Doc Counsilman, the legendary Indiana University swimming coach, used to tell a young Jennifer Hooker that she was like a sponge.
Hooker, who became Jennifer Hooker Brinegar after marrying her husband, Jamie, used to follow the late Counsilman around and sat next to him during meets.
She soaked up the knowledge and used it to win seven individual Big Ten championships and to climb all the way to the 1976 Olympics, where she swam a preliminary leg of the gold-medal winning 400-meter freestyle team and finished sixth in the 200-meter freestyle.
However, in terms of being a coach, the sponge took a long time to get squeezed.
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Then five years ago, the IU assistant athletics director decided to go into coaching as a volunteer assistant for the Donner Swim Club. Ever since, she has been making a difference.
Last week, Brinegar was named the 2015 Indiana Swimming Developmental Coach of the Year as selected by registered Indiana swimming coaches.
The award is presented to a coach who works predominantly with 12-and-under swimmers and “reflects the coach’s ability to develop swimmers that continually improve and develop though the Indiana Swimming levels of competition.”
“I have worked with her the past three years, and she is just amazing,” said Jennifer Morlock, who is a Donner Swim Club assistant coach. “It’s just the way she can connect with the kids and get them to want to succeed.
“And she can give them the tools to succeed. I’ve watched her take kids that I didn’t think had any talent, per se. She would find a spark.”
Club vice president Doug Sabotin has watched Brinegar work with his 13-year-old daughter, Rachel.
“We are blessed beyond belief to have her and the experience she brings,” he said. “There is a lot more to swimming than meets the eye. One of the cool things about Jennifer is that she cares about and coaches each child appropriately to the level they are at.”
Club co-president Sean McAlister said Brinegar has made a positive impact on his 11-year-old son, Aidan. “She brings a wealth of knowledge,” he said. “And she is so dedicated.”
McAlister said Brinegar took the time to come to his son’s PAAL football game. That, in itself, left a positive impression.
“Doc took a personal interest in each of his swimmers,” Brinegar said. “I was fortunate, I had two of the greatest coaches ever.”
Brinegar trained under Counsilman and, during her high school years, Mark Schubert, the former Texas and USC coach who has been one of the top club coaches of all-time.
Both are members of the International Swimming Hall of Fame.
“They are the standard,” she said. “I was fortunate.”
Her sons, Kevin and Michael, are accomplished swimmers. Kevin swam at Denison University and Michael, a freshman at Columbus North, won the 500 free state championship Feb. 28.
It’s obvious that Brinegar has been around highly motivated and exceptional athletes.
She admitted that when she started coaching five seasons ago, she struggled a bit with expectations for her swimmers.
“I do have high expectations,” she said. “But I have those based on the talent that I see.
“I do try to nurture them, and I want to find the passion in these kids.”
Although she is supercompetitive, she wants her swimmers to have the time of their life.
“Age-group swimming was the most fun I ever had in swimming,” she said. “It was about meeting kids on other teams and getting to know them. That meant a lot of letter writing then.”
While she might be demanding, she tries to incorporate as much fun as possible into the program. She will divide up her swimmers for some water polo during a practice or have some short-distance relay races.
Her swimmers are treated to a movie during away meets or a trip to an amusement park. During the summer, the kids will gather at one of the swimmers’ home for a pool party.
In the end, though, it’s the hard work that earns the kids big finishes, such as Donner’s showing at the 2015 Mid-States Championship, where the club had six qualifiers and eight top-eight finishes.
“Swimming is a really hard sport,” Brinegar said. “I want our swimmers to remember those hard workouts, and perhaps that might help them someday get through a hard time. We want to teach life skills. We want to make a better person.”
In that regard, Morlock said Brinegar is a success.
“How fortunate we are in Podunk, Indiana, to have someone of this talent coaching our kids,” Morlock said. “We are blessed.”
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Jennifer Hooker Brinegar
WHAT: The 2015 Indiana Swimming Developmental Coach of the Year award winner
TEAM: Brinegar is an assistant coach for the Donner Park Swim Club
WORKS: Indiana University assistant athletics director
BACKGROUND: Brinegar won seven individual Big Ten championships at Indiana, competed on the 1976 U.S. Olympic team