Looking to 2024 — Brinegar returns after memorable experience in Tokyo Olympics

As if Michael Brinegar’s last couple of months wasn’t grueling enough, consider that his flight back from the Tokyo Olympics returned on Monday night, and he drove from Los Angeles to Columbus in two days.

But now that he’s back, the 21-year-old swimmer has been able to find some much-desired relaxation following a whirlwind tour since he qualified for his first Olympics.

“It’s only been a couple of days since I’ve been back, but it’s nice to relax,” Brinegar said. “I really needed a break, so it’s going to be nice having these two weeks off now.”

Brinegar, who will be a redshirt junior at Indiana University, qualified for Tokyo in the 800-meter freestyle with a second-place finish at the Olympic Trials June 17 in Omaha, Nebraska. Three nights later, he qualified in the 1,500 freestyle with another runner-up finish.

Following the trials, Brinegar returned to California for a week to train with his Mission Viejo Nadadores club team. He left June 27 for U.S. Training Camp I in Honolulu, then headed to Tokyo with the rest of the USA Swimming delegation on July 13 for U.S.Training Camp II.

That time spent in Japan may have helped calm Brinegar’s nerves heading into his 800 freestyle prelim on July 27.

“I was getting really nervous,” Brinegar said. “It was pretty stressful, but I’ve been as stressed for that as I have been for other races at high levels, so it just felt the same as those other meets.”

Unlike those other meets, however, there was no large crowd since Japan hosted the games without fans because of COVID-19 restrictions. But there were other swimmers and coaches in the stands, including Brinegar’s American teammates.

“It was kind of like NCAAs because all the swimmers were in the stands,” Brinegar said. “I had the same kind of feel as if there were fans in the stands, but at the same time, you could feel it was kind of different.”

Brinegar competed in the prelims in the 1,500 freestyle on July 30. As he did in the 800 freestyle, he finished 17th. Only the top eight make the finals.

“I was disappointed,” Brinegar said. “I wanted to make it back (to the finals), and I really thought I could. I trained way faster than I competed. I’m just going to use that experience for the rest of my career now.”

After he was finished for the games, Brinegar was able to stay and watch his teammates through the rest of the swimming program. That included watching Bobby Finke, the other American to swim in the 800 freestyle and 1,500 freestyle, come from behind late to win those two events.

“I was really happy for him,” Brinegar said. “I spent most of our training camp in Hawaii training with him, and he’s a really great guy. So it was great watching him win, especially the way he swam it.”

Since athletes had to return home within 48 hours after their sport was finished at the Olympics, the pool swimmers had to leave on Monday.

“It was a fun experience,” Brinegar said. “I really enjoyed it, but I’m still really trying to take it all in.”

Because of the pandemic, Brinegar said each country and each sport mostly kept to themselves, including when they ate in the dining hall. said the athletes had plenty of food options, including Italian, Japanese, Middle Eastern, plus foods like steak, hamburgers and pizza.

At the dining hall, he did see one familiar face in Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic and had someone take a photo of Doncic with Brinegar and American teammate Bryce Mefford.

“I didn’t really get to talk to him, but I got a picture with him, which was pretty cool,” Brinegar said. “We could go out and meet other athletes, but a lot of us didn’t just to stay safe and avoid any positive (COVID) cases.”

Brinegar doesn’t have to be back to IU until early next week, but plans to return there this week. His next competition is Open Water Nationals October in Las Vegas

Jordan Wilimovsky, who represented the U.S. in the open water 10K in Tokyo, is retiring. David Heron, the only other American to beat Brinegar in the 2019 Olympic Trials for open water, is returning.

Finke is considering trying the open water 10K for the 2024 trials, which would give Brinegar a little more competition in his attempt to make another Olympic team for that year’s games in Paris.

“I’m really going to be focused on open water, because I really want to qualify in 10K for 2024,” Brinegar said. “Open water is a sport that takes a lot of experience, so I feel like I’m just going to get better and better.”