After Years of Change, Brandonn Almeida Making Most of Time in Brazil

Jul 16, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Brandonn Almeida of Brazil celebrates after winning the men's swimming 400m individual medley final during the 2015 Pan Am Games at Pan Am Aquatics UTS Centre and Field House. Mandatory Credit: Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports
Brandonn Almeida at the 2015 Pan Am Games Photo Courtesy: Erich Schlegel/USA Today Sports Images

More than most of his peers, Brandonn Almeida was hoping 2020 would bring stability.

In what had become an all-too-familiar theme, the Brazilian changed coaches last fall, culminating a stretch of 18 months where he changed coaches four times. That stretch included a season at the University of South Carolina, where squabbles with the NCAA limited him to just three meets.

When the coronavirus pandemic left Almeida having to make his own training accommodations, it was a surprising turn. But constant adaptation to the unexpected has grown familiar to him.

“It was a tough period, the first month, because I was very focused for the trials,” Almeida told Swimming World last week. “I was looking for some redemption because I swam horrible and then I had to adjust myself to a new routine. After one month, I started swimming more and doing the things that my coach was sending to me. And now, pools are still closed in Brazil but I have the opportunity to not stop swimming.”

Almeida has learned to roll with the punches. Once a world junior record holder in the 400 individual medley, Almeida has weathered dips in form and irregularities in training. He emerged from his year in Columbia as an All-American and school record holder having made lifelong friends, but it hasn’t translated into a sustained run on the international stage.

At least not yet, and it’s that consistency that Almeida is working toward.

The constant of change

It makes sense only in the context of Brandonn Almeida’s tricky journey: Last fall, he had to leave the club of his boyhood (Corinthians, in Sao Paolo) to reunite with his former coach (Carlos Henrique Matheus) at SESI-SP. He made the move last October, after a lonely month training by himself. Little did he know, in the age of coronavirus, that would prove prescient preparation.

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Brandonn Almeida Photo Courtesy: Singapore Swimming Federation

Almeida got a five-month run of training with Matheus before coronavirus shut down pools. Through a friend at Corinthians, Almeida has been able to keep working out at a private pool. On the back of so many coaching changes, it’s reinforced the value of having someone oversee his workouts.

“The coach has the feeling. My coach has a feeling,” he said of Matheus, who worked with him from 2013-17. “If he sees me swimming and sees that I’m very tired and swimming too bad, he can change the set or stop and talk to me. He has that feeling. One of the things that I could see in this period is the importance of the coach on our lives.”

His time working with Matheus coincided with Almeida’s blossoming into a top IMer. He won gold in the Pan American Games in Toronto in 2015, after countryman Thiago Pereira was disqualified. The time of 4:14.47 set the world junior mark. Almeida also won bronze in the 1500 freestyle in Toronto, then added gold in the 1500 and silver in the 400 IM at the 2015 World Junior Championships.

The pressure of carrying a world junior record didn’t weigh on Almeida, something he took in his usual affable stride.

“It was very natural for me,” he said. “Since I was young, I always had good results, so I had to deal with it since I was 11 or 12. People were always saying to me, ‘oh you’re talented. You can be a good swimmer.’ So I’ve had to deal with it since I was young.”

His results since the 2015 breakthrough have been mixed. Almeida didn’t make a final at the Rio Olympics, finishing 15th in the 400 IM and 29th in the 1500. He finaled in the 400 IM in Worlds in 2017, finishing seventh in a personal-best 4:13.00, to go with 18th in the 400 free. He was sixth in the IM at Pan Pacs in 2018 and 11th at 2019 Worlds. In between, he took a bronze medal at the 2019 Short-Course Worlds and bronze last summer at the Pan Am Games (albeit in a relatively slow 4:21.10 and behind countryman Leonardo Coelho Santos), to go with sixth in the 200 backstroke.

Heading into 2020, in addition to “redemption,” Almeida sought consistent results. He’s trying to make the extra time before the Tokyo Games into an asset.

A South Carolina Connection

As Brandonn Almeida turned heads at the 2015 Pan Ams, one in particular would end up influencing his journey.

Mark Bernardino was coaching the Ecuadorian men’s team in Toronto. After four decades at the University of Virginia, Bernardino had become the associate head coach at South Carolina; among his pupils was Tomas Peribonio, who he’d continue to train through the international summer calendar.

Jul 17, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Luke Reilly of Canada (left) , Brandonn Almeida of Brazil (middle) and Max Williamson of the United States (right) pose with their medals after the men's swimming 400m individual medley final the 2015 Pan Am Games at Pan Am Aquatics UTS Centre and Field House. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Brandonn Almeida, center, with his gold from the 400 IM at the 2015 Pan Am Games; Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports Images

Peribonio finished seventh in the 400 IM, but Bernardino was sufficiently impressed with the winner to introduce himself.

“Brandonn won the 400 IM at that meet, and I just remember congratulating him on his victory,” Bernardino said. “I shook his hand and said, ‘congratulations, you swam a beautiful race. I’m going to keep my eyes out for you.’”

Almeida, then 18, wasn’t thinking of a college track in the United States. But a year later, when he changed his mind, Bernardino was the first person he reached out to.

Almeida’s stint at South Carolina for the 2017-18 season was short but sweet. He took to the college experience, earning a CSCAA Scholar All-American designation. But that didn’t prevent quarrels with the NCAA, which kept him out of racing until the SEC championships.

Through all the adjustments – to yards, the concept of the student-athlete, without meets to compete in – Bernardino was awed by Almeida’s professionalism.

“He trained every single day,” Bernardino said. “He trained with a lot of energy. He brought a lot of enthusiasm, he brought a ton of spirit and just worked and worked and worked. What was really sad about the whole scenario is he didn’t get a chance to race. … It was a ton of fun to be able to coach him and to be able to work with him. Athletes inspire coaches, and he’s one of those guys that inspires you to be a good coach every day because of his work ethic and his positive attitude and how he encouraged his teammates.”

Almeida won three events in his first meet, the Virginia Tech Invitational, then set a school record in the 400 IM (3:39.09) at SECs to finish third, one of three top-10 finishes. At NCAAs, he finished fourth in the 400 IM, 21st in the 1,650 and 25th in the 500. All three times are in the top 5 in Gamecocks history.

“I loved the experience to be in South Carolina,” Almeida said. “It made me feel a lot of new experiences, like how it is in the U.S., how is it to study and be a student-athlete. I had a lot of troubles with the NCAA and I couldn’t swim dual meets, so that’s why I didn’t swim. … I had a great experience at South Carolina. I made a lot of friends.”

After his truncated season in Columbia, Almeida opted to head back to Brazil. The onerous, early-morning schedule didn’t help, nor did Bernardino leaving to take a job at NC State. Almeida’s main goal remains the Olympics. He didn’t grow up dreaming of college swimming and was denied the excitement of dual meets as a freshman. When he reassessed, he felt that the comforts of Sao Paolo would be most conducive to his quest for Tokyo.

But South Carolina left an impression. His roommate, Venezuelan Rafael Davila, joined Almeida in Brazil for an Olympic redshirt year. And there’s the connection with the coach he calls “Dino.” The two still keep in touch, Bernardino dropping Almeida messages to offer encouragement. It comes from a deep admiration Bernardino has for how Almeida has handled adversity.

“He’s always found the positive side to the work that he’s doing, to the dreams that he has, to the goals that he envisions for himself, and he’s allowed those to drive his personal destiny rather than allowing the coaching changes to destroy him,” Bernardino said. “He’s somehow found a way to stay positive, to stay focused, to stay driven and to be the best version of himself that he can be. It’s not easy.

“I think we developed not just a coach-athlete relationship but we developed a personal friendship. And I am a huge believer in his talent. I’m a huge believer in his capacity for excellence, and I don’t think he has come close to reaching his physical limits as a swimmer. When we connect, I’m always trying to wish him well and to continue to encourage him to keep the focus and to keep moving forward and keep driving and to keep excelling and to keep believing him himself. … I truly believe he has the magnificent opportunity to stand in the final eight (in the 400 IM) in the Games in Tokyo 2021 and race and be competitive.”

The Olympic postponement gives Brandonn Almeida more time – to figure out a different plan, to adapt, to keep working. He’s certainly gotten a lot of practice at that.

“For me, I think it’s a good thing,” he said. “I have more time to swim with Carlos and more time to introduce myself to his practices. I think the beginning is going to be very, very hard because I’ve never had more than one month without a coach. … But we’ve got one more year to practice.”

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