Captivating A Nation: Brinegar, 1976 4×100 freestyle relay team headed for US Olympic and Paralympic Hall of Fame

The swimming program at the 1976 Summer Olympics had reached its final day, and the United States women had yet to win a gold medal.

The East Germans, who one American swimmer had publicly accused of cheating, had won 10 of the 11 individual events at those games in Montreal. But on Sunday July 25, 1976, a group of US swimmers captured the hearts of not only Americans, but those from other countries who were convinced that the East Germans were doping.

“Nobody dreamed that relay would win,” said Jennifer (Hooker) Brinegar, who was an alternate on the 4×100 freestyle relay team and swam in the preliminary heat that morning. “We had been shut out. We were down, but not out. We didn’t fold. Every time we had a chance of winning, an East German would win. Those girls on that relay got together. They were two seconds behind them, so they figured out a way they could each drop half-a-second.”

In the final, Jill Sterkel, Wendy Boglioli, Kim Peyton and Shirley Babashoff broke the world record by four seconds in winning the event.

“The whole place was going nuts cheering for them,” Brinegar said. “After that, it was amazing the other countries that came up and celebrated with them because they knew (about the East Germans). It was probably one of the things that most people that watch swimming remember from that Olympics.”

Next weekend, that 4×100 freestyle relay team will get its due. The group, including Brinegar, will be inducted into the US Olympic and Paralympic Hall of Fame on Friday at the US Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. They will enter in a class that includes legendary swimmer Michael Phelps, soccer player Mia Hamm and the late women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt.

Jennifer Brinegar catches her breath following a race during the 1976 Olympic Trials at Belmont Plaza in Long Beach, California.

Brinegar, who grew up in Bloomington, was only 15 years old at the time of the 1976 Olympics and had been training in Mission Viejo, California. She made the Olympic team in the 200 freestyle and finished sixth in that event in 2 minutes, 4.20 seconds.

On the eve of the 4×100 relay, US team coaches asked Brinegar to swim in the following morning’s preliminaries to allow their top swimmer, Babashoff, to rest since she would be competing in the 800 freestyle, as well as the 4×100 relay final, that night.

“I was afraid of jumping, of false starting,” Brinegar said.

Swimming third in the relay, Brinegar clocked a 58.17 split, which was nearly a full second faster than the 59.16 she had swam in finishing 12th in the 100 freestyle at the Olympic Trials. The Americans swam 3:50.27 to win the first heat, which was an Olympic record until the East Germans and the Dutch bettered it in the very next heat.

Jennifer Brinegar, middle row, fifth from left, and the 1976 US Olympic swim team pose for a photo at West Point, New York, where they trained between the Olympic Trials and 1976 Summer Games.

Ironically, it was Babashoff, the girl she was replacing, that had brought herself and the entire American team under a firestorm for her comments on the East Germans.

“There was a ton of negativity surrounding her and the rest of the team because she had made some comments about the East Germans,” Brinegar said. “Everybody knew they were on steroids. They were passing tests, but that’s because the scientists at that time knew how to beat them. (Babashoff) was pretty much vilified by all of the world’s media, including the US.”

It wasn’t until the Berlin Wall fell that the doping scandal was brought to light.

Unlike today, alternates who swim in preliminary heats did not receive medals when Brinegar was competing. But they all were recognized at the 40-year anniversary of their feat in 2016.

Jennifer Brinegar, left, poses for a photo with Tauna Vandeweghe while waiting for the Parade of Athletes at the Opening Ceremonies of the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal.

Brinegar has spent most of her adult life coaching swimming in one capacity or another. She retired last August from her job as an assistant athletics director at Indiana University, her alma mater.

Last summer, Brinegar and her husband Jamie watched as their younger son Michael qualified for the Tokyo Olympics in the 800- and 1,500-meter freestyle. Michael also swam for IU and has returned to Mission Viejo to resume training with his longtime coach Mark Schubert, the same coach that trained Jennifer when she was in high school.

Six years ago, Jennifer Brinegar founded Club Olympia Swim Team. She is president of the Indiana Olympians Charter and was one of the assistant coaches for the Team Indiana senior group that spent last week training at the Indiana Senior Elite Camp at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

The first day of that camp, June 6, the US Olympic and Paralympic committee announced its Hall of Fame Class of 2022. It also happened to be Jennifer’s 61st birthday.

“(That) Monday was pretty special in a lot of ways,” she said.