CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It's hard to take your eyes off Ricky Berens.
The Charlotte native with a movie star smile, won an Olympic gold medal in Beijing, has a sponsorship with BMW, and a fan club of swimmers who lined up at the Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center Wednesday night for his autograph.
Berens, along with Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte and Peter Vanderkaay, took gold in 2008 in the 4 x 200 freestyle relay. The athletes not only finished on top, but also broke a World Record by coming in under seven minutes, the first 4 x 200 relay to do so.
But despite the hype that comes with being on top, the South Mecklenburg graduate has remembered his roots.
Who was his favorite teacher? Easy. "Miss Morris at South Meck," he laughed.
Favorite hangout? "Bojangles. All my buddies used to hang out at Bojangles after morning practice and before school," said Berens.
Berens, in Charlotte for the Ultra Swim, is making another Olympic run. On Friday and Sunday he'll swim in the Grand Prix event as a warm up for the June Olympic Trials in Omaha.
"I'm ready. I'm very excited," he said.
Berens is ready for a repeat of that relay, he admits, and a chance to swim another relay and an individual event too. "It's indescribable to stand on the podium and hear the National Anthem play. It's just a dream come true," he said.
If he makes the team, Berens said the London games will be different from his first experience.
"I was very young in 2008 and kind of an underdog," he said. "I've been focused on the Olympic Trials for two years. I want to stay with the big boys and aim for the top two spots."
Berens has been in Los Angeles training with the Trojan Swim Club and Coach Dave Salo. And while his goal of Olympic gold has pushed him to train harder, it's also taken him away from family, roots, and even his mom, who got him started in the sport when he was in pre-school.
"She was my coach when I was younger. And then summer league since I was four. She coached me till I went to MAC, and then I kept on swimming," he said.
It's worked out well. And on this Mother's Day weekend, it seems fitting Berens is at home, in Charlotte, where his career began.