Breaking barriers with Brianna
BLEACHER TALK - Rico S. Navarro (The Freeman) - March 1, 2020 - 12:00am

When told that it was time to go after 30 minutes of swimming with the whale sharks in Oslob, she said she wanted to stay longer. But being the respectful athlete, she abided. If I had my way, I would also love to have her stay longer in Cebu as she leaves today, but I’ll also have to abide by her schedule. She is Brianna Leverenz, a magna cum laude graduate from the University of Tennessee who swam for school’s varsity swimming team that competed in the US NCAA, Southeastern Conference (SEC) and other competitions. As part of her advocacy, she is in the Philippines for three months to share her story with the Mindanao Peace Games network, but thanks to MPG Convenor Noli Ayo and the whale sharks in Oslob, she agreed to swing by. Cue in the song “I Love Cebu.”

She has had a full schedule of daily talks, workshops and chats. Fresh from the airport, she has given talks to coaches at SHS-Ateneo de Cebu, chatted with their student-athletes and conducted swimming workshops for the past three days. One of these swimming workshops was at the Sisters of Mary School-Girlstown where she had a blast teaching the students there, some of who are swimming for the first time in their lives. She also had a talk with CESAFI Athletic Directors and coaches, then was the guest speaker at yesterday’s 37th Sportswriters Association of Cebu–San Miguel Brewery Cebu Sports Awards at SM City.

But what exactly is her story? Hers is a tale that contradicts the way I have always perceived college sports in the United States. To me, I’ve always seen majority of U.S. college sports programs to have a “win at all cost” mindset. It’s all about the winning and nothing else. Winning seems to be the only thing in the minds of many college sports programs, and it gets to the point where some go beyond the rules. Some are caught and penalized; but some find ways. No thanks to social media, the internet and the news, you’ll hear of so many sad and horrible stories about athletes being athletes and forgetting that they are students. Do they earn their degrees? Do they even study? Make no mistake about it, the same also applies here to us in the country. But the American model always stands out.

Brianna’s arrival in the country has given us a fresh breath of air against this “win it all cost” mindset with which we’re bombarded in school-based sports. I’ve heard and have preached that sports plays a major role in the lives of athletes, and here we have a live and real-time model. Sports for her was a major tool in shaping her life. “I practiced 30 hours a week, went to class and achieved my goals as a student and an athlete,” Brianna says at all her talks. The result? Magna cum laude (only), a four-year stint in collegiate swimming and a lady prepared for life up ahead.

“I learned so many life skills from staring at that back line of the swimming pool,” she recalls, adding that the advantage of swimming as an individual sport is that it makes oneself the sole cause for one’s success or failure. She said that sports has amazing ability to “visualize what you want to achieve and to go beyond yourself.” It shapes people. “I am who I am today because of sports,” she stresses.

This became larger than life when she broke her spine when she was 16 years old. She was told that she couldn’t be a swimmer anymore. She couldn’t go to class and cried herself to sleep. Moreover, she had to re-learn how to sit and walk all over again. But she overcame all this and even earned a partial athletic and academic scholarship at the University of Tennessee. “I worked hard both in practice and in academics and I could’ve just not wanted it,” she quips.

The coaches and teammates also played a huge role in her development as a swimmer. She recalls how her coach asked them to write down their life goals, and not just swimming or technical goals. And this was how the coaches would guide them through their college careers: not only for swimming-related matters but more importantly concerns regarding their growing up as individuals and becoming better versions of themselves. Teammates’ support was very important as they served as best friends who picked everybody up when they were down and who gave very simple greetings of “Good job” even if they didn’t have their best races. Teammates become one’s best friends and when they strive for success together, they are determined to succeed and pursue that goal together. Did she have a love life? Yes she did and said that relationships are also important especially when one’s partner respects your dreams and helps you reach these.

And now that swimming is over, she’s all set and well-equipped to move on and chase her dreams for the future. Part of that is her mission to share her story to Filipinos. She has fallen in love with the country (who wouldn’t) and has been impressed with what she has seen in the 14 different towns or cities that she has visited so far. Thanks Bri. Thanks Coach Noli Ayo. We are all inspired by your story and may all athletes follow the path you took and make sports as an integral tool to break down barriers and reach their dreams in becoming better persons.

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