Pepperdine's Phyllis Reffo

Kaizen is a Japanese philosophy that seeks improvement and a continual strive to change for the better.

Phyllis Reffo is a firm believer of that viewpoint, which is why the 49-year-old mother of two is enrolled at Pepperdine and has walked on the Waves’ swimming and diving team for the 2011-12 season.

“Kaizen is usually geared toward manufacturing, engineering and business, but it can be applied to health care and life coaching,” said Reffo, whose daughters Jena and Tess are 14 and 12, respectively.

And what a life Reffo has lived so far.

Reffo took up swimming six years ago as a way of maintaining her fitness after undergoing knee reconstruction on a torn anterior cruciate ligament and eventually knee replacement surgery.

“I used to ride horses, and I’ve been thrown off several times,” Reffo said. “I’ve broken my arm, injured my back and have other old injuries that are chronic because I didn’t take care of them fully at the time.”

One day while she was working out in the pool at a junior college in Santa Monica, swimming and water polo coach Steve Contarsy noticed her dedication. Contarsy invited her to work out with his swim team, which she competed for during the last two seasons.

In 2010, she won the team’s inspiration award, and last season she received the coaches award.

All the while, Reffo graduated with honors in earning an associate’s degree in general science.

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”

Reffo applied to many universities to continue her education and was accepted by all of them, including Pepperdine, which is located in Malibu, Calif., where she resides. She also contacted Waves swim coach Nick Rodionoff.

“He started sending me emails requesting information and getting me through the whole process of applying to the NCAA Eligibility Center,” Reffo said.

Reffo said the system kept logging her out. She figured it was because she’s older than the normal student-athlete. After speaking with a staff member, though, it was determined she had two years of eligibility remaining.

“It is funny, because I’m older than some of my teammates’ parents,” Reffo said. “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.”

Phyllis Reffo's fashion headshot.

After graduating high school in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, Reffo packed up her car and moved to Los Angeles with hopes of becoming a fashion model. That goal became a reality as she worked with some of the top photographers in the world.

She lived in Europe and Asia and worked in London, Tokyo and Milan.

“That was my way to get out of being so encumbered,” Reffo said. “My parents emigrated from Italy. They were overprotective of the girls and liked to keep the girls home. They didn’t like that I participated in gymnastics or basketball. They tried to hamper my desire to compete. I have a desire to strive.”

During her time as a fashion model, Reffo became interested in how the financial world operated. She eventually moved to Vancouver and got a job as a financial broker’s assistant.

Over the next eight years, Reffo worked in that industry. She took the Canadian Securities Course and studied the Canadian Investment Finance Course. Later, she did a fellowship at the Canadian Securities Institute.

She looked into taking the Charters Financial Analyst Course for advanced financially trained personnel.

“Most people don’t attempt that course unless they have an MBA,” Reffo said. “Eventually, I came to realize, that as interesting as it was, it wasn’t my passion.”

Reffo moved back to the Los Angeles area to resume her modeling career. She eventually got married and started a family.

She opened a boutique with her husband in Malibu, but the business closed in 2008 when the economic crisis struck.

Reffo, who was divorced, also helped her ex-husband in a time of need in his life when it was learned he had liver cancer. She made sure he was put on a transplant list, which he received.

Reffo, who is also a certified Pilates instructor, sublet the business space where the boutique used to be. That’s how she is raising her daughters and paying for tuition.

“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.”

Now, that’s the Kaizen spirit.