Phyllis Reffo no ordinary NCAA athlete
Like most NCAA Division I athletes, Phyllis Reffo is learning how to balance a rigorous training schedule with her academic studies.
Unlike most college athletes, Reffo is 49 years old.
After high school, she put off college to pursue a modeling career that took her all over the world. Eventually, she moved to California, married, raised two daughters, Jena, now 14, and Tess, 12, and opened a women's clothing boutique in Malibu.
In 2006, Reffo started to see a decline in the retail industry, as consumers began making the shift to shopping online. She was also navigating the personal storm of divorce.
As a single mother, she felt she needed more of a financial safety net. So, in 2008, Reffo closed her boutique and enrolled at Santa Monica College. Reffo hopes her journey has taught her daughters important life lessons.
"I want my girls to realize that they are responsible for themselves, and they can't rely on anyone to take care of them," Reffo said.
While working out one day in the pool in between classes, she caught the eye of her kinesiology professor, who also happened to be the women's water polo and swim team coach. He invited her to attend swim practice.
Reffo, who started swimming at age 43, did a few drills for the coach, and earned an invite to the swim team in 2009, but due to recent knee replacement, she only practiced with the team, unable to compete until the following season. In 2011 she took home the Santa Monica College Coaches' Award.
When it was time to look for a four-year university, Reffo chose Pepperdine for its sports medicine program, "and for the personal attention it gives its students." It doesn't hurt that the school is a 10-minute commute from her house.
While the NCAA said it does not keep track of the ages of student-athletes who compete, she is believed to be among the oldest female athletes in Division I history. NCAA computers weren't equipped to handle a collegiate athlete who graduated high school more than 30 years prior and her information had to be manually entered to circumvent an automated system with a default high school graduation date of 2004 or later.
Other "aging" swimmers have taken notice and are cheering for Reffo.
"I think it's awesome," said Dara Torres, an Olympic gold medalist of the '90s who gained fame for competing at age 41 in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where she won three silver medals. "Going back to school and swimming on the team is a big commitment. I'm impressed by her dedication."
Added five-time Olympic medalist Janet Evans, who at 40 is attempting a comeback of her own: "It's very inspirational to see a woman breaking the barriers and going after what she wants, especially when it's never been done before."
In the beginning, some of Reffo's new, much younger, collegiate teammates were skeptical.
"At first, I thought it was pretty weird," said Shannon Adkins, a 20-year-old Pepperdine junior. "I remember seeing her name on the emails this summer, and I went through and added all the new girls on Facebook. When I saw her photo, I thought, 'She does not look like she is in college.' When I found out she was 49, I didn't think it was going to work out. I assumed she would be on the team for maybe a week."
But it did not take long for Reffo to start winning over her teammates.
"Once I met her, I was like wait -- she's really cool, and she fits in with the team really well," Adkins said. "She's incredibly dedicated. It's awesome. We'll go to her for advice if we're stressed in school or having boy problems. At the same time, she is one of the girls. I had my birthday dinner recently, and she came. It was like hanging out with one of the girls."
While there are days Reffo really feels her age, she draws inspiration from the tremendous athletic ability of her teammates, who are always willing to give her tips or pace her when needed.
But it seems that Reffo is actually the real source of inspiration.
"To have the drive to do something challenging at her age has motivated me in my life now, and it will continue to motivate me as I get older," said 20-year-old Pepperdine junior and swim team member Natalia Barragan.
In order to fulfill her roles as mother, student and collegiate athlete, Reffo begins her day at 5:30 a.m. to get her daughters up and out the door before she heads to morning practice. Then it's classes and homework before heading back to the pool in the late afternoon. Evenings are reserved for family time.
Reffo has noticed a change in her daughters since she joined the team. Jena has brought her grades up from last year and seems more confident, Reffo said.
"They are drawing some strength and independence from [my experience]. They are not letting outside people influence how they feel about themselves, so that is good because it is really tough out there for young girls now.
"A couple of my youngest daughter's friends went up to her and said, 'I saw your mom on CNN the other day.' It's exciting for them."
Mom is officially cool.
Back in the pool, Pepperdine coach Nick Rodionoff is still determining which events Reffo will swim. Her 4x50 freestyle relay team finished sixth in the last meet, he said. She also swam the Malibu Mile, a grueling 1,650-yard race, and finished seventh.
Although Rodionoff has never coached a 49-year-old, he said her maturity adds a lot to the team dynamic.
"She is determined and focused," Rodionoff said. "Some of our kids, particularly the ones that are away from home for the first time, can lose focus at times. When they see someone who is a lot older that can focus in and still have fun doing it, it's great for them. She is able to really relax, too."
Yet, Reffo's inspiring story is one that almost never happened.
Pepperdine's swim team was nearly a victim of budget cuts following the 2009-10 season. Through rigorous fundraising and generous donors, the program was saved at the 11th hour.
While it seems Pepperdine is giving Reffo a second chance in life, she just might be doing the same for the swimming program. Her story is bringing attention to the school. With that attention may come recruits and, hopefully, financial assistance.
It is Reffo's hope that donations will continue to roll in to Pepperdine to ensure the future of the swim program, so other athletes will be able to realize their dreams just as she has.
"It is never too late," she said. "Start small. Go big."
To help Pepperdine sustain its swim team, contact Sam Lagana, associate vice chancellor for athletics, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 310-506-4454.