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July 15, 2020

Olympian Kaitlin Sandeno shares her story of overcoming disappointment and finding the silver lining in everything

By Dan D'Addona and Kaitlin Sandeno

Excerpt from the book Golden Glow: How Kaitlin Sandeno Achieved Gold in the Pool and in Life by Dan D'Addona and Kaitlin Sandeno (2019). Used by permission of the publisher Rowman & Littlefield. All rights reserved.

Kaitlin Sandeno touched the wall and looked up. With hope in her eyes, the 17-year-old Olympic swimmer found her name on the scoreboard and the number “4” next to it. That hope quickly faded away as Kaitlin tried to wrap her head around what had just happened. It was the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia, and this teen phenom from California had just finished one spot away from medaling.

She was crushed.

Of course, Kaitlin had wanted to win a medal at the Olympics—gold preferred—as any world-class athlete would strive for, but this was different. Kaitlin had overheard plenty of medal talk leading up to the games, then in the Olympic Village as the games began. She was the first shot at a medal for the United States, as the 400-meter individual medley is traditionally one of the first events of the games. Plus, she was lining up against Ukraine’s Yana Klochkova, the best in the world.

All of that medal talk got to Kaitlin. It was something that had never happened before. She had never been so visibly crushed after a defeat. But that was a turning point for Kaitlin. She would never be that crushed again, no matter what happened in the pool. She vowed to never let the talk of others get into her head again—and to find the silver lining in every situation and make that her gold.

Sometimes, that silver lining—and gold—is literal. Four years later, Kaitlin was back in the Olympics in Athens in the same situation. And again, she was going head-to-head with Yana in the finals. This time, she hung with Yana the entire race, and the two touched the wall together. Yana won the race by a mere tenth of a second, but it was Kaitlin, getting silver, who began to celebrate like she had won. She jumped up, yelled, and was so animated that people were afraid that she misread the scoreboard and thought she had won the race. But Kaitlin knew she had the number “2” next to her name. After learning from her experience in the 2000 Olympics, Kaitlin was focused on her time and not so much her place. She could not control how fast everyone else swam. She could only control her own lane. Kaitlin didn’t care that she won the silver medal, barely missing gold. She was thrilled because in a race of that magnitude, she was somehow able to drop six seconds from her previous best time. Now, the 400 IM is not a sprint, but it is far from a race like the mile, which typically sees time drops like that. This was one of the biggest and most stunning time drops in the history of swimming. Six seconds from the Olympic trials to the Olympics is unheard of, until Kaitlin raced her 400 IM in 2004. Unlike four years prior, where the situation crushed her, this time, she crushed it with the right outlook and a stunning performance.

Even though Kaitlin would go on to win Olympic gold on a relay, a relay that took down a world record, she maintains that her silver medal in the 400 IM in Athens was her gold. It was her moment. The one where she proved to herself what she was truly capable of in the water. It was a life lesson that she lived and took with her into every aspect of her life.

Many people view a silver lining as a negative thing, but Kaitlin has embraced it as life’s plan. Things don’t always go perfectly, and how people handle the disappointments and pain is what shapes them. It is not an easy thing to bounce back from hurt or heartache.


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