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Eighth-grader with Olympic pedigree already drawing praise


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Northside eighth-grader Michael Brinegar is one of the nation's top-ranked swimmers in the 13 to 14 age group. / Greg Smith For The Republic
Northside eighth-grader Michael Brinegar is one of the nation's top-ranked swimmers in the 13 to 14 age group. / Greg Smith For The Republic


Don’t expect Northside Middle School eighth-grader Michael Brinegar to be pumping his fist well above his head after winning a mile swim.

And it’s not just because he practices good sportsmanship.

“It’s really, really rough,” Brinegar said about grinding out long-distance events. “It hurts and it makes you sore. It’s hard to lift your arms.”

The grueling nature of those events push many competitors away. Brinegar embraces such challenges.

On Jan. 4 at the IUPUI Natatorium during the 30th annual Mid-States Championships, Brinegar set a 13-14 age group meet record of 16:17.27 in the 1,650 freestyle, breaking his own mark of 16:38.64 that he set in 2013.

At 14, Brinegar continues to pile up

impressive accomplishments in the water. On Nov. 14 to 16, he was invited to the Minnesota Grand Prix in Minneapolis to compete against professional and college swimmers. He placed 23rd in the 1,650 freestyle and 40th in the 500 free. His times in the two events ranked him third in the nation for his age in the 1,650 and fifth in the 500 free.

“A lot of those swimmers were so much bigger than me,” Brinegar said moments before beginning a practice session at Columbus North High School. “It tells me I have a long ways to go.”

If Brinegar, who is 6-foot tall, has a long ways to go in terms of improvement, he certainly doesn’t need to go far in terms of his workout facility. He already practices alongside North swimmers and he will be a member of the team next year.

It’s obvious that the expectations for him are huge. His mother, Jennifer (Hooker) Brinegar, was sixth at the 1976 Montreal Olympics in the 200 free in 2 minutes, 4.20 seconds, and she swam in the preliminary heats for the United States’ gold medal-winning 400-meter freestyle relay team.

But Michael Brinegar is following a different high school path than his mom, who won seven Big Ten individual titles at Indiana University. She was sent from her hometown of Bloomington to Mission Viejo, Calif., to train from her sophomore through senior years of high school with coach Mark Schubert, who headed the nation’s No. 1-ranked high school program at the time.

She said her son isn’t about to take a similar route.

“He won’t do that,” she said about her son moving away to join a prestigious coach. “He is 14, and he is fine where he is right now.”

While Jennifer Brinegar coached her son while he was developing, she has turned that task over to Jim Sheridan, who coaches Donner Swim Club in addition to his role as the North boys and girls swim coach. Sheridan has been an Indiana high school coach of the year 10 times.

“Jim coaches him,” she said. “Michael just turned 14 and, at that age, he has kind of a hard time seeing me as a mom and as a coach.”

Sheridan said he doesn’t feel any extra pressure coaching a swimmer whose mom went to the Olympics.

“Think of Michael Phelps,” Sheridan said. “Are his kids expected to be Olympians? I don’t know.

“I think Michael (Brinegar) is a young man who has learned at an early age to compete well against older ages of kids. As he continues to grow and get stronger, and continues to have a good work ethic, he will put himself in position to be one of the better swimmers in the country.”

Although he is an eighth-grader, Michael Brinegar can push North’s varsity swimmers in a practice setting. But he looks forward to next year, when he can call them high school teammates.

“I’ve just heard how much fun it is,” Michael Brinegar said of being a Bull Frog. “There’s just more team spirit.”

His mom said she loves the way North senior Cody Taylor, the defending state champion in the 100 breaststroke, has taken her son under his wing. “He and Cody get along really well,” she said. “They motivate each other and push each other.

“But I think having Michael there makes (the North varsity swimmers) work harder, and they do the same for him. There are very few people swimming who can make it to the top without teammates who have pushed them along the way.”

Although Jennifer Brinegar, whose husband Jamie Brinegar is the director of business services for Columbus Parks & Recreation, was an accomplished swimmer, she didn’t have to push her son into the sport.

“One of my first memories of him, like a lot of babies, was that he loved bath time,” she said. “He would scull — perhaps that’s my own word — the water. He would sit there and move his hands back and forth, feeling the water.

“Really good swimmers feel the water with their hands. It’s hard to describe, but your hands pull you through the water. The average swimmer doesn’t feel the water. Good swimmers can grab water that doesn’t have a lot of bubbles in it.”

After lessons at age 5, Michael Brinegar began swimming with the club team in Bloomington at 6 years old. Jennifer Brinegar learned something right away about her son.

“He hates to lose as much as he loves to win,” she said.

Jennifer Brinegar was a two-time national champion in the 500 free and 1,650 free events and it appears her son will be best at longer distances.

“It just depends on what your body is built for,” she said. “He is kind of like me. You can do more with strategy and pacing.”

Then she told a story about her son swimming an open mile for the first time in an event in Huntington when he was 12. She explained to him that after covering the distance in the water, the swimmers had to jump up and run through a chute at the end. Michael Brinegar led getting out of the water but was jogging to the finish when another swimmer raced past him.

“He showed some very good sportsmanship about it,” Jennifer Brinegar said. “But it was very clear that he didn’t like it, and it never happened again.”

Michael Brinegar said he, indeed, loves the competition.

“I just like that I get to race against other people,” he said. “You just try your best, and you get a result.”

Sheridan said he expects some fantastic results from Brinegar.

“He could conquer swimming at a lot of levels,” Sheridan said.

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