How They Train: The Work and Sets of Brendan Casey With Coach Tyler Fenwick

Brendan Casey

How They Train: The Work and Sets of Brendan Casey With Coach Tyler Fenwick

In 2015, Brendan Casey had already established his bona fides as an accomplished distance swimmer. As a member of the U.S. Junior National Open Water team, he had placed sixth in the individual 5K at the 2012 World Junior Open Water Championships and finished third as a part of the team in the 3K event. He also swam at the 2014 Junior Pan Pacific Swimming Championships.

In the pool, coming out of Santa Monica High School in 2015, Casey’s best SCY times were 4:27.37 for the 500 free, 15:37.32 for the 1650, 1:47.79 for the 200 back and 3:54.53 for the 400 IM.

It was at the University of Virginia where he intersected with Coach Tyler Fenwick, who helped him become a five-time CSCAA All-American, 2019 ACC Championships high-point scorer and first-place winner in the 1650 free (14:37.50) and 400 IM (3:39.93).

“Brendan Casey was a pleasure to work with at the University of Virginia,” recalls Fenwick. “By 2017, Brendan had already been a member of the U.S. national team for open water, but he hadn’t found the same level of success in the pool. His highest finish was 19th in the 200 backstroke at the 2017 ACC Championships, and he had never qualified in an event for NCAA Championships.

“I learned three things very quickly about Brendan. First, he is cerebral and not the most outspoken person, but when he speaks, his words are well thought-out and with purpose. Second, he had versatility rare for a ‘distance swimmer.’ He had an excellent freestyle and backstroke, a solid fly and could go underwater with just about anyone on the team. Finally, he knew how to work. This didn’t surprise me, as he grew up swimming for Dave Kelsheimer at Team Santa Monica, but when it was time to get in the water, he was ready for anything,” says Fenwick.

“Brendan’s mind is in a constant state of analysis and reflection. He’s inquisitive and loves to know the ‘why’ behind how things work or what we do. Understanding this, I tried to offer explanations frequently. Be it for a drill during warm-up or a crazy IM set, I wanted him and the rest of the athletes to understand the method and approach. It was apparent within the first month at UVA that Brendan’s 400 IM could be a stellar event. Brendan is more intelligent than I am, so I wasn’t afraid to ask for feedback, and I tried to integrate anything he thought was important.

“One example was his breaststroke. He had all the pieces in place for the IM except for the breaststroke. We worked hard to narrow his profile, lengthen his stroke and create a sustainable rhythm so he could change speeds. Brendan had a natural ability to undulate while he swam, even in free! We’d often do freestyle sets with fins and a fly kick instead of flutter. Things clicked when we ditched a traditional breaststroke kick and refined it to more of a body dolphin motion, where the feet spread enough to keep it legal. Brendan’s feedback was integral in that process and led to massive drops in his IM.”

• 2 x 25 surface undulation in prone
• 2 x 25 three undulations, then half stroke
• 2 x 25 two undulations, then half stroke
• 4 x 25 descend 1-4 breaststroke with a dolphin kick

• Light towers “golf”
2 rounds

• 4 x 25 plus 25 ez breaststroke on the tower
(Goal was to lower stroke count and/or time on each)
• 1 x 50 strong breaststroke
• 1 x 50 breaststroke at 200 pace

“Brendan’s breaststroke began to come together after doing this type of work for months. We knew it would never be world-class, but that wasn’t the point. With feedback and tweaks, we got it to a position where he could maintain speed, attack that leg of the IM and still have energy for the freestyle leg.

“When our staff arrived in Virginia in 2017, we pegged Brendan to be solely a distance freestyler,” says Fenwick. “At that point, his best times were 15:05 in the 1650, 4:22 in the 500 and 3:52 in the 400 IM—and he hadn’t demonstrated anything beyond freestyle in open water at the national level.

“We were pleasantly surprised by his eagerness to try new strokes and events, coupled with his skills and athleticism. He was the embodiment of a growth mindset. Brendan loved to go underwater. He has the best ankle flexibility of any swimmer I’ve ever seen. In this, we saw a significant competitive advantage in his event lineup, capitalizing on his fly-kick ability.

“In the mile, we began to employ a strategy where Brendan would allow other swimmers to lead the front one-third of races while using as little energy as possible on the surface and his underwater kicks to catch them on each breakout. In the 400 IM, I preached staying underwater and minimizing surface swimming. This led to sets with an underwater and kick-count emphasis. These practices took tremendous focus, discipline and command. Brendan was fully committed, and success followed.”

Round 1
• 4 x 125 @ 1:35 – 75 fly, 50 back (6 kicks off each wall). Hold 1:20
• 8 x 25 @ :30 max effort underwater fly kicks
• 50 ez

Round 2
• 4 x 125 @ 1:35 – 75 fly, 50 back (6 kicks off each wall). Hold 1:15
• 8 x 25 @ :25 max effort underwater fly kicks
• 50 ez

Round 3
• 4 x 125 @ 1:35 – 75 fly, 50 back (6 kicks off each wall). Hold 1:10 (just go!)
• 8 x 25 @ :20 max effort underwater fly kicks

“We worked on carrying Brendan’s underwater speed through the surface so a seventh kick would be added through the breakout stroke of the back. We wanted every action to be smooth and controlled. Another focus was finding an optimal push-off angle and depth where his ascent wouldn’t be too dramatic and create extra drag.

“You can’t fake being a world-class open-water swimmer,” says Fenwick. “You must do the work. At Team Santa Monica, he learned the value of hard work and ate it up! Virginia has had some legendary male distance swimmers—Matt McLean, Ian Prichard, Fran Crippen and so on. He is cut from that cloth.

“Brendan had a unique ability to have fun and make his teammates laugh with a dry sense of humor, then flip a switch to be deadly serious, focused and intense as soon as it was time for business. He took sets ‘by the horns’ and attacked them with calculated intelligence and reckless abandon.

“Brendan always had a plan. He would see practice and have it analyzed from top to bottom. He knew where his splits needed to be, where the challenge would come, and where he needed to walk beyond the pain and race. We had many days where I’d sit back, watch…and say, WOW!”

• 10-minute loosen
• 3 x 1000
#1 on 11:20 – hold under 11:00 ez speed
#2 on 11:20 – hold under 10:55 ez speed
#3 on 11:20 – hold under 10:50 ez speed

• 6 x 500 @ 6:00 descend 1-3, 4-6
#1: 5:30 #2: 5:26 #3: 5:18
#4: 5:23 #5: 5:19 #6 5:12

rest 1:00

• 2 x 1000
#1 on 11:00 – hold faster than #3 from 3 x 1000 (went 10:45)
#2 on 11:30 – hold faster (went 10:37)

• 4 x 500 descend 1-4 – race!
#1 on 5:40 (went 5:42)
#2 on 5:35 (went 5:39
#3 on 5:30 (went 5:26)
#4 (went 5:11)

“The preceding set was a workout from a broken 10K day. We’d do these every so often. Although I would not recommend anything like this for an average distance-oriented swimmer, Brendan ate up the volume and excelled at this type of work. Finishing a set like this gave him the utmost confidence in his ability to close races and an aerobic dose during a week that he craved.”

* * *

Michael J. Stott is an ASCA Level 5 coach, golf and swimming writer. His critically acclaimed coming-of-age golf novel, “Too Much Loft,” is in its second printing, and is available from, Amazon, B&N and distributors worldwide.


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