Jan. 22, 2010
By Larry Watts
Just when her life seemed to have hit a pit, Emily Brunemann found a cherry. And that cherry just happened to be open water swimming.
Brunemann, the 2008 Big Ten Swimmer of the Year and NCAA champion in the 1,650 freestyle as a junior, was looking forward to a big finish at the University of Michigan in 2009. But her swimming world seemed to have fallen apart just before her senior season was about to start.
Taking advantage of a rare offseason break late in the summer of 2008, she took a family grip to Mexico. Developing digestive problems when she returned to her Crescent Springs, Ky. home, she took what she thought to be was a laxative.
One week later, she was back in Ann Arbor taking the mandatory USADA drug testing before she started her training. Nearly a month passed before the results came back, showing a positive test for a banned diuretic.
"I was in the middle of class when I got this phone call from a number I didn't recognize," she says. "I waited until the end of class before calling back and found out about the positive test. It was just a couple of days after my (22nd) birthday. Some present!
"I just freaked out because I didn't know what I had taken. I ran to the pool to talk to my coach (Jim Richardson) and trainer. They told me to write down everything I had taken, but I couldn't remember a thing. I don't even take multivitamins."
Finally, Brunemann remembered she had taken something to solve her digestive problem following the trip to Mexico.
"I thought it was a laxative, but it was actually something else," she says. "I thought it was fine and I paid the price. It was my fault for not taking the right procedures to look it up. It was the offseason and a lapse in judgment on my part. Jim tells me I can be a silly blonde at times."
Although she resumed training, Brunemann went on suspension while awaiting an arbitration hearing in January.
"My attorney was very good and he figured the worst I would get would be a low suspension," she says. "Coach Richardson and I figured the smart thing to do was to take an immediate suspension and hope that would count toward any penalty handed out. If I had the opportunity to redshirt, I was going to take it."
According to Brunemann, the arbitration panel was "very understanding." "They knew I wasn't trying to enhance my performance and gave me a six-month suspension and the time I had already served counted toward that."
Although she wasn't able to return to defend her Big Ten titles in the 1,650 and 500 freestyles as well as her national title in the 1,650, Brunemann did not allow her training to go to waste. For some time people in the swimming community had been advising her to try open water swimming because she seemed to get stronger in long races.
"I had never been ready to start because I was always focusing on Michigan," she says. "But this summer seemed to be the right opportunity with the way my year had been going, so I went down to Fort Lauderdale, Fla. for a three-day camp."
Under the tutelage of Catherine Vogt, an assistant coach at USC, Brunemann learned all about open water swimming and how to approach the event. Having never competed in an open water race and only having the one three-day camp under belt, she then headed out to Fort Myers to compete in the in the U.S. Open Water Trials, a 10K qualifier for the World Championships in Rome. All Brunemann did in her rookie debut was win the event and a trip to Italy.
The top two finishers in Fort Myers got to choose two of the three open water races to enter in Rome. Brunemann elected to race in the 5K and the 10K while runner-up Eva Fabian chose the 10K and 25K. That left one U.S. position to fill in both the 5K and 25K and that went to third-place finisher Emily Hanson, Brunemann's teammate at Michigan.
"My heart really went out to Emily," Brunemann says. "A storm had come through there and demolished the venue. Her event was the last one of the week and it was a six-hour race. By the time she hit the water, there were a lot of jellyfish out there."
The storm also wreaked havoc on the schedule. Instead of competing in the 5K on a Sunday and having two days to rest up for the 10K, the races were held on back-to-back days.
"That was rough; I really felt that first 5K on the second day," says Brunemann, who was ninth in the first race and 24th in the longer one. "If you look at the results, there was only one swimmer who placed in the top 10 both days. The winner of the 5K finished 28th in the 10K."
Brunemann also learned a little about the intensity of open water swimming during the competition.
"International swimming is 30 times worse than the U.S. competition," she says. "Those girls don't hold anything back and those starts are brutal when everyone is compiled together. The officials check your fingernails and toenails to make sure they aren't too long, but I still wound up with a couple of fat lips."
Brunemann and Hanson enjoyed the summer experience so much that they went to New York City over Labor Day weekend to compete in a 10K race in the mouth of the Hudson River.
"You could see the Statue of Liberty while we were swimming," she said after taking seventh. "We hadn't done any training, but it was a great time."
Named USA Swimming's Female Open Water Swimmer of the Year, Brunemann recently returned from the Golden Goggles, a gala event held in Los Angeles to honor the top U.S. amateur swimmers. She and her date got a chance to walk the red carpet with such distinguished swimmers as Natalie Coughlin, Dara Torres and Michigan alum Michael Phelps.
"It was such an awesome and exciting experience," Brunemann says. "I'm a good friend with so many of those swimmers. I got a chance to talk to Michael a little backstage. I became friends with him when he trained at Michigan, but it's been hard to stay in touch with him since he has become so famous. It was just good to see him again."
And if there was any question as to any rust built up during her 19-month layoff from pool competition, the four-time first team All-American answered it quickly when took firsts in the 1,000, 200 and 500 freestyles during this season's opening meet at Notre Dame. She has since posted NCAA 'B' qualifying marks in the 1,650 and 500 freestyles, the 400 individual medley and the 800 free relay.
"I'm back and ready to go!" she says. "It's just incredible to be back with my team when I didn't expect to be swimming this year. To be given another opportunity to swim for the University of Michigan is a blessing above itself. I love this team and Jim is such a great coach. I'm going to give it my all and I'm doing well right now."
And the longer the race, the more the fifth-year senior feels in her comfort zone. The psychology major says she never gets bored because she is always singing to herself.
"All kinds of songs are going through my head, usually something I have just heard on my iPod," she says with a laugh. "It keeps changing with my mood. I've learned not to think too much because when you start having conversations with yourself, you end up telling yourself you're tired or some part of your body is hurting."
Coming out of high school, Brunemann never dreamed of becoming an All-American swimmer and now her focus is becoming an Olympian both in the pool and in the open water.
"I wasn't an amazing swimmer and I had 10 different coaches before coming to Michigan," she says. "I chose Michigan because of the academics and I knew Jim was a coach who had a reputation of taking swimmers and making them really faster than they were when they came in. And this team was so close-knit.
"Jim has done wonders with me. To say I'm an NCAA champion, Big Ten Swimmer of the Year and four-time All-American are all things I hold very dear to my heart because I never thought I would be there."
In addition to open water swimming becoming an inaugural event for the 2012 Olympics in London, Brunemann also thinks it's time for the Olympic committee to add the mile to the list of women's swimming events.
"The guys get to swim the mile, but the girls can only do the 800," she says. "I think we can swim the mile just as well as the guys can."
When her Michigan career ends this season, Brunemann will be setting her sights on qualifying for the U.S. teams in both the pool and open water for the Pan Pacific Games in California and the open water World Championships in Canada next summer.
"I'm certainly a more cautious person now," she says. "Last year was very frustrating, but I'm one of those firm believers that everything happens for a reason. I don't think I would have ever done open water racing if I hadn't been suspended."