By Maggie Hendricks | April 15, 2019, 6:15 p.m. (ET)

Caitlin Leverenz Smith celebrates after a race at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Swimming on June 28, 2012 in Omaha, Neb.

 

At the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Swimming, Caitlin Leverenz Smith missed making the Olympic team by five hundredths of a second in the 200-meter individual medley. This came less than four years after she won the Olympic bronze medal in the event.

That put her at a crossroads.

Should she continue swimming? Should she try a different career?

After some soul searching, the UC Berkeley grad realized she was more excited by the prospect of trying something new than continuing to compete and trying to make it to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. 

Now she had a whole new challenge. To get there, Smith had to not just try something new, but figure out what exactly the new challenge should be. 

“The process of not finishing my career the way I hoped I would threw me into the liminal space, the transition space,” said Smith, who graduated from Cal in 2014 with a degree in public health.

An email about the Visa Olympians and Paralympians in Business Development Program popped up in her inbox at the exact right time, so she applied for it. The program puts Olympic and Paralympic athletes who have already completed college into a two-year rotation in different business areas at Visa, a worldwide sponsor of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. 

From the moment she started at Visa in September 2017, Smith realized that focusing on her swimming career meant she never learned the mechanics of working in business. 

“I had never used some of the basic office tools,” she said. “I didn’t know how to navigate a big business. I didn’t understand how to work with HR. Tactical things like that took a long time to learn.”

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Being in a rotation through Visa meant she had a taste of several different jobs, learning both what she liked and what wasn’t a great fit for her. 

“I had a role where I was doing a lot more reports, analyzing data behind a screen,” she said. “I was a lot less in front of clients, a lot less developing relationships. I learned for me the relationship aspect is huge. I want to be the person who is working cross functionally. I want to be that person pitching in front of clients. It’s kind of drawn out the strengths and areas I want to hone in on.” 

Putting her swimming days behind her has not meant that she has had to start from scratch, though. Smith has found that many of the strengths she picked up during her athletic career have come into play in the business world. For one, she said swimming taught her not to be afraid of failure.

“As an athlete, you’ve failed more times than you’ve succeeded,” she said. “You learn the growth mindset aspect. With failing comes a lot of growth, a lot of learning and ability to move forward from there. From day one at Visa, I was willing to take the bull by the horns and take on any project I could. I was kind of intentionally finding opportunities for me to fail. Because I experienced it in my athletic career, I knew that was kind of where the good stuff will happen. That’s where I learn a lot.”

The program was championed at Visa by Kate Johnson, the company’s vice president of global sponsorship marketing and a 2004 Olympic silver medalist in rowing.

“What Kate was able to do, and what the marketing department has championed, is proven that athletes experienced the different kind of grit and personality traits that are drawn out in the process of achieving something that great and that carries into the business world,” Smith said. “We sponsor the Olympic movement. We’re passionate about athletes. We’re passionate about bringing people from all over the world together to have this big, communal celebration around sport. We’re passionate about working with the athletes we’ve worked with. How do we bring it to the business?”

Athletes are connected to the Visa positions by the United States Olympic Committee’s Athlete Career and Education (ACE) program. In addition to promoting the program and its application to athletes, ACE helps applicants prepare for interviews through mock interviews, resume prep and connections to the current program participants, including Smith, who attended the 2018 ACE Summit to speak to her fellow athletes.

Smith was part of the program’s initial cohort of three athletes, which was followed a year later by another three athletes, and she is one of two who landed a permanent role. She began as a senior analyst in March.

Applications are now open (visit TeamUSA.org/ACE) for the next round of Olympic and Paralympic athletes, and Smith thinks any athletes who are on the fence should definitely “go for it.”

She was joined in her cohort by Olympic rower Nareg Guregian and Olympic triathlete Greg Billington. The second cohort consisted of Paralympic cycling and swimming medalist Kelly Crowley and Olympic rowers Devery Karz and Sam Ojserkis.

“As an athlete, if you’re in this transition space, it’s really hard and nebulous, and you don’t know where you’re going, and you don’t know what the best place to start is,” she said. “First of all, put one foot in front of the other and go for it. At the bare minimum, Visa is a company that takes hiring very seriously. It’s a significant vetting progress with interviews with people in the business. Regardless of the outcome, that’s a really good experience to get, for now or later in your career.”

She wants athletes to see what they can bring to a business, and remember it as they’re applying to jobs. 

“It’s not about the fact that I swam up and down the pool really fast. That’s not what makes me as a candidate that stands out,” said Smith. “But talk about those skills, those experiences, that really were adding to your tool chest. Experiences that helped shape who you are, helped give you that oomph that makes people excited to meet you.” 

Maggie Hendricks is based in Chicago and has covered Olympic sports for more than 10 years for USA Today and Yahoo Sports. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.