PITTSBURGH — It was a seasonal November day when Duquesne swimmer Emma Brinton stepped into coach David Sheet’s side office inside of Towers Pool but this was not just any normal meeting, rather the plan was to set a framework in which both could see a goal potential fulfilled.
The official Olympic Trial times had just been filled and when Brinton stepped foot in the office asking Sheets for help, the expectation was set on both sides that a lot of work had to be done if the now junior wanted to make history in the 200 long course meters individual medley, which consists of butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle.
On Dec. 5 at the Toyota US. Open Championship in Atlanta, Ga, Brinton was overcome with emotion as she registered a 2:16:88 in the 200 IM, eclipsing the 2:17:39 standard qualifying time, meaning she posted an Olympic Trial cut time.
“To be the first to make an Olympic Trial cut time for Duquesne was an incredibly humbling experience, especially knowing all of the work that myself, Dave and the team has put into our practices and workouts outside of the pool,” she said. “After I touched the wall and saw my time, I was overcome with emotions because it feels like one of those things I have been working towards for what feels like forever. I had a lot of rough patches along the way, so just to know that all of it eventually paid off is just an incredible feeling. I am super excited and this is not the culmination of just my efforts. Between everything, there are so many different components that all pulled together. Everything really aligned with this one race for me. I’m just so happy and thankful.”
Watching intently, Sheets was grinning ear-to-ear as what had been a year in the making finally was coming to fruition.
“She came in and did exactly what I expected her to do almost every practice,” Sheets said. “That’s when you know she wants this to happen. It was so rewarding to see it happen, knowing everything she sacrificed to get that time. She does not cry very often and she did and it might have been everything. She never said I, she always said we. This was a partnership.”
— Duquesne Swim & Dive (@DuqSwimDive) December 5, 2019
In order for Brinton to reach her goals, she immediately linked up with Sheets who promptly started mapping out splits and times for each stroke in order to reach the standard qualifying time.
“It has always been a goal of mine to make Olympic trials,” said Brinton. “When the times came out and I saw exactly what I needed to do, that’s all I could focus on.”
As Sheets pulled the year-old paper from his backpack, it was easy to tell that it was battle tested with some splashes, but this sheet in addition to one the 19-year coach jotted down the days before traveling to Georgia.
The first sheet showed that at March’s Atlantic 10 Championship, Brinton finished with a time of 2:20:11, meaning she improved her time by over three seconds over the course of several months as well as Winter Nationals where she posted a 2:19 time. The second paper was from the Futures meet in August in addition to the aforementioned notes just before leaving for Georgia.
Looking at both papers side-by-side, Brinton and Sheets stared in amazement at how the two pages defined this journey.
After swimming season concluded, Brinton stayed over the summer training to try and make the cut then. This consisted several practices where she was swimming by herself. She already had started working on her nutrition with Jeff Lucchini and with assistant strength and conditioning coach Chris Tarullo’s assistance significantly boosted her weights.
The sessions helped improve Brinton’s times but also helped the coach-swimmer relationship between this pair as Sheets quickly realized that there were days that he could push, but others where he would have to ease off the accelerator.
“If I walked on deck and I was having a bad day he could read that and knew not to talk to me,” she said. “He knew to hand me the practice and give me the splits when I needed them. There were days when he knew he could yell at me and push me and I could take it on those days.”
Sheets stated that he could gauge how much he could challenge Brinton based on the first part of practice, though often times her facial expressions would be a giveaway.
The Futures Championship was held in Geneva, Ohio’s SPIRE Institute which also host the A-10 Championships and after all of the hard work, Brinton finished at 2:18:25 which was a first-place showing, but still short of her end goal.
This result had both leaving Ohio with doubts as to whether the cut time was a real possibility and each were forced to regroup.
Brinton called the result a “big letdown that kind of created doubts in myself”.
Sheets meanwhile needed reassurance from his wife Tilly who told him that this end goal would happen.
“There are times where you get to a place in your career and it doesn’t happen, you start to question am I good enough,” said Sheets. “I always knew Emma was good enough, but when she missed it at Futures, I asked myself if I could be the coach that can do this for her.”
Brinton took a small break over the summer and then when the team reported back to campus, she got back to work. After reflecting, she was still able to significantly improve her time at Futures and did not view the summer as a waste.
If anything, Brinton understood she had a couple more months to prepare and now there was plenty more motivation to succeed. There was more time to improve the breaststroke to continue to push the cut time but now coming back to campus, her teammates were there to cheer her on.
An additional sacrifice Brinton made to reach this goal was having a different practice schedule from her teammates, though they remained integral towards her ultimate success as they stayed and cheered her on, showing support at all times.
As the U.S. Open meet drew closer, Duquesne added Mark Caprioti, a massage therapist who mainly focused on Brinton to relieve stress or simply recover from months of hard work.
With meet day fast approaching, training hit a snag where practices were not up to expectation and the times were not up to expectations, so Brinton decided to take a day to travel to Landenberg, Pa to celebrate Thanksgiving for a day.
This was a chance to hit a reset button recharging and hanging with her family who knew better than bring up swimming.
“They knew I was a week out and can be a relatively stressed out person,” Brinton explained. “It really was relaxing and I needed that a week before the meet. Definitely after Thanksgiving was when I tried to push most other things to the side just to focus in on what we were trying to do.”
Heading into the last week, Brinton improved every day and perhaps in an effort to appease the stress, Sheets remained largely mum on her times.
“I would touch the wall and ask how that was and if he said good, that was all I wanted to know,” said Brinton. “He knew I didn’t want to know my times because I know what I should be and if I’m not there, it just puts more stress on.”
Sure enough, Brinton was able to achieve her goal in Atlanta in front of her parents with the tears coming from a variety of emotions.
“Emma has done everything that we’ve asked her to do,” Sheets said. “She did everything I think she could weight room, nutrition, she bought all in. It’s rewarding for me because I know what she did to get there. We both sacrificed a lot, now there is another thing we can check off our list.”
Kansas coach Clark Campbell was quick to congratulate the pair for the swim and offer his happiness for the Duquesne program.
This not only was a good gesture of sportsmanship, but also showed that as a swimming program, Duquesne is turning heads.
“When you hear stuff like that from a coach of a Power-5 school, that means a lot,” said Sheets. “I think it means that any kids looking at our program with aspirations of making Olympic trials can look at our program. Emma did not just make the cut time, she destroyed it. Others can see that and say they can do it at Duquesne.”
While Brinton’s mother is already hard at work for family hotel planning for the Olympic Trials which occur June 21-28 in Omaha, Neb, there are other things that need to be done before that meet.
First off, Duquesne is seeking to win its third consecutive Atlantic 10 championship and the team’s annual training trip to Florida, which is where the Dukes start to catch form is less than two weeks away.
Sheets advised Brinton to enjoy her goal being fulfilled, but when she is ready to meet again to plan out the rest of the season. Already Sheets has watched Brinton race several times and found things to improve upon, truly believing she can finish with an even better time.
“The great thing is that she made it December and we’ve got until June to get ready,” he said. “First things first and that is the conference championships. We have to make sure she swims well out there and then continue on.”