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IU employee Jennifer Brinegar knows what it's like to make the U.S. Olympic team

Aug. 3, 2016

This weekend, Hoosiers throughout the state will tune in to cheer on IU athletes competing in the Summer Olympics in Rio. Buzz around IU’s swimmers is particularly high, not only for the outstanding talent, but for the fact it has been 40 years since IU swimmers have made the U.S. Olympic Team.

jennifer brinegar

IU senior assistant athletic director for enrollment services and Olympic swimmer Jennifer Brinegar. | PHOTO BY CHAZ MOTTINGER, IU COMMUNICATIONS

One person who will be glued to the screen is IU’s senior assistant athletic director for enrollment services Jennifer Brinegar, who was just 15 when she was a member of Team USA 40 years ago.

“Having all that IU representation makes it even more exciting,” Brinegar said. “I want those athletes, on the U.S. teams, to do super well and I want the IU international student-athletes on their home countries’ teams to do really well, too, of course.”

The Bloomington native began swimming around the age of 2, encouraged by her mother who didn’t want to pass on her fear of water to her children. Around the age of 5, Brinegar, whose maiden name is Hooker, was enrolled in formal swim lessons at Bryan Park, spurred by her desire to swim for Charlie Hickox, her older sister’s swim coach, star of IU’s swim team and future three-time Olympic gold medalist in 1968.

The following summer, she would join the Bloomington Swim Club, where she would meet the legendary Doc Counsilman, coach of the IU men’s swimming team. At age 8, Counsilman would take Brinegar under his wing.

“I was kind of what they call a gym rat, but around the pool,” she said. “I was a little sponge. I had a lot of energy, but I was always respectful of Doc. Around Doc, I would just try to be quiet and just listen and take everything in.”

Counsilman served as a mentor to Brinegar throughout her swimming career, providing her personal direction, allowing her to train during the summer with the IU swim team and to sit on the bench during meets -- this was the time of Mark Spitz, Gary Hall and six consecutive NCAA championships -- and teaching her and her mom about the field of competitive swimming.

He also saw something in Brinegar she didn’t always see. When she was around 12, he started telling her she would make the 1976 Olympic Team.

jennifer brinegar at age 15

Jennifer Brinegar had just turned 15 when she finished third in the 200 freestyle in the U.S. Olympic Trials, and won a spot on the 1976 U.S. Olympic Swim Team. | PHOTO COURTESY OF JENNIFER BRINEGAR

“Doc was really an important person in my life,” she said. “He guided the way and made sure my mom knew what I needed to do to get to the goals that I had, and the goals he thought I could achieve as well.”

During her freshman year of high school, Counsilman encouraged Brinegar to find a more competitive team, which led to a move to Louisville, Ky. During nationals in March 1976, she qualified for four events and scored top 8 in the 800 freestyle. Three months later, in June 1976, after just turning 15, she finished third in the 200 freestyle in the U.S. Olympic Trials, and won a spot on the 1976 U.S. Olympic Swim Team. In July, at the Montreal Olympics, she placed sixth in the 200-meter freestyle and swam on the 400-meter freestyle team in the preliminary heats. That team went on to win the only gold for the women’s team during the games.

Although excited to be part of a team of the best swimmers in the world, the U.S. women’s swimming team faced hard challenges during their time at the games. Systematic doping from the East German women’s team created a difficult atmosphere for the women, some of which spoke out about it, causing backlash for the team.

Although tainted by the East German scandal, Brinegar relishes her time at the Olympics, particularly taking part in the opening ceremonies and being surrounded by some of the world’s best athletes. The Olympic Village’s cafeteria was the place, she said, to sneak a peek at some of the best of the best.

“I would sit a table away from Bruce Jenner, who was in the decathlon” she said. “In my mind, whoever won the decathlon was the world’s greatest athlete. I also would occasionally see Scott May and Quinn Buckner while walking around the Olympic Village where all the athletes stayed. The men’s boxing team was on the same floor as the men’s swim team, so it was fun to see Leon and Michael Spinks or Sugar Ray Leonard, watching and shadow-boxing in front of the TV while their teammates competed from the floor lounge, which had the only TV on the floor. It was so cool to see all these great athletes. All these people around me were like stars.”

She was also proud to watch the U.S. men’s swimming team dominate, led by Counsilman as coach. But nothing was more exciting than watching her team surprise everyone by taking home the gold in the 400 free relay.

“Watching that relay that night was amazing; it was incredible,” she said. “It showed that we weren’t complete failures.”

It would take years to prove the East German team cheated and decades for members of the U.S. team to publicly talk about it. Due to age differences, previous backlash and hurt feelings, Brinegar said the team didn’t really talk about it much among themselves.

But over time, the women are opening up more about the highs and lows of the ‘76 games. Teammate Shirley Babashoff has released a book about her experiences; male U.S. Olympic swimmer Casey Converse has also written a book about the women’s team that year and the documentary “The Last Gold,” was released this year, highlighting the scandal and USA rally in the end.

jennifer brinegar and 1976 olympic team

Members of the 1976 U.S. Olympic Swim Team. | PHOTO COURTESY OF JENNIFER BRINEGAR

During a recent 40-year reunion, Brinegar said the women seemed to be on their way to finding closure.

“(Before) we didn’t talk about it because a lot of it wasn’t good,” she said. “We are closer now that we are talking about it and there is now a lot of validation of what we, as the women on the U.S. Olympic Team, went through.”

Brinegar continued to swim after the Olympics, moving to Mission Viejo, Calif., to train under Mark Schubert and compete for the number one swim team in the nation, Mission Viejo Nadadores. After high school, she moved back to Bloomington, competing on the IU women’s swimming and diving team while earning a bachelor degree in business.

Throughout her career, Brinegar won seven individual Big Ten Championships, was a member of the 1981 Big Ten Championship team, was a U.S. National Team member from 1976-79, held two American and U.S. open records and was a two-time U.S. National Champion in the 500 yard and 1650 yard freestyle event. She is also a charter member of the Monroe County Sports Hall of Fame and is in the Indiana University Athletics Hall of Fame.

Although she eventually walked away from swimming, working in the auto industry in Illinois and Georgia before practicing law in Missouri and Minnesota, her love for the sport never faded. She came back to Bloomington in 1994 to pursue a career in college athletics. After receiving a master's degree in IU in sport management, she was hired full time at IU and in 2010, she started coaching age group swimming in the evenings and on weekends.

It is her work with today’s young swimmers that makes her most proud. 

“I just want them to have fun and love the sport the way I did,” Brinegar said. “In my opinion, no one trains harder at any age or level than swimmers, except maybe wrestlers. Swimming can make you not only physically strong but mentally tough. I want to give my swimmers skills to be successful in the water and that they can also later use in any situation they come across in life.”

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