Athletes for Hope

Swimmer Bri Leverenz and The Experience of a Lifetime

When I sit down to journal or draft a blog post, I find myself smiling uncontrollably reliving these special moments I am experiencing. Over 8 weeks in this country, and it is flying by. The day my flight left the United States I was incredibly nervous, even to the point that I asked my mom to take a half day at work to run last minute errands with me. I was looking at three months in a foreign country with zero real idea of what to expect. This trip has made me an incredibly happy and significantly better person, but not for any reasons I would have predicted. My initial nerves have been validated because of how different my everyday life looks living the Philippines compared to San Jose, California, but in the best ways.

I am a Caucasian female who grew up in the suburbs of the United States. I have never experienced what it means to be a minority, until now. It is an experience that is humbling, flattering and sometimes uncomfortable. Random people will stop me or stare at me entirely because of how I look. I joke that I am a Filipino celebrity because I can hardly make it through a day without getting asked for a picture or autograph. Yesterday, I walked in to a public high school of 4,000 students and was I bombarded for pictures (to the point I couldn’t even exit the room) because I am the first Caucasian these kids have ever seen. I did not anticipate this, or ask for it, but it has become my new normal. Another new perspective to add to the list of things I have learned. A statement I can now comfortably say: I never want to be a celebrity.

“Normal” has become such a relative term. I get to spend every day with kids teaching them how to swim, encouraging them with new swimming skills, or sharing my life story about the importance of sport. I get to play sharks and minnows with girls who are poorer than I could ever fathom (and their smiles would melt even the hardest heart). I can inspire a 16 year-old amputee with one leg that he can be an amazing swimmer if he keeps dreaming. This is a far cry from my day to day lifestyle in the United States. Some cities I get an itinerary, others I just take it an engagement at a time. I can read on a sheet of paper “Talk with varsity coaches and athletes” but then I walk in to a room of dynamic athletes, enthralled with my story, eager to listen, ask questions, and share their stories. Each experience is so much more than the title on the schedule. There are a few things I know that I can predict now:

  1. Students are impressed by academic achievements. Graduating with honors is something they get excited about (Can I bring this home with me?!?)
  2. I ALWAYS get asked two things: How old am I? Am I single?
  3. If I want to get a cheer all I need to say is “Sana All” or do my best attempt at the local dialect. (Everyone wants to teach me something about their culture and have me connect with their community. )

A coach I worked with asked me if I do this at home in the US, and I paused before I said no. For 22 years, I have taken for granted the value of sport and the lessons it can teach. Now I get to spend every day teaching and learning about the impact of sport. Strangers open up their homes to me, feed me everything I could ever want and more, and they constantly open my eyes with experiences I couldn’t even imagine, ALL because I am an athlete. I’m just a Caucasian girl from the suburbs of the US in an area Americans never come to, getting the experience of a lifetime.

Driving me to the airport my mom asked me honestly, “I know you are nervous, but have you ever thought about canceling the trip?”. I didn’t even have to think when I answered “No. No way”. This is the best thing I have ever done for myself.  I get to hike in hidden waterfalls, swim with stingrays, and be constantly humbled by a world more vast that I ever imagined. To all of the Filipinos reading this, thank you for changing my life and making this experience unforgettable. To all of the Americans reading this, I hope you can take a blind leap of faith and have an experience like this one day.

Sending smiles from the Philippines!!

Brianna