Growing up in basketball-rich Indiana and being tall most of his life, Michael Brinegar naturally gravitated toward basketball as a kid.
At the same time, he also swam, making the most of his height, reach and strong aerobic base to excel in the water – the 1,500 freestyle and 400 individual medley events, in particular.
Ultimately, he saw more long-term opportunity and success in the pool rather than on the hardwood – and now he’s one of the United States’ top young distance swimmers.
And while he still enjoys the occasional pickup game, swimming always comes first.
“I grew up 45 minutes from Bloomington (home of Indiana University) and my mom works in the athletics department, so it makes sense that I am going to swim for Indiana this fall,” said Brinegar, who graduated from high school this spring.
“I looked around at the top programs during recruitment, but I looked most seriously at UI. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to work with Ray (Looze) and Mike (Westphal).”
While he’s back in Indiana now, Brinegar capitalized on the early promise he showed as a youngster by spending his junior and senior years of high school in California training with the Mission Viejo Nadadores.
He said his home club coaching situation wasn’t great, and when the opportunity to train at one of the top swim clubs in the country came his way, he jumped at the chance despite the move and distance. He stayed with a host family and went to school there while training.
“Last year, my goal was to make the Junior World Championship team, and I did that, so I think my decision was a good one,” he said.
His entree into swimming came via his older brother, Kevin, who swam. Brinegar followed him to practice, saw him having fun and wanted to join. He started taking lessons when he was 5 and joined his local club at 7.
The first Olympics he remembers watching was the 2008 Beijing Games, and he recounts seeing Michael Phelps win his 8 gold medals and knowing he wanted to do that, too.
“I remember saying to my mom that I wanted to be like him (Phelps),” he said. “I was already swimming, and it was really the first time I started to think that I could be an Olympian some day just like Michael. It triggered something in me.”
But growing up, Brinegar wasn’t confined to the lane lines of indoor pools. He ventured out into the open, swimming in the nearby lakes as often as he could.
The experiences opened his mind to the realm of open water swimming and competition, and he continued to explore that option while still focusing on the pool.
Earlier this spring, he qualified for this summer’s Pan Pacific Championships with a strong performance at Open Water Nationals, and because of the structure of the meet, he will also compete in the 1,500 freestyle and other distance races for the United States in Tokyo.
Based on those swims, he hopes to qualify for next summer’s FINA World Championship team, but he knows he will also get a shot at competing at Worlds by finishing high next spring at Open Water Nationals.
“I love the strategy associated with open water swimming, and I love to race, which is what open water is about,” said Brinegar, whose mom swam for Indiana in the 90s. “Open water isn’t about times – it’s about placing – and that means it’s about racing and competing, which I’ve always loved. I also love the unpredictability of open water. You never quite know what’s going to happen, you have to be ready to act and change your strategy – and I love that about it.
“I was that way with basketball and other sports, but swimming was ultimately the best fit for me. I have always enjoyed it, and I’ve grown with it unlike other sports. It fits me.”
Since graduating, Brinegar said he’s been focusing on his training, mostly in the pool, for Pan Pacs and says he feels prepared. He won’t be competing at Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships in two weeks because he’s already qualified in Open Water.
While he has had limited open water competition, he said he’s excited to gain more experience, particularly in this international format, as he moves forward with his swimming toward the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo – whether he’s competing in open water or the pool.
Or, like Jordan Wilimovsky proved two years ago in Rio, he could compete in both.
Regardless, Brinegar said he is excited for the future of U.S. men’s distance freestyle swimming with himself, Wilimovsky, Andrew Finke, True Sweetster and Andrew Abruzzo leading a young, up-and-coming group just beginning to show what they bring to the pool.
He knows that depth and talent will show up at the next Olympic Trials and Olympics.
“We have a really competitive, fast group of freestylers ready to compete in future U.S. and international meets,” he said. “I am just one of several who I expect to have strong, fast swims over the next couple of years heading toward Tokyo.”
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