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Posted On December 1, 2014 By In Interviews And 819 Views

A Swimming Leif

You might find Leif (pronounced “LEAF”) at the pool with a near perfect swim stroke propelling himself through the water at incredible speeds or you might find him at White Rock Lake running loops on a Saturday morning washed in sunshine. His grin carries him through his day.

His home sport is swimming, but he’s athletically gifted in other areas as well. His long, flat torso adds in generating power for various strokes. But it also comes from his shoulders and long hands that add to that momentum, giving Leif animalistic instincts in the water.

Quiet to those around him, he doesn’t boast about his accomplishments or goals. One can see the humility in his soft eyes and gentle smile. When talkative, he’s philosophical and analytical. When he was younger, he says “I was really good at talking to people about their problems. Today I am an executive recruiter so not much has changed.” He smiles.

He’s a nice guy, hardly a person full of himself or the excitement he exudes in his home away from home, the pool.

“It was a pleasure to meet you the other morning,” he writes after agreeing to be interviewed back in October 2013. “Happy to talk further with you at your convenience.” What a nice guy. “Sorry these have been slow,” when asked about questions concerning himself. “I am been buried with a new job. Let me go through these this week if not today and get these back to you.”

When the original photo shoot for this story fell through on December 13, another one had to be rescheduled.

From 1999-2000, he was treated at the Baylor Cancer Center for stage two lymphoma, a cancer that develops in the blood. “I’m actually involved today in some of their testimonial campaigns.” This motivates Leif to raise money for cancer research. Since then he says he only swims for charity.

“I am actively involved in Swim Across America (SAA) and Team Mustang (which I captained in 2013). The swim raised over $300,000 and Team Mustang raised $55,000 for local cancer research at Baylor Cancer Center. Team Mustang was the #1 fundraising team, beating the UT team.”

He lists this achievement has his number one favorite moment while racing or training. In the future, he wants to raise $1 million dollars for charity through swimming.

Born in Santa Monica, CA February 11, 1971, his father was an electrical engineer and ran a defense contractor business before retiring in 2000. Leif’s mom was a home maker. Siblings included Donnalee Wennerstrom, now Carlson, and Eric.

Leif was raised in Northridge first, next Menlo Park (1982-1984), and then Los Gatos (1984-1989). He graduated Leigh High School in San Jose, 1989. After attending SMU from ’89 to ’93, he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication.

There have been many notably famous residents of the San Francisco Bay Area town Los Gatos, where Leif spent the most of his time: Neal Cassady – author and iconic figure in the Beat Movement of the 1950s and 60’s, Hal Chase – early 20th century baseball star (born in Los Gatos), Olivia de Havilland – Actress, Peggy Fleming – Olympic Gold Medalist figure skater, Joan Fontaine – actress, Victor Koman – science fiction writer and publisher, Roger Maltbie – former PGA Tour Golfer now golf analyst for NBC Sports, Ryan Nyquist – professional bicycle moto-cross rider, Jeremy Roenick – former San Jose Sharks hockey player, John Steinbeck – acclaimed author, and Steve Wozniak – Apple Computer Co-Founder.

He grew up as usual for a boy outside San Francisco, except he swam a lot. But there was also soccer, football, dance, and basketball. Basically, sports were a big part of his life. And girls, he says. “Human performance, philosophy, and psychology always fascinated me.”

He was most scared of failing, “and not being somebody. Probably not being liked, too.”
When did you start swimming?

He had inspiration to excel in swimming. His older sister, Donnalee, was a 1976 Olympic finalist in the 200 meter Butterfly and 400 meter Individual Medley. His brother and sister both went to college on a swimming scholarship. “I was around swim meets from birth.” His first competitive meet was at age six, winning the 25 yard free style at the East Los Angeles Jr. College in 1977.

Today, his favorite race is the 8 x 200 meter relay. His favorite meet was the 1992 Dallas Morning News Swimming Classic. “I anchored the relay to hold off Olympic Gold Medalist Josh Davis and we beat the University of Texas in that relay and won the invitational. Right there in SMU Perkin’s Natatorium. It was really our only true victory over UT in four years of NCAA swimming.”

Another favorite race of his is the 1992 NCAA Finals in the 200 meter freestyle where he broke the SMU school record. Then added, “So many relays, too many to count… I love to anchor relays.”

When Leif was younger, he was influenced by family members, sports figures, and rock stars, he says. “Generally people who seemed to win at things. It took me until my 30’s to realize that achievement and winning can’t fill you up 100%. Serving others can get you there.”

Today, he cites Jesus Christ as one of his big guides in a world that can turn a person around. “What you don’t know about me is I am a grateful follower of Jesus Christ. My purpose is to live courageously and share God’s love where I can. At 30, I became a Christian and realized that true fulfillment comes from serving rather than achieving.” Going down the list is his dad. “He used to get up at 5AM every day and work like crazy.” Next is Cindy Pitta. “San Jose Aquatics swimming coach from 13-15 years old. She told me that I had lots of talent that other kids would love to have. That I should be thankful for it and make sure I don’t waste it. I broke the 13-14 [age group] 100 meter Long Course, and 100 meter backstroke national records that summer. I just missed the 200 meter backstroke record. Once I realized that training and working hard was its own reward, it stuck through my professional career, too.” Last is Tony Robbins, a self-help author and motivational speaker who became well known through his books, Unlimited Power, Unleash the Power Within and Awaken the Giant Within. “I learned the science of success, but most importantly, how to find true fulfillment- gratitude and actively blessing and loving people.” Likewise, he admires Jesus and Mother Teresa, and his wife. “People who stand up for what they believe and pay the price for it. People who are scared to death but do it anyway.”

Today, Leif’s heroes include teachers, firefighters, missionaries, and stay at home moms. “Anyone who sacrifices so others can flourish. Anyone can learn the pattern to accomplish a goal. True fulfillment comes from service and charity. Multiplying to others what has been given to you.”

With his wife LARISSA (“We met in a bar.”), whom he married August 1997, they have one daughter, Ava. She’s eight years old. Outside of swimming, Leif loves spending time with his wife and their daughter snowboarding, wakeboarding, cycling, and running.

Swimming has done a lot for Leif. “From a young age, I have been a gifted swimmer. For the last few years, that gift has helped raise awareness and fundraise for cancer research. It is one of the few sports I can do until I die. My life is an absolute blessing because of swimming. It paid for college.”

He feels passionately about giving back and raising awareness for cancer. As a result, Leif doesn’t keep the same fitness, nor race as often using his swimming talent to help charities and raise awareness through the area.

“DFW has a solid swimming community but I am not as involved in Masters competitive swimming. For me, it is about swimming as a way to impact the cancer community. Livestrong and Komen are great examples of recruiting adult athletes to a cause greater than simply personal athletic bests. Getting people to run, walk, or bike who would likely never do it.”

At his best in high school and college, Leif was swimming 70-80,000 meters per week. Divided up through the week over double workouts for five days and one long swim day, he was averaging over 7,000 meters per workout. That’s a massive amount of volume compared to a normal workout at Dallas Aquatic Masters (DAM) of 2,500-3,000 meters per session, which is what he does today three to four times per week in a drag suit that creates more resistance. As an All-American at SMU, he’s a school record holder in men’s swimming.

With so much face time in the water, unable to communicate, we asked Leif what does he thinks about to help pass the time while working out, essentially solo.

“Usually any challenges that I have. If I can lap anyone in my lane? How hard can I train and for how long during a workout?” What inspires him to get in the water one more time? “Staying in shape, and how I feel when I am done. It’s a habit. I am a morning person.” He cites his regular training partners as the people in Lane 1 (the fastest lane) at Dallas Aquatic Master (DAM) at the SMU and Baylor locations, 6 am workouts.

In addition to his current training, he does 30-60 minutes of cardio, plus weights. Such long term training comes with a price to the body. In 2008 he had rotator cuff surgery in his shoulder, and in 2011 had to be treated for bulging discs in his back.

This year he completed the Swim Across America (SAA) challenge in Lake Ray Hubbard, while serving as a committee member for the Dallas chapter. He was also the Team Captain for the Mustang swimmers who swam SAA.

What are your PR’s?

“As an adult, I have only swam open water swims for cancer research.”

As a man is wont, Leif reads, and listens to music. Musically, he’s stuck in the 80’s, especially hair metal, he says, listening to Sirrius Hair Nation. He’s been reading his Bible, attending Fellowship Dallas Bible Church, and reading several business books. He says his job is stressful right now leaving little time for anything else.

Admitting he’s not fashion conscious, he shops at “Wally Mart.” “Occasionally, I’ll hit Nordstrom for the experience.”

He works for Cloudera- Independent Consultants, having been in recruiting since 1996. His title is Senior Recruitment Consultant. His LinkedIn page is very impressive with top honors for what he does, several times.

Before jumping in to do another 3,000 meter set of intervals, Leif leaves us with these words of wisdom about swimming and staying active:

“All of us have gifts. My purpose is to use those gifts to share what I believe to be the truth- that God loves us all and wants the best for us. Swimming is a gift that allows me to stay in shape and better serve my family, the community, and God.”

And as the little boy who was afraid of failing, he swims freely into the future.

A Leif he might be. But there’s definitely a winner’s form in Wennerstrom!

Chris Phelan has written, laid out, photographed, and published The Phast Times News since 2001. He’s crisscrossed Texas on his bike three times, swam 5 miles across Lake Ray Hubbard three times, completed three Ironman triathlons, and has represented the US in completion three times, and run with the Olympic Torch. He maintained All-American status for five years and has also biked across the country, 3600 miles in 30 days. The running/triathlon coach has PR’s of 2:27 marathon, 15:40 5K, 3:55 at the Hotter ‘n Hell Hundred, and 10:00:52 Ironman. Chris is the only person to have won overall and Master’s at Dallas’ Crosson Dannis road racing series, DRC road racing series, and the USAT/SMW duathlon series. In 1988 he began Dallas’ oldest track workout, 1998 started north Texas’ first treadmill class, and 2003 he founded the world-wide Ride Of Silence. He’s been twice nominated Master’s Road Runner of the Year, highlighted in a variety of magazines and is frequently asked to speak at camps and organizations about fitness. Outside of swimming, biking, and running, Chris has summited several mountains including Africa's Mount Kilimanjaro.