Stroke of Genius
Ricky Berens, an MBA graduate from St. Edward’s, shares business lessons from competitive swimming.
Ricky Berens devoted nearly two decades to competitive swimming, earning spots on the 2008 and 2012 Olympic teams and winning gold medals as part of the 4x200 freestyle relay teams both years. Now he’s applying the same work ethic to the startup world as the field activation manager at Nulo, a natural pet food company based in Austin, Texas.
While he’s focused on the business world, Berens hasn’t forgotten the lessons he learned from swimming. A recent graduate of the MBA program at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Berens applies concepts that helped him win in the pool to his new career.
“At the 2012 Olympics I handed off the relay to Michael Phelps to finish for the gold medal,” Berens says. “He counted on us to do our part so he could do his.”
The same concept applies in the business world, Berens says. Regardless of personal differences, everyone on the team has to work together. “You’re learning how to deal with all the different personalities — your boss, your team — to accomplish one common goal. If you don’t do your part, you’re bringing the rest of the team down.”
In the 2012 Olympics, Berens, who had finished third in the 200-meter freestyle at the Olympic trials and one spot away from earning an individual berth at the Olympics, got a surprise chance to compete in the event when teammate Michael Phelps opted out to focus on other races. Berens, who badly wanted to make the Olympic finals in an individual event, was thrilled. But in the last lap of his semifinal swim, he sized up the swimmer in the next lane and decided he was in the lead. Berens took three slow strokes to finish, but the athlete next to him took four fast ones and touched the wall first.
“I missed making the Olympic final by one tenth of a second,” he says. “Being ninth at the Olympic games is not a failure, but it meant not accomplishing one of my biggest goals in life.”
Two days later, Berens had to swim essentially the same race as part of the 800 freestyle relay. He didn’t have time to dwell on his earlier mistake. This time he shaved a second and a half off his time, and the team ended up winning an Olympic gold medal.
“In the business world, you can have the worst week and have a project completely crash, but you have to get up Monday morning and fix it,” Berens says. “This is especially true in a startup. One week you’re on top of the world; the next week you’re figuring out how to bounce back. It’s not a question of whether you will, it’s a question of how.”
Training as a swimmer, or any kind of athlete, requires patience and persistence. Berens had tremendous speed in the butterfly when he was 14 — he broke Michael Phelps’ national record — but it took two years of training before his time improved dramatically. It took another two years of work, without much progress, before he significantly improved his speed again.
People hit plateaus in business, too, he says. It takes persistence to keep working when there’s no visible improvement, to stay the course. “There are days you’re worn out, but you just keep powering through because you know you’ll get to that next level eventually.”
The MBA program at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, builds highly sought-after skills in entrepreneurial thinking, social enterprise, innovation, global collaboration and business analytics — the areas that business leaders need in today’s business world.
Robyn Ross is a special projects editor. Photo courtesy of Nulo Pet Food.