Today The NCAAs, Tomorrow The Olympics
Feb. 3, 2004
By Candace Zepp
Oregon State Sports Information Office
Birte Steven's first swim meet was a failure.
'I was just sitting and crying, and didn't want to swim,' Steven said. 'But my parents wanted me to learn swimming, and my second attempt was a lot more successful.'
The dynamic Oregon State swimmer hasn't seemed to slow down since. She'll swim her final home meet for the Beavers this Saturday, when OSU hosts 23rd-ranked Washington at 11 a.m. in Stevens Natatorium.
Already a five-time All-American with a chance to swim in the Olympics for her home country of Germany, Steven's potential was spotted early on by a regional club in her hometown of Hannover.
'That is where I trained for 10 years of my life,' Steven said.She then embarked on a journey to the United States to continue her education and swimming career at Oregon State.
'Mariusz (Podkoscielny) had a big hand in me coming over here,' Steven said of OSU's former coach. 'He came (to Germany) because I wasn't able to go on a recruiting trip, and my parents were able to meet him.'
Podkoscielny, along with current assistant coach Magda Modelska, have international ties themselves, and have noted the importance of recruiting internationally.
The swimming program at Oregon State is fast on the rise, becoming a competitive factor at the collegiate level, and Steven has had a large hand in shaping it.
'I agreed with Mariusz's vision for the program,' Steven said. 'This was pretty much a program on the rise, and I felt like it would be nice to be part of something and make an impact.'
Make an impact, Steven has.
Going into last weekend, she had the NCAA-leading time in the 200-yard breaststroke, giving her one of the top 10 times in the world this year; she's also third among Division I women in the 100 breaststroke and 29th in the 200 individual medley. Steven is one of the most-decorated swimmers in Oregon State history.
Steven has earned All-America honors in each of her first three seasons with the Beavers to earn those five All-America finishes; she's the only OSU swimmer to have reached those numbers. She's also a two-time pick for both Region VIII All-Academic honors and Pacific-10 All-Academic honors while majoring in Psychology.
The dedication she has to swimming also shows up in the rest of her life, which right now is essentially her education.
'I love many things about OSU,' Steven said. 'The campus is really beautiful, but I also love my classes. I've had some really good professors who inspired me, and pretty much became mentors to me. I've learned a lot, not just about studying, but about what I want to do in life and the kind of person I want to be.'
Swimming at the collegiate level, like gymnastics and wrestling, are individual efforts geared toward team success. We look at everything Steven has accomplished on her own, but she says that isn't what you remember.
'All of my memories are of the team,' Steven said.
The team got a new coach this summer when Podkoscielny departed for the University of Miami.Larry Liebowitz stepped in the head coaches' pool for the first time, and hasn't looked back since.
He's introduced some new training methods that have really paid off - several records and bests have been met and exceeded by the women, and will continue to be as time goes on.
'She's become a really great competitor,' Liebowitz said of Steven. 'It's very hard to beat Birte when she wants to win. When you're approaching a meet, it's important to feel your best in order to swim your best. Birte is one of those people that knows exactly how to make herself feel her best.'
Add in former standout swimmer turned assistant coach Naya Higashijima, who also crafts well-written stories for the OSU Daily Barometer and displays the same passion by the pool as she does in her writing.
'Birte is the reason the program here at OSU has developed into what it is,' Higashijima said. 'The way she trains shows her determination. She is one of the few athletes that knows exactly what it takes to succeed.'
Both Liebowitz and Higashijima noted that Steven is a very goal-oriented person, and her strong beliefs help her achieve whatever she sets her mind to.
With all of this, there is a recipe for success - enough to cast any swimmer into the pros.
The pros? That's definitely where Steven is going after this March's graduation, right?
No. Sorry, folks.
Swimming doesn't have a pro league. Steven will vie for the top two spots at the Olympic trials this June against two other German swimmers who also train in the United States.
'You have to come here to train,' Steven said. 'In Germany, you either do swimming or school. If you have a meet on the same day as a test, you have to pick which you would rather be doing. The U.S. is very friendly to competition and school at the same time.'
Consider America the melting pot of success and competition for Steven and other international athletes.
Most who come across Steven, however, would view her as a true professional already.
'My first impression of Birte was 'WHOA, she can be really good!' She had such good races at the World University Games,' Liebowitz recalled. 'Her breaststroke technique is almost without flaw. When I first saw her, I saw some things I could help her with, but she was already very good and sometimes you don't want to tinker with things.'
Steven could earn her 100th career victory at OSU on Saturday against Washington; she currently has 97 wins. She holds the school records in the 100 breaststroke, 200 breaststroke and 200 individual medley and she's on the Beavers' all-time top-10s in seven different events.
Steven earned two All-America honors at the NCAA Championships for the second consecutive year in 2003, placing sixth in the 200 breaststroke and 11th in the 100 breaststroke. Steven's sixth-place finish was the best-ever for an OSU swimmer at the NCAAs and she was named OSU's Female Athlete of the Year.
In 2002, Steven became the first-ever OSU swimmer to earn All-America honors twice in the same year with her 16th-place finish in the 100 breaststroke and her 11th-place finish in the 200 breaststroke. As a freshman in 2001, she placed 16th at the NCAAs in the 200 breaststroke.
Watch the Olympics, she will be there - because she believes in herself and has the confidence gained from support of fans and her team alike.
For swimmers, the college platform is their professional life. It is on the starting block that these girls develop into women who can take on the world after graduation. It's like that NCAA swimming commercial - 'when I'm finished, I'll be ready to start.'
Steven is almost done with her swimming career, and will continue to do other things in graduate school. She wants to study neuroscience and become a professor.
She doesn't know whether she'll live in the U.S. or back in Germany, or where she will coach, but she does know she can accomplish whatever she sets her mind to.
One lingering question remains.
When asked what has kept her in the pool for so long, she replied with a smile, 'The chlorine smell.'