By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — He’s a third-year student in the University of Virginia’s prestigious McIntire School of Commerce, where he’s concentrating on finance. He’s also one of the ACC’s top swimmers.
In a typical week, Brendan Casey said, UVA’s swimming & diving team practices about nine times, with morning and afternoon sessions. At the Comm School, Casey has group work as well as daily classes. His schedule would strike many as grueling, but Casey remains unfazed by the demands on his time.
“I’ve been doing it my whole life, juggling swimming and school, so I’m kind of used to it by now,” said Casey, who also played soccer and golf as a boy. “People ask, ‘How do you get up at 5:30 in the morning?’ I’ve been doing it for years.”
Casey grew up near the Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica, a coastal city near Los Angeles. Santa Monica is about 2,600 miles from Charlottesville, and Casey had no ties to the University before enrolling there in 2014. But his older brother, Aaron, also a standout swimmer, had considered UVA when he was being recruited.
“He ended up going to Cal,” Brendan said, “but he recommended that I [visit] here and thought I would like it a lot. I came here and I fell in love with the school and the balance between academics and social life and the beauty of this school. It’s a change of pace from Southern California.”
In the summer of 2013, Augie Busch had succeeded Mark Bernardino as the head coach of UVA’s swimming & diving programs. Casey was part of Busch’s first recruiting class at Virginia.
From that first class, which enrolled at UVA in 2014, only three members remain on the men’s side: Casey, Luke Georgiadis and Omer Tara. Busch, of course, is gone as well. He left Virginia last summer for the same position at Arizona, his alma mater.
Casey was in Slovenia, training with the U.S. national team for the FINA world championships, when the announcement came that Busch was leaving. The news stunned him.
“It was all so abrupt,” Casey recalled. “No one knew it was happening.”
Busch’s departure, however, cleared the way for the hiring for Todd DeSorbo, who came to UVA from NC State, where he was associate head coach. DeSorbo added assistant coaches Tyler Fenwick, Blaire Bachman and Wes Foltz, and the new staff “has been awesome,” Casey said.
DeSorbo is “amazing,” Casey said. “He’s really energetic, as you can tell if you check social media. The coaches are all over it. It’s a big change, top to bottom, from the energy at meets to the energy at practice, and in recruiting. It’s all really well thought-out, and we couldn’t ask for a better situation.”
The UVA women are ranked No. 7 nationally. The men are No. 23, with a roster that includes only two seniors: Georgiadis and Tara.
Casey is a redshirt junior. After competing for the Cavaliers as a freshman, when he placed fifth the 1650-yard freestyle, 11th in the 500 free and 20th in the 400 individual medley at the ACC meet, Casey withdrew from school to train for and compete in open water races.
He left Charlottesville and spent some of the 2015-16 academic year in Los Angeles and some in Australia. After establishing himself as one of the U.S.’s best in open water, Casey returned to UVA for the 2016-17 academic year and resumed his college swimming career.
He didn’t have a memorable season as a redshirt sophomore at UVA, but last May he placed second in the 10-kilometer swim at U.S. Swimming’s open water championships in California.
That earned him a spot on the U.S. national team and a trip to the FINA world championships in Hungary last July. In Budapest, Casey placed second in the 5k open water mixed-team relay and was ninth in the men’s open water 10k.
“You’ve got to be really disciplined and focused to be able to swim that long at that level,” DeSorbo said.
Open water racing appeals to him, Casey said, because “it’s a lot different from [pool racing]. You’re not just swimming up and down a lane. There’s a lot of people around you, and it’s more of a strategy thing.
“It’s a change of pace. Doing distance freestyle is kind of boring in itself. [Open water racing has] more strategy to it. I like to think things through. It just plays to my strengths, I think, to be strategic in a race.”
One of the greatest swimmers in UVA history, the late Fran Crippen, also was an exceptional open water competitor. Growing up, Casey heard about Crippen, who trained with the Mission Viejo Nadadores club in California after graduating from UVA.
Crippen’s college coach was Bernardino, who in his 35 years guided the Wahoos to 27 ACC titles — 16 for the men and 11 for the women. During Bernardino’s tenure, the ‘Hoos became known for producing outstanding distance swimmers, including Crippen and NCAA champion Matt McLean.
“I knew the whole tradition,” Casey said. “I was pretty aware of that coming in.”
So, too, was DeSorbo when he took job last summer, and he’s embraced that tradition.
“I told this to a lot of prospects and I told this to our alumni: I’d be foolish to not know distance swimming has been the bread and butter of the program for a long time,” DeSorbo said.
That’s why he hired Fenwick to coach that group, DeSorbo added.
“My No. 1 priority was to uphold the integrity of the program,” he said. “Especially on the men’s side, it’s a huge strength for us. If there has been a weakness in this program, it’s been sprinting. We want both, we’re going for both, and I think we can have both.”
At UVA, Casey favors variety. He’s more than a freestyler.
“I do IM and backstroke [too],” he said. “I’m good at them, but I like it more so because I cannot only do freestyle all the time, because if you’re a distance freestyler, you’re just doing the same thing over and over.”
Casey has yet to qualify for the NCAA championships, but that’s a realistic goal for him this season. At the University of Georgia Fall Invitational in early December, DeSorbo said, Casey did not taper but still recorded lifetime bests in four events.
“In the pool he’s had a really good year,” DeSorbo said. “He’s been a rock for us in those distance events.”
Next up for Casey and Co. are the ACC men’s championships, Feb. 21-24 in Greensboro, North Carolina. The Cavaliers placed sixth at this meet in 2016 and again last year.
How they’ll fare this month is difficult to predict, but the coaching staff is “definitely happy with what they’ve done to this point,” DeSorbo said. “We want to see them accelerating into the championship season, and they have been.”
The UVA men have lagged behind the women in recent years, but the gap between the two programs has narrowed and should continue to close.
“Already this year everyone’s swimming better,” Casey said. “There’s a lot more energy, and recruiting’s going really well so far. It’s exciting to see where the program is going.”
Casey won’t graduate until May 2019, so he’ll be back to compete for the Cavaliers next season. Once he gets his degree, he’s likely to postpone his business career in order to pursue a spot on the U.S. Olympic team for 2020.
“I’ve thought a lot about this,” Casey said, “and just in talking to people and asking their advice — not only swimmers, but people I was networking with — they were pretty strong in [their belief that] I should keep swimming.”
Casey hopes to qualify, in the spring of 2019, for the FINA world championships, which will be held in South Korea that summer. A top-10 finish at the world championships would assure him a trip to the Olympics in 2020.
“I figure it’s kind of a sacrifice, because all my friends in Comm School” will be starting jobs in 2019, Casey said, but he doesn’t expect to regret his decision.
“You can always work,” he said. “You can’t always compete.”