Sandeno - Olympic Medalist

Kaitlin Sandeno Hogan is an American former competitive swimmer, Olympic gold medalist, world champion, and former world record-holder. She joins Lawrence Peryer to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on collegiate, Olympic, and professional swimming.

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Kaitlin Sandeno Hogan is an American former competitive swimmer, Olympic gold medalist, world champion, and former world record-holder. She also is now the national spokesperson of the Jessie Rees Foundation, a motivational speaker, coach, sports commentator, emcee, and host for world-class sporting events. 

She's also the GM of the D.C. Trident which is part of the International Swimming League. She joins Lawrence Peryer to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on collegiate, Olympic, and professional swimming. 

You can learn more about Kaitlin on her podcast "Behind the Blocks" and the book she coauthored, "Golden Glow"


Hosted on Acast. See for more information.


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Lawrence Peryer:  Hello.


Kaitlin Sandeno:   Lawrence, hello!


LP:                        Kaitlin, how are you?


KS:                        I'm doing fabulous. How are you?


LP:                        I'm doing well. Thank you so much for making time.


KS:                        Yes, absolutely. Sorry, I'm just going to start this. Please forgive me. I'm in my bedroom. I was inside of my office, and they have construction right outside of my window, and I was like, well, that's not going to work.


LP:                        Well, I was – that's funny, because I was holding my breath. The landscapers were outside in the development that I live in, and I think they literally stopped about three minutes ago.


KS:                        Perfect! You feel my pain right now.


LP:                        Tragedy averted.


KS:                        I know. Work-from-home problems, right?


LP:                        Yeah, exactly. The perils are nonstop. How are you and yours holding up throughout this craziness?


KS:                        You know, we are on a wild roller coaster, as my middle sister was diagnosed with breast cancer in November, so she got through for chemo treatments before we got into quarantine, and it just made it exceptionally hard on our family  – obviously on my sister, just to not to not really have her support system being able to go with her, and then for me, just feeling so helpless. Like, how am I supposed to be there for her?


                              So just trying to, in the end, stay positive, stay optimistic, and just support her as well as we can. But as you know, it's hard to support from a distance, especially when you're just so used to always being there. I mean, we live about 30 minutes apart, and, you know, just simple things, from when she wouldn't feel good after chemo, I would just lay in bed with her, and we would just watch TV. And so not being able to do that, and not sitting with her during chemo. So that's been the hardest part, I would say, for our family.


                              But then we had a very amazing, emotional moment where her husband and I coordinated a car parade after her final treatment, and that was just absolutely incredible. This turnout was surreal. It was powerful. It was really moving. It was very touching, and not only for my sister. I mean, my sister was just absolutely blown away, but people that participated in it reached out to me, thanking me, like, "Thank you so much, I needed that. That was the highlight of my quarantine, and that was so special. That was so great to be a part of." So you could just tell, our community needed it just as much as my family.


LP:                        Yeah, I'm sure. I appreciate you bringing it up, because I saw that you had posted on social media a few times about how your sister was doing, and I wasn't sure – you know, I wanted to ask you about it, so thank you for bringing that up. How is she doing now?


KS:                        Absolutely. Yeah, you know, again, the roller coaster begins – or never ends, I should say, because then we are in this high of celebrating, "Whew, what a relief, we got through that part," and then the realization that surgery is in three weeks. And again, that's a whole other challenging time to be in the hospital, with the surgery that you have to have, and she's like, "I don't want to be in the hospital," and she actually – I mean, she could never catch a break, from the beginning. She ended up getting blood clots, was in the hospital for that. And so because she's on blood thinners, they want to keep her overnight, and, you know, we have to just drop her off and leave. Like, there's no waiting room for us to sit in.


                              So she's very emotional right now. She's very fragile. But my mom got through this about three years ago, and I keep telling my sister, I'm like, "Cam, you know you're stronger than mom, right?" It's kind of our ongoing joke.


LP:                        Aww.


KS:                        Nothing against our mom, but it's kind of one of those, like, "Girl, you got this. If mom can do it, you can do it."


LP:                        Yeah. You're allowed to do that between sisters, I think.


KS:                        Yes.


LP:                        So let's maybe use that as an entry point to some of the other impacts of the current situation. I wanted to get your take on a couple of sort of broader topics, and then I also want to make sure that we talk a little bit about some of your current projects, but I'm really curious as to what your perception or experience has been with how of the pandemic situation is impacting athletes.


                              And my first question is your thoughts or any experiences, conversations you've had with high school and college athletes who are maybe like, you know, this is their – this was their sort of last moment. You know, they were going to continue in college, or they weren't going to continue on professionally, and it's something that I find particularly heartbreaking, whether it's student athletes or student performers, who aren't going to get to do the senior play or the final competitions. And I'm just curious if you've spoken to people, and how does that feel? What's that look like?


KS:                        Right, definitely. I think you nailed it when you said heartbreaking. My heart just sank when I saw that the NCAAs had been canceled. I mean, it was the week of.


                              And I did speak to a lot of graduating seniors, and I think what the – the overlaying emotion was anger, at first, you know, really angry and upset and sad, a lot of tears. But at the same time, I got a sense of team more than ever. Most of them mentioned, "well, my teammates and I," and "my coach and I," and they weren't going through this alone. And that was something that was, you know, kind of keeping my hopes a little bit higher is that, you know, everybody is in this together. And I know that's becoming so clichéd, and I know that's kind of what everybody is saying over and over again, but I can't think of a time where you can honestly say that everybody is in this together, that your hardship is somebody else's hardship, and it is affecting everyone in very similar ways – for athletes.


                              The part that was a kicker was that in-between, when they didn't know – the time between NCAAs and the Olympics and the Olympic trials – and they are in this weird in-between, where they are not allowed to be training, they weren't allowed to be in a pool, but then they're being told, "Well, no, don't worry, the Olympics will continue," like we are still going to have the Olympics.


                              So they are scrambling to try to find training facilities, and – you know, for example, my mother-in-law, she doesn't know much about swimming, and she's like, "Well, is it really that big a deal if they're not in the water for a little bit?" I was like, "It's huge. It's everything." And she's like, "Well, you know, the Olympics are so far away." You know, this was in March when it was happening. "The Olympics are so far away. Why do we have to make these decisions so far out?" And it's like, because they can't train. They can't train. You're not going to be at your best, and you're not going to be able to show the world what you're capable of doing.


                              So the fact that they are out of the water, it's a feeling thing. Like, for swimmers, if they don't swim on Sunday, they don't feel good on Monday. I mean, it's really that – I don't know if it's the element or if there's something about our sport, where it's a touch, it's a feel in the water, and being out of water just throws you off your game.


                              So they were in this scramble of, "I need a pool! I need a pool!" You know, the Olympics are still happening. And my heart really broke for them then, because, yeah, you have a couple superstars that are sneaking into people's backyard pools or have little side setups, but then you have other swimmers that don't have those opportunities, or they have more stricter environments or nobody's backyard pool or anything. And then you're really saying, "That's not fair."


                              So I almost feel like everybody kind of took a deep breath when everything was postponed, and I feel – the sense that I got was almost relief. It's like, well, at least now we know, and they needed some time to decompress and wrap their head around that and then regather, refocus, reorganize, and then push forward.


                              You know, the great part right now is, it's not canceled, it's postponed, so they still have something to work towards – although there are rumors that ultimately it could be canceled. But from the athletes I have spoken to, they are all going to keep doing what they can do outside the pool to help them with that transition when they can get back into the pool and then march on for the Olympic Games next year.


                              But, you know, those seniors that don't – that they don't get that quote-unquote "last meet," they were crushed, you know? And I get that. How do you ever redeem that moment, you know? And I spoke to the reigning NCAA women's Swimmer of the Year – she was that her junior year, so heck yeah, she was pumped for her senior year. And then to speak to her, she was just like, "Yeah, I didn't want to talk to anybody for a little bit." You know, I reached out to her, being the GM of the professional swim team, because I was trying to recruit her for my team and just didn't hear from her for a little bit, and I was like, "I just want you to know I support you. I understand that what you're going through is probably just a wave of emotions. When you're ready to talk..." and she said, "You know, I really appreciated that. There were people reaching out to me, and I felt like I had to get back to them so quickly," but she's like, "I just wanted to catch my breath."


                              So I was just trying to be as supportive as I could, being a veteran of the sport and still being involved in the sport and just listening, and just sending random messages, like, "just want you to know I'm thinking of you, sending you positive vibes, mentally, physically, emotionally." And I got some really amazing feedback for that, just swimmers just being really grateful, like "thank you, you know, that really means a lot."


LP:                        Yeah, of course. I'm curious also as to, you know, you talked about the Olympics. Let's talk for a minute that there's zero noise about the Olympics being canceled, and the Olympics are going to happen next year. What does that mean in terms of the disruption or to the cadence of a life that's built around not only preparing for the Olympics but all of the individual sort  of milestones leading up to it – the meets and the qualifying and trials? How do you just – I understand you can pick up the event and move it a year, but how do you move the individual's preparation and mindset and – I mean, that makes for a very unique Olympics, I would think, and a very unique Olympic experience for the athlete.


KS:                        Absolutely. And if there's one thing about athletes, they are structured, and they're used to game plans, and they're used to schedules. And then you just totally rocked their world, flipped it upside down. The Olympics happen every four years, so that's a game plan in itself. I mean, there are coaches that write out two-, three-year plans. Usually that's kind of the year –most, furthest out is kind of like, "All right, let's get you back into the groove of things."


                              But again, I think what it comes down to, and I've always thought this way about athletes: The difference between a good and a great athlete is how they overcome adversity and how they handle mental challenges. Yes, there are some physical challenges with this being postponed, because of the aspect of not being in a pool, as I shared. But mentally, who is going to step up to this the strongest? And I think that is in itself going to be like, okay, again, everybody's been in the same boat. Everybody had the same obstacles to overcome. But who mentally flipped that switch? Who, mentally, was like, "All right, one more year"?


                              And the way I'm trying to explain it to athletes that I have relationships with is, instead of like, "Oh my gosh, one more year," it's like, "Yeah, one more year!" Get faster, stronger, more mature, more experienced, more mentally prepared. Let's use that one more year to get better.


                              Again, easier said than done. Somebody asked me, "Kaitlin, what would you do in this situation?" And I said, it depends what year Kaitlin you're talking to. So circa 2000, my first Olympic Games, you know, 17 years old, the plan was to keep swimming and keep swimming and keep swimming. Nothing would have changed for me.


                              If this was circa 2008, where my plan was to be done after 2008 Olympic trials, Olympics, I don't know what I would've done, because honestly, by the end of my career, I was so ready to be done that year. My body hurt. I was broken down. I was injured, I kept getting sick. And quite frankly, the love of the sport had really dissipated. And so I don't know if I would have been able to hang on one more year.


                              My sweet spot, 2004, where I really swam my best, I would have hung on another year. You know, I was rocking and rolling. I felt strong. I was confident. I had overcome a lot of adversities and a lot of injuries. I was just now getting into a groove. I probably would've been even better, giving myself one more year, because I literally had just overcome some injuries.


                              So that – like, you had brought up, it's such a game plan, right? And there are some athletes I've reached out to that were planning on being done this year, and they're like, "I think I need to find a job," and I was like, "Who's hiring?" You know what I mean, too, though? And I don't – I didn't – I literally said that to one young man, and I was like, "I don't mean to be rude, but –" and not to say that nobody's not, but I mean, if that was me, I'm like, just keep swimming, man. Let the economy kind of shake itself back together.


LP:                        I think that's a fascinating point, actually, that in this time, like what else can you really do? So in a way, it is an opportunity because there aren't as many, maybe, temptations or distractions or options, really. And I know that not everybody has the same socioeconomic luxury to look at the world that way, but it is an interesting opportunity for people in the right situation.


                              I thought a lot about that sort of group of people you referred to who are maybe on the bubble and are at the tail end of their competitive lives. I'm like, a year can feel like so much.


KS:                        Mm-hmm.


LP:                        You know, I spoke to Coach March a few weeks ago, and he was saying, you know, there's the people who were thinking, like, I'll be done at the end of Tokyo, and maybe I'm going to be enrolled in school in September, or I've got a job lined up or an internship, or – you know, people have made commitments and thought of, you know, maybe they're planning a family. There's like –it's not just about any one of them. It's in the context of a larger life. It's incredibly complex, incredibly complex.


KS:                        It really is. It's – and I feel so selfish saying this, but it's like, I had a plan based off this Olympics, and that's just for me professionally outside of the water, you know? Like, I was slated to do the 2020 Olympic Games, live on deck emcee. You know, I did it four years ago, and I had a four-year game plan. I wanted to be back. I wanted to be involved in the Olympics, and I was booking all these gigs, leaning forward, and it's like, I'm not even an athlete, and my world just got rocked. But it's based off the Olympics, right?


                              So it's like, I'm in that sphere, and I'm not even doing the hard training, and I'm like, dang, this sucks. And like you said, it's like, planning a family and that next chapter, and it's like, what do I do? Do I push through, trying to make the next Olympics? Like, do I get the call up again?


                              So, like I said, to me, it's really mind blowing for me to – it's hard for me to wrap my head around this, that we are – literally, every single human being is going through this, because of the same thing. It's crazy.


LP:                        Yeah. There's not a lot of things that we go through as a planet.


KS:                        Right? Yeah, like, literally. That is just – it's still hard for me to wrap my head around that.


LP:                        How has this impacted the International Swimming League and DC Trident in particular?


KS:                        Yeah. So, again, our schedule, our meet schedule, was completely based off of the Olympics. We were going to start competing the second weekend of September, and we had a very action-packed – my team was racing three weekends in a row in September, a weekend off in October, back to the grind, and we had to completely halt that. We had 10 meets scheduled, and now  –  I'm actually really proud of the ISL because I feel like they are one of the first professional leagues that got a backup plan real quick. They're like, "Okay, this is what we're going to do instead."


                              And having said that, I don't even know if it can happen in October. So right now, they have a plan of going to a quote-unquote "camp" in the middle of October to the middle of November, where all 10 teams would go. This camp would be for training and competing, all under one roof, and even if we can't have fans, we can still have broadcasts. I mean, people are just dying to watch sports right now. So the concept is this unity of all the teams together. But can we do that in October? I don't even know if we'll be cleared to travel, and what countries are going to be open? You know, right now, the goal is to be in Australia. That's 320 athletes, give or take.


                              So we had to obviously restructure to support the athletes' Olympic dreams and goals, because season two was supposed to be post-Olympics. So let's ride off this, you guys are in great shape, you have the – everybody is about sports, and the buzz of swimming and let's ride off of that momentum. Now it's like, okay, back to the drawing board. We haven't had the opportunity for these athletes to already go to the Olympic games – or, sorry, go to the Olympic trials, go to the Olympic games, so we still have to support them like we did last season financially.


                              We want to help them be able to continue, not have to worry about, "Oh my gosh, how do I even afford to train for another year?" let alone, half these swimmers can't even practice right now. So then if we can find this training environment where they can all push each other and support each other and – and as we talked about earlier, just asking some swimmers on my team, like, "Okay, I know your plan was to be done this year, but now are you going to keep swimming? Now do you want to be on DC Trident?"


                              Some athletes have been like, "Look, I can't go another year." Like, I'm enrolled in school, or I can't travel that much this year, because I need to be, mind only focusing on the Olympic trials. So it is a mixed bag. You have some swimmers that, as soon as this all kind of went crazy – you had two different types. Types that were coming after, like so excited: "Can I be on your team? Can I be on your team?" It's almost like they needed something, something they could count on. And other swimmers would be like, "I have no idea what's going on right now. I can't commit to anything."


                              So I think, you know, that's a mental – just a personality trait. Some people that need that next thing right away: Okay, what can I prep for? What can I be excited for? What can I get involved with? And some people being like: We don't even know what's happening. We don't even know we can get in a pool. We don't even know we can get on a plane, you know? So very much different personalities, definitely.


LP:                        How does the GM role contrast with being an athlete and your time in the water?


KS:                        Well, it makes me very empathetic, and very – I feel like I am the mother hen of all of them. Last season, they started joking, like, "You're the best stage mom ever!" you know. But I'm very organized. I know what they need. So I think that part is great.


                              But it's funny. Obviously, for me it's completely different. It's such a different profession, per se, because I was mostly doing broadcasting and modeling and writing a book, and then come over and I take over this professional swim team with 32 athletes. And what I love about it is that I truly believe that we are growing the sport, and we are providing opportunities that haven't existed and didn't exist for me. I'm still super competitive, and sometimes I feel like I'm one of the swimmers because I'm so into it. I'm jumping up and down in the stands, and I just want it so bad for us. But then, you know, you have to be the organized one. You have to make sure that they have their passports, and they are getting on the plane, and they have their nutrition, and it's very much – well, I don't want to say mother hen, but it is.


                              You know, you're taking care of them. They're still – even though they're professionals, they're still young adults. And just making sure that their priority is – that's my top concern, is there health or safety, their well-being, just that they are feeling comfortable in a very new league and that we are doing everything that keeps them in line for their ultimate goals, their big-picture goals in the sport.


LP:                        Yeah. You mentioned being in the stands and sort of cheering them on or jumping up and down at those peak moments, and I wonder, what's that experience like for you, in terms of not being able to directly impact the outcome?


KS:                        You think if I don't yell loud enough, it doesn't do anything?


LP:                        That's indirect. That's indirect. I said directly impact.


KS:                        It's hard, because I am still so very competitive, and I – it's funny, because I don't really swim that much, but I'm like, you know, I could still maybe hang in there. Or I look at the times they're going and compare myself. I'm like, where would I stack up on this?


                              So there's some swimmers where I'm like, oh, I'm so glad I don't have to race her, and then there's some I'm like, well, maybe I could still have a shot in this, you know?


LP:                        Oh, I can take her.


KS:                        Yeah, exactly – in my [prime 00:21:48].


                              But no, it's been – the best part is just connecting with this generation and staying involved in the sport. You know, this is a sport that did so much for me, and I'm so grateful to it, but, you know, it's a sport that's popular every four years, and then it kind of just – it "disappears," quote-unquote. It's not that we're not racing. I mean, the swimmers have a schedule that just never stops. It just doesn't get the exposure. So if I could be a tiny little part in helping the sport grow and develop and be more than just an Olympic sport that happens every four years, I'd be really thrilled with that, you know?


                              And just giving these – I keep saying kids, or I always refer to them as kids, but they're not. But it's like, they are to me, because when I was doing this, I didn't have anybody trying to get me some side money or get me monthly income just to keep swimming and making great prize money, going to race, and helping them build their brand or helping them learn how to, like, just market themselves well. And if I can just be that type of mentor for these athletes and help them ride their swimming career maybe just a little bit longer, that's what I'm setting out to do. That would be a real big accomplishment for myself.


LP:                        Yeah. You mentioned that you don't spend a ton of time in the water, which I get, based on your early comments about you – you know, when you were done, you were done.


KS:                        Yes.


LP:                        But you started a new podcasting venture, and I'd love to hear about that. But my first question about it is, was that initiative born out of the Covid sort of opportunity, or was it something that you are planning to do anyway?


KS:                        It was presented to me right about the time that this all – the Covid started. Had it not been for Covid, I don't know if I would've had the time or the mental capacity to take it on. Because of Covid and not being on airplanes and not as busy, and ISL schedule really basically sliced in half, if you will, I was like, all right. I've got a little extra time right now, and still sticking to that goal of mine of trying to build our sport and bring attention to swimming and specifically women's sports and women swimmers.


                              You know, swimming is a coed sport, and they compete at the same time. They don't really have a women's season and men's season, and the opportunity to be with this podcast that highlights only women in sports, and then for me to be taking this women and swimming – I'm like, this is the perfect opportunity for me to A, try something new  –  I've never been on this side of the podcast – and B, to try to highlight these women that want to keep swimming and get their word out there and help them have a voice.


                              A lot of these women are just so intelligent and so insightful and so mature, and I thought it would be the perfect time for Beata Nelson, who I spoke about earlier, the defending NCAA reigning Swimmer of the Year – I bet a lot of people want to know how she felt when her senior year was just cut short, and coming into an incredible year. And I thought that younger swimmers could learn from her at her outlook on it. And Amy Bilquist, who has overcome tons of injuries and just keeps on pressing on.


                              I think right now, everybody needs inspiration and motivation and needs some type of pickup, and a lot of these coaches and swim parents are like, what can I can do right now? How about this? How about you listen to this podcast and let it inspire you and motivate you? And having Cindy Gallagher on, who has been a coach for like 38 years. And, you know, a lot of people are worried about, and how do I get into college, and had a way swim in college? What better insight than to listen to Cindy for 35, 40 minutes?


                              So I will say, I was a little hesitant at first. I was like, I don't know. I've never really done it on that side of things. But then I really had no excuse. I have the time, and it aligns really well with what I'm passionate about, and I've really, really enjoyed it. I've filmed for. It's only supposed to be a six-episode special, but at the rate we're going – there's so many amazing women athletes that I would love to interview still.


LP:                        Do you see expanding it on to athletes in multiple sports?


KS:                        It's funny you ask that. I actually was just having a conversation with the producer the other day. She was like, "You know you could do other sports, right?" And I was like, yeah, I do feel – I love sports. I was a huge tomboy growing up, and I am still very passionate about sports, and I just think the more that we can, again, highlight women in sports and make them the role models, not the YouTube stars or the people on reality shows and – you know what I mean? If we can kind of tweak that quote-unquote "mentor" or "star" in people's life and have it be a positive role model for our younger generation to look up to, I would love to continue to highlight women in sports.


LP:                        Yeah. And so the podcast is called Behind the Blocks – 


KS:                        Yes.


LP:                        –  and we will make sure that we link to it from the episode


KS:                        Thank you.


LP:                        And thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate your point of view, and I appreciate you taking time out from overseeing the construction work that's going on in your in your neighborhood.


KS:                        Thanks. No, thank you for having me on. I really appreciate it. I was very honored to get the invitation.

Kaitlin SandenoProfile Photo

Kaitlin Sandeno

2-time Olympic Swimmer 4-time Medalist

2-time Olympic Swimmer 4-time Medalist, speaker, host, and author