Young Olympic hopeful swimmers are making a splash


By Judith Stiles

For Dexter Brierley, the power food of choice before one of his big swim meets is a simple sweet potato. Perhaps this carb adds an element of luck as well, because the firey color of the food matches a roguish red-haired mop that frames his handsome face. In street clothes, one might mistake this lean, clean swimming machine for a hipster from London, but as soon as he speaks of his passion for swimming, it is crystal clear that he has little time for clubbing or hanging out. He prefers his swimming buddies on the McBurney YMCA swim team to his school friends, noting that he spends much of his free time with swimmers and feels he can thoroughly trust them.

At age 15, the big decision after the Saturday morning workout is whether or not he and his teammate, 14-year-old John Connuck, will be sociable for once, and attend a party for an hour in the evening. They discuss the pros and cons of a party but quickly the conversation reverts to their favorite subject, swimming, as they joke about “pushing through the pain” in a workout.

Both Brierley and Connuck racked up numerous wins this past year, catapulting the McBurney team to first place citywide, especially in the recent Holiday Invitational, where they beat the second-place West Side YMCA team, 2,018 points to 620 points. The female team scores for McBurney, 1,022 points, left the competition far behind in their wake, besting the Bedford-Stuyvesant Piranhas, 312 points; third-place Prospect Park YMCA, 268 points; West Side YMCA, 130 points; and New York Aquatic Club, 80 points. The scores are cumulative for all events in freestyle, butterfly, backstroke and breaststroke. The McBurney male team also came in first at 996 points.

This is only the third year the McBurney Y has had a swim team, and for the first two years they were considered “the new kids on the block,” according to head coach John Gough. Now the team has broken records across the state, and they’re very proud that Brierley is ranked in the top 15 YMCA swimmers nationwide and is number one in freestyle in New York State.

But when Brierley and Connuck get together to talk about swimming, they barely mention their awards. They prefer to praise their coach, Gough, who first sparked their interest in competitive swimming and then gave them the confidence and drive to take the training seriously. Gough spends a great deal of time on the physical aspects of training his team, but he also focuses on the mental component of developing athletes.

“I like to establish a relationship of trust with each swimmer,” he says thoughtfully. “I believe encouragement works, and every swimmer on the team, fast or slow, has an important role to play,” he adds. With a big smile, Connuck describes Gough’s mantra of “Guts and Glory, Then Torture and Kill,” which is used to describe the best way to mentally approach a 50-yard race. The Torture and Kill attitude is saved for the end of the race. When most swimmers might start flagging, it helps Brierley and Connuck make that last big push to win.

Connuck lives two blocks from the Y. One of the best in butterfly citywide, he somehow manages to squeeze in six to 10 water practices a week, plus dry, land workouts, in between his rigorous studies at Stuyvesant High School. He is careful to eat healthfully, often five meals a day, mostly protein, carbohydrates, fruit and vegetables. No soda for Connuck, who gave it up as a new year’s resolution more than two years ago.

Within the inner circles of competitive swimming coaches, there is buzz on the block about these two young men and the 2008 and 20012 Olympics. Brierley and Connuck are somewhat reluctant to talk about the dream of going to the Olympics. Rather they prefer to stay focused on improving their strokes and times.

In speaking of Coach Gough, Connuck says, “He gave me the courage and determination to stick with swimming and say, ‘This is what I want.’”

Brierley adds, “He taught me that a serious swimmer doesn’t just show up and do the work; a serious swimmer has to show up and do the work properly and consistently.”

Around the corner in early 2007, during Jan. 13-14, the McBurney Manta Rays will have their next citywide meet at the Flushing YMCA in Queens. There are 40 Manta Rays rostered between the ages of 8 and 15 who are hoping to be chosen for the competition.

Brierley — who attends Packer Collegiate in Brooklyn, where he lives — is excited at the prospect of defending his title as city champion in the 50 freestyle event. There will be no holiday break for these young men, as Coach Gough will continue their rigorous workout routine in preparation for the big meet. Boot camp-style workouts don’t seem to bother Connuck and Brierley, even if it means missing a lot of teenage parties.

“It is amazing that everything you worked so hard for all year is over within seconds of one race,” says Brierley, admitting his astonishment. However, he notes that working with Coach Gough and training with his friends has been a great experience, and he adds with a smile, “I could do this for the rest of my life.”