By Bob Romantic
GCU News Bureau
Michael Branning spent his workout last Thursday paddling around the GCU pool in a big inner tube.
It’s safe to say his times were just a bit slower than his previous foray into a pool -- at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha, Neb.
The much-needed break from training came after the GCU junior swam a personal-best time of 23.05 seconds in the 50-meter freestyle June 30 at the Trials. That was good for a tie for 41st place among the 170 competitors in the event. The top two in each event make the U.S. Olympic team.
While 41st place may seem like a far cry from the Olympics, it’s actually a good spot for a 19-year-old like Branning.
“If you look at who qualifies for the Olympics and even the Trials, in terms of age, it’s all guys who are post-college age,” GCU swim coach Steve Schaffer said. “Michael now is coming into the next cycle with a group of kids who will be out of college for the next Olympics. He’s positioned himself really well to be a factor in 2016.”
In fact, among swimmers under 20 years old, Branning’s time in the 50 freestyle was the fifth-fastest at the Trials.
“I felt really good about how fast I could go,” said Branning, who came into the Trials seeded 120th with his qualifying time of 23.39. “I did a time trial a couple days earlier and went 23.23, so I was expecting to go faster than that.”
Part of Branning’s confidence came from having his family at the Trials. His parents both went to Grand Canyon University – it’s where they met – and his sister Jaclyn also swims for GCU. Beyond that, having a big crowd on hand seems to bring out the best in Branning.
“You never know in a meet like the Olympic Trials if kids will do their best,” Schaffer said. “Only about 50 percent swim faster than their meet qualifying time because there is so much pressure. And an even smaller percentage swim faster than their personal bests for the same reasons.”
But, with Branning, “I knew he could be that fast,” Schaffer said.
Schaffer has known that about Branning since he recruited him in 2009 out of Paradise Valley High School.
“Michael was one of the top recruits coming out of Arizona and probably the top 150 in the country when he came out,” Schaffer said. “He is the first legitimate D-I swimmer we were able to recruit. … That was a major coup for us as a new program. It gave us instant credibility. Now, after we’ve had some success, we’re able pick up these kinds of kids. It leaves some folks around the country scratching their heads and wondering ‘How is GCU doing that?’”
For Branning, he has lived up to his potential. He placed second at the NCAA Division II meet in the 50 freestyle as both a freshman and sophomore; he holds individual school records in the 50 freestyle and 200 freestyle; and is part of four school-record relay teams (200 free relay, 400 free relay, 800 free relay and 200 medley relay).
That has helped the GCU men’s team to fourth- and fifth-place finishes at the NCAA meet his first two years.
Prototypical student-athlete… or Narwhal
When Schaffer recruited Branning, he characterized him as the prototypical GCU student-athlete.
That hasn’t changed.
“He’s high-achieving, well-mannered, a good student, comes from a great family… and he’s a good influence on the team,” Schaffer said. “He’ll be a team captain for us next year.”
Branning also keeps things loose on the team, whether it’s by paddling around the pool in an inner tube or doing flips into the pool before practice.
OK, maybe the flips are a little too loose.
“The first weekend of my freshman year, I was messing around in the (five-foot) GCU pool and doing flips,” Branning said. “One time I didn’t flip all the way around and hit my head on the bottom.”
That resulted in a trip to the hospital and stitches in his forehead, right at the hairline.
“We call him Narwhal because the scar looks like where the narwhal horn would be coming out of,” said Schaffer, referring to the species of whale that is distinguished by a large tusk that emerges from its head. “He has a good sense of humor. He keeps things light.”
Whatever you call Branning – Narwhal, prototypical GCU athlete or future Olympian – the future looks bright for GCU’s rising swimmer.
“I haven’t really made the decision yet (on the 2016 Olympics) but I’m leaning toward swimming it again,” Branning said. “This experience at the Trials will help me a lot because it shows me how big it is and what to train for next time.”