Pepperdine swimmer walks on to team and into history books

Phyllis Reffo is a former model and securities investment consultant who started swimming eight years ago to rehab various injuries including a torn ACL. She was spotted by the Santa Monica Junior College swim coach, Steve Contarsy, who invited her to work out with his team … and she ended up competing with SMC for two years. In 2010, she won the team’s inspiration award, and last season she received the coaches award.

After earning an associate’s degree at SMC, Reffo discovered she still had two years of college eligibility. She applied to many universities and was accepted by all of them, including Pepperdine, a Division 1 school located in Malibu, Calif., where she resides. She ended up enrolling at Pepperdine where she walked-on the Waves’ women’s swimming and diving team for the 2011-12 season.

What’s remarkable about the story is that Reffo is a 49-year-old mother of two and the latest athlete to prove that age cannot hold someone back.

Reffo swims the 100- and 200-yard individual medleys, and the 50 and 100 breaststroke events. It’s a remarkable accomplishment considering that when she first started swimming, she was nowhere near completing a 4,000-yard training regimen.

“In a short period, I went far beyond anyone’s expectations,” Reffo said. “I just kept going. I would do a 4,000-yard workout, then I would do that workout twice a day. I wasn’t the fastest, but I wasn’t the slowest, either. I was able to keep up with the 19- and 20-year-olds”

Pepperdine swim coach Nick Rodionoff helped Reffo through the process of applying to the NCAA Eligibility Center. The system kept logging her out and she figured it was because of her age.

“It is funny, because I’m older than some of my teammates’ parents,” said Reffo, who plans to major in physical therapy. “I’m just trying to live my life as best as I can every day. I’m not letting my age get in the way.”

Reffo had not attended college before, choosing instead to move from her home in Calgary, Canada to Los Angeles to become a fashion model. She was quite successful, including traveling the globe to work with different photographers and designers. She later took a job as a financial broker’s assistant and worked her way into the Canadian finance industry. It was the fact that she never enrolled in college that allows Reffo to compete without violating NCAA eligibility rules.

After being hit hard by the economic downturn, Reffo realized the only way she was going to support her two daughters  Jena and Tess (12 and 14), was by getting an education. She is proof that it’s never too late for anything in life. At almost 50,  she’s not only getting a quality education  but is doing so while competing as a division I athlete. Reffo’s says her daughters are her inspiration.

“I decided the only way to create any stability was to get an education,” Reffo said. “That’s why I started going back to school. My daughters see that I’m having some success and getting some recognition. They see that as a positive. I hope to maintain a high grade-point average and keep up my scholastic endeavors. As far as swimming goes, I hope I am able to develop my techniques so that I can be stronger and faster and swim longer.”

Not only is Reffo pretty awesome but pretty smart as well. She has a cool story and we’re wishing her success during this swim season and beyond.

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