Sounds counterintuitive, but Emily Brunemann had to move back to a cold-weather climate to regain her confidence in open water swimming.
Brunemann, 26, won 10-kilometer races in Brazil and Argentina in late January and early February to open up the 2013 season and rebound from a subpar year that cost her U.S. national team status.
She chalks up her recent success to a homecoming. Last fall, Brunemann left southern California and returned to Ann Arbor, where she'd been a five-time All-American at the University of Michigan. There, she joined the Club Wolverine elite training group that includes Olympic 200-meter backstroke gold medalist Tyler Clary and butterfly specialist Wu Peng of China.
Brunemann slipped back into workouts run by Michigan associate coach and distance guru Josh White and is also putting in volunteer coaching time with the Michigan women's team. She feels like part of a community again, a welcome change from what was mostly solo training under the aegis of the now-disbanded elite FAST program in Fullerton, Calif.
"I'm a big fan of having balance in my life, and not having something else to offset swimming was more stressful than I anticipated," said Brunemann, a Kentucky native.
In the Jan. 27 10K race in Santos, Brazil, Brunemann pushed the pace and finished a comfortable 30 seconds ahead of fellow American Eva Fabian. She stayed with the pack and outsprinted Ana Marcela Cunha of Brazil a week later down the stretch in Viedma, Argentina to win by four seconds.
As is typical of the open water circuit, the two races, both established World Cup events, featured very different conditions. Santos was held in a bay within sight of a working harbor, while the course in Viedma was on a river with considerable current. White said the fact that Brunemann won two races that required such different tactics is very encouraging. The 10K is increasingly becoming the province of fast "milers" who transition from the pool rather than grinders, and White said Brunemann is poised to excel both because of her athletic ability and her maturity.
"She's really grown a lot in terms of her perspective, how the sport fits into her life," the coach said. "She's allowed herself not to live and die by the sport."
Water temperature, which has preoccupied swimmers and coaches since Fran Crippen drowned in sweltering conditions at a race in the United Arab Emirates in October 2010, wasn't an issue on the South American swing thanks to temperate weather. Brunemann said the number of safety craft on the courses appears to have been ramped up since the tragedy.
But she, like many other open water swimmers, still feels athletes will need to stay vigilant and keep pressure on officials. The current international ceiling of 31 degrees Celsius (87.8 Fahrenheit) is considered too high by many swimmers.
"I do see more boats and kayaks on the courses," Brunemann said. "But I still don't know if they take water temperature seriously."
The fallout after Crippen's death also prompted international officials to mandate that each open water swimmer is accompanied by a coach at elite events. Previously, it was not unusual for one coach to be responsible for "feeding" multiple swimmers, extending cups or squeeze bottles with liquid nourishment from floating docks on the course. The rule is meant to help ensure that heads are counted on each lap and swimmers have ample opportunity to hydrate.
The U.S. national team provides staff support for swimmers on the roster, but athletes like Brunemann who are trying to work their way back have to pay for their own travel and coaching.
"I'm figuring it out," said Brunemann, who brought her father along to serve as coach in one race and had former Michigan swimmer San Wensman with her for the other. "I'm fortunate that my parents believe in what I'm doing, and they're giving me financial help. It's not easy." Brunemann is hoping to regain her national team status by finishing in the top six at the U.S. championships in May at Castaic Lake north of Los Angeles.
Brunemann is no stranger to the podium at 10K races. She won two events in Asia in 2011. And she's also familiar with setbacks. She served a six-month suspension in 2008-09 after her out-of-competition urine sample tested positive for a banned diuretic. The arbitration panel that heard her case stated in a strongly-worded ruling that Brunemann had no intention to cheat, but had to be sanctioned under the rules for the "unfortunate mistake" of taking one of her mother's prescription pills she thought was a laxative. Brunemann missed an entire NCAA season as a result.
She had a lot of time to think about how to use her talent during the imposed layoff, and began competing in open water events shortly after her return. She's not about to call the whole interlude a blessing, but it "opened my eyes... I don't know that I would have gotten into open water when I did if it hadn't happened. It made me realize how easily a career can be taken away."