One in a million
The water was calm and serene as Tommy Brewer stepped to the starting blocks for the 100-yard breaststroke on Saturday at Juniper Swim & Fitness Center. It was undisturbed and glassy — frozen in time.
Brewer dove headlong into that pool of tranquility, his 6-foot-6 frame piercing through the water. Calm and composed beneath the surface, Brewer, on his way to a district-record time, soon left a stormy wake — an effect the Summit junior has had not only in Class 5A swimming, not only throughout Oregon, but across the nation.
At 17 years old, Brewer owns four individual 5A state titles. In all four of those events, he set 5A records, including an all-classifications mark in the 100 breaststroke at last season’s state championship meet.
“Just doing what I like to do is what it all boils down to,” Brewer says of those accomplishments. “They’re are all just the cherry on top for me.”
He ranks in the top 15 nationally for boys 15 to 18 years old in four events since September, including a No. 2 ranking in the 200-yard breaststroke — a time of 1 minute, 57.73 seconds that, since 1965, has been bested by only 34 other swimmers.
“I hate to throw the word ‘phenom’ out, but if you look at a guy like Michael Phelps, just his stature and stuff, Tommy is really like that,” Summit coach Amy Halligan says, comparing Brewer to the U.S. swimming icon and most decorated Olympian of all time. “That’s probably the closest description for him. He’s a one-in-a-million kind of swimmer, or at least one in a hundred thousand.
“There’s a lot of swimmers who excel in the sport, but his natural ability, coupled with his intelligence about swimming with how to train, is what makes him what he is. Through the help of his mom as a coach, he’s kind of mastered the sport.”
“I’d say once every five or 10 years, that kid comes through a program,” says Tommy’s mother, Ann Brewer, who is also his coach with the Cascade Swimming Academy’s Current Swimming club program. “He happens to be that one. … It’s exciting to see that level of talent. Every coach begins to drool.”
At 17 years old, Tommy Brewer has already experienced a taste of the Olympics, having participated in the 2012 Olympic Trials in Omaha, Neb., as the youngest competitor in a field of more than 130 swimmers. His debut was modest at best (117th place in the 200-meter breaststroke preliminaries). But as the then-15-year-old unwound in the warm-up pool after his race, he decided: He would be back — better, stronger and faster — to challenge for a finals spot in the 2016 Olympic Trials.
To this point, he appears to be well on his way.
Last summer, at the Speedo Junior National Championships in California, Brewer swam the 200-meter breaststroke in 2:16.68, down from 2:19.56 the year before that qualified him for the Trials.
“I’d say I’m a lot more confident (now) in how I swim races,” Brewer says. “Back when I was at the Olympic Trials, I would try to race with everybody else, and it was everybody else’s races because I was trying to keep up. Now I have my own set strategy, because I’ve learned my big events and what they are and how to swim each one to my fullest capabilities.”
And the scary bit of it all is that Brewer’s potential has yet to be met. As Halligan puts it, “He’s still kind of a puppy dog.”
“He’s not full-grown yet,” says the longtime Summit High coach. “He may not get any taller, but he hasn’t started any weightlifting or anything. Add that component to it and he’ll just continue to get better.”
Brewer is self-motivated, Halligan observes, and has a drive with which few can compare.
“He’s one of the hardest workers I’ve seen,” says Summit freshman Baxter Halligan, a teammate of Brewer’s with both the high school squad and the Current Swimming club team. “It really makes me push myself a lot harder and be a lot better swimmer. I don’t think I’ll ever come across another swimmer that trains as much as he does and has had as much success as he has.”
Still, Ann Brewer worries a bit about her standout swimmer peaking too early.
“I think that’s a nagging coach thing, just because we’re holding off on a few of the other gadgets, so to speak, that coaches have in their ammo,” Ann Brewer says. “I’m not going to have him lift weights until he goes to college, when his body is developed enough to take the full load. My concern for plateauing to happen with what we’re currently doing is probably more of a common coach’s concern.”
Tommy Brewer — the kid who has been swimming for 12 years, who began a year after his older sister Madi one day brought to their home in Vacaville, Calif., a flier promoting a local swim club, who set multiple junior state records in Ohio before his family moved to Bend in summer 2010 — never envisioned this much success growing up. Nowhere near it, in fact.
He was primarily a baseball player growing up, until a broken thumb derailed his career about the time he was 12. That is when swimming took the front seat. And Brewer never looked back.
“You learn more from just watching them swim and how they prepare for each race, what they do and how they seem so calm about it,” Brewer says, recalling the talented and more-seasoned swimmers he encountered at the trials and how they handled the thousands of spectators and media attention. “It shows you how you can do that too. You just have to get over it the first time. If I had a second swim there, I probably would have done better than I did the first time.”
All his commitment to swimming and six days a week of training with his club have made him a national-level swimmer. But Brewer also enjoys his opportunities to shine closer to home.
“High school swimming is kind of like a relief, a break from all that,” he says. “It’s fun. It’s a whole team atmosphere. You get to swim different events that you wouldn’t usually swim. You get bus trips to hang out with all your friends, be a normal high school kid instead of always zeroed in and focused on the next event at a big national meet.”
He adds: “I think it helps a lot because at high school, you can just kind of go with it. There’s not a lot of stress involved with high school swimming. It’s just kind of, ‘Go out there and swim as fast as you can.’”
There is no jealousy within the Storm boys squad, Amy Halligan says, and no animosity to speak of. Baxter Halligan, the coach’s son, can confirm that.
“We look at him the same as anyone else,” says Baxter Halligan, who concedes that Brewer was an intimidating talent the first time Halligan swam with him. “We just know that he has a lot of talent. He’s the guy. I don’t know how to explain it.”
“He’s like a Peyton Manning or a Michael Phelps, someone who’s the full package,” says Amy Halligan, the high school coach. “He’s got the physical side and the intelligence side.”
Despite being arguably the top swimmer among high school boys in the state (perhaps in the Northwest), Brewer stays hungry to possibly become the top swimmer in the country.
“I look at what all my competitors across the nation are doing,” he says. “I see how their times are getting faster and knowing I need to get faster if I want to compete with all of them for spots in colleges and the top-of-the-nation ranking.”
The 17-year-old has already set high benchmarks. Surely, that should create pressure for him to live up to — nay, exceed — those standards. But there is no such pressure for Brewer. For him, the approach is simple.
“The best you can do is just go out there and swim as fast as I can,” he says. “I mean, if someone beats me, that means that they’re faster and had a better day than I did. I can’t control that. I can only swim as fast as I can.”
In the water, Brewer is a relaxed and composed figure — qualities sure to be attractive to college recruiters.
“They’re looking for a swimmer who knows what they’re doing,” he says, “who isn’t afraid to go on the big stage and light it up.”
This weekend at the Class 5A state championships, Tommy Brewer will go through his normal routine. He will sit by himself at the Mt. Hood Community College Aquatic Center 20 minutes before his first event. He will visualize his race while listening to music on his iPod. He will close his eyes and zero in on what he needs to do to walk away victorious.
When he arrives at the starting blocks, the headphones will come off. The tunnel vision will turn on. He will dive headlong into the tranquility, and most likely, he will leave a stormy wake.