Michael Brinegar Following Family’s Olympic History to Achieve Ultimate Sporting Dream

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

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When Michael Brinegar flipped with 50 meters to go in the final of the 800-meter freestyle at the United States Olympic Trials, he was more than a second and a half behind second place. But to anyone that knew and followed Brinegar over the years, he was nowhere near out of the race. Brinegar has always been known to kick it into extra gear on the final 50 of a distance-free race, dating back to his days as an age-group swimmer.

On the final 50 in Omaha, he split a 27.35 to grab the second spot in the first Olympic Trials final of the 800 free. For comparison, 27.3 was the median split of the last 50 for the men in the final of the 200 freestyle.

“I always try to finish as fast I can with everything I have left. I just gotta go,” Brinegar said in a recent virtual press conference with Indiana University.

Brinegar finished runnerup in the event to secure his first Olympic berth at age 21. That swim allowed him to follow in the footsteps of his mother, Jennifer Hooker, as a second-generation Olympian. She finished sixth in the 200 freestyle at the 1976 Olympics at age 15. She was also a prelim contributor for the American 400 freestyle relay.

Go West, Young Man

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Michael Brinegar on the podium at the 2017 Junior Worlds. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Michael Brinegar showed promise as a rising distance freestyler as a 14-year-old in 2014. He was ranked second in the nation in both the 800 and 1500 among 14-year-old boys while training for Indiana Swimming Hall of Fame coach Jim Sheridan at Donner Swim Club in Columbus, Indiana. Later that spring, with Sheridan retiring, Brinegar caught the attention of International Swimming Hall of Fame coach Mark Schubert, who invited the 15-year-old to train with him on the west coast at Golden West Swim Club.

Schubert had a relationship with Brinegar’s family, having previously coached Brinegar’s mother during her career at Mission Viejo. Through his previous work with Jennifer, Schubert had been providing workouts for Brinegar while he was back home training by himself in Indiana, and by the fall of 2016, Brinegar left home to live with a host family in Southern California. In order to ensure he had the best training environment as one of the top young distance swimmers in the world, the Brinegar family put its trust in Schubert that the youngster would get the most of his potential.

“I really wanted to get back to training with a group of people and having other people with me. I wanted to do everything I could to be better in the sport so the best option was to go out to California and train for Mark since I had already been doing his workouts for over a year and a half.”

In his first full year with Schubert, Brinegar won two medals at the 2017 World Juniors for the United States – a silver in the 1500, and a bronze in the 800, and looked like a star of the future for the United States. A year later, he was on the senior Pan Pacs team for the U.S. and was the fastest high schooler in the country in the 1650-yard freestyle.

“It’s been really great training under (Schubert),” Brinegar said. “If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be where I am at today in swimming. It’s been really great training under him.”

Dual Duty

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Michael Brinegar representing Indiana. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Michael Brinegar was caught in an unusual circumstance when he took an Olympic redshirt to train with Schubert for the 2020 Trials. Ultimately, with the COVID pandemic delaying the Olympics for a year, Brinegar returned to Indiana University for his sophomore season. Hoosiers coach Ray Looze was in constant communication with Schubert about Brinegar’s progress.

“In the collegiate season, we really worked on Brinegar’s speed and technique,” Looze said. “When I watched him swim in Omaha, that is the best his stroke has looked. I think the collegiate season really played a big role in setting him up for his success. Schubert really commented on that. It was the most his technique had improved. It’s a team effort on him for sure.”

During the NCAA season, Brinegar was the Big Ten champ in the 1650 freestyle but only managed a 10th place finish at NCAAs. Still, the Olympics was the main goal, and he was back training immediately in California after NCAAs.

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Michael Brinegar swims his way on to the Olympic team. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

After a promising junior career, Brinegar has lived up to his potential, and has continued his family’s Olympic legacy. The next step is fine-tuning for Tokyo.

Looking ahead to Tokyo, Brinegar is 13th in the world in the 800 free and 15th in the 1500, among those qualified for Tokyo.

“I’m really focusing more on my speed so I can take out the 800 and mile faster and not get too tired from it, and then working on my negative splitting so I can come back just as fast and faster,” Brinegar said.