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Following Injury, Brewer Returns to Test the Waters

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It has been nearly four years since Bobby Brewer swam the 100-meter backstroke at the World University Games. But no matter how many times he talks about that race, there’s still pain and frustration in his eyes.

Brewer, who will compete in the Spring Nationals Sunday through Thursday in Nassau, N.Y., was ranked sixth in the world at the time and a prime candidate for the 1996 Olympic team.

“I had a good prelim that morning,” Brewer, now 25, recalled. “I qualified third and was looking to do a lot better in the finals. So here I was in the finals, and second at the 50 [-meter mark], chasing down the world record holder at the time, Jeff Rouse.

“I was in the race 100%, when, at the 75-meter mark, I lost control of my left leg and it just sort of flopped down in the water.”

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Trying desperately to hang on to at least second place and qualify for the World Championships, Brewer, who was swimming for the University of Georgia, finished third.

“I lost second place by .03 seconds,” he said. “But what was even worse, when I got out of the water, my leg collapsed.”

Brewer, who has been training with the Irvine Novaquatics since last June, had suffered a bulging disc that pinched a nerve that ran to his leg.

A few days later, Brewer saw a doctor who prescribed physical therapy and told him he should refrain from training.

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Following the doctor’s advice, he underwent therapy and stayed out of the pool--for a while.

“I got mad,” Brewer said, “and went to practice and did starts and turns and a lot of stuff I shouldn’t have done. I went to bed that night really sore. The next morning, I was in a lot of pain. And when I got up to get out of bed, my right foot stepped forward but my left leg didn’t move and I fell. It was pretty pitiful.”

Brewer had ruptured a disc and required an operation.

“The doctors told me there were a lot of complications in the surgery because the bulging disc had completely cut off my nerves and they were essentially dead,” Brewer said. “The doctors told me I would not be able to swim at the level I was at, and that my nerve would heal at an inch a month. Well, a nerve that goes all the way down my back to my toe . . . that’s a long time.”

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Brewer became depressed at the thought his swimming career might be over and, subsequently, dropped out of college.

But just as that moment at the World University Games stands out in Brewer’s mind, so too does the moment he began his recovery.

“I was living with my parents at the time,” he said. “I was sitting in my bedroom, wallowing in self-pity. I was watching a particularly depressing movie and listening to depressing music when a plaque on my wall fell off and hit me on the head.”

About to hurl the plaque across the room, Brewer stopped and looked at it.

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“It was a plaque my mom made for me. It was for the national record [15-16 age-group record in the 100 backstroke] I got when I was 16. But what stood out was the photo on the plaque,” Brewer said. “It was a picture of my friends with their arms around me. It was then I realized what swimming really meant to me. It was about the friendships and fun. So I carefully hung the plaque up and started my comeback the next day.”

He went back to his high school pool in Forest Park, Ga., and told his age-group coach he wanted to swim again. “I told him that my goal was to swim in one more national [meet],” Brewer said.

“I got in and did a 25 [yard] that day and it was the hardest 25 in my life,” Brewer said. “I literally collapsed when I got out of the pool.”

The following day, Brewer swam 50 yards. The day after that, 75. Finally, he was working out four days a week. The feeling was coming back in his leg, but he was still in pain.

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Two years and many workouts later, Brewer finished fourth in the 100 backstroke at the 1997 Summer Nationals and won a bronze medal at the World University Games.

“It wasn’t anything spectacular,” Brewer said of his times. But it was an amazing comeback.

Brewer re-enrolled at Georgia and graduated the next year. He won a gold medal in the 100 backstroke at the 1998 Spring Nationals and finished second at the Summer Nationals.

He is a member of the U.S. Pan-Pacific team and, as a ranked member of U.S. Swimming’s National A team, receives a stipend of $500 a month to help with his training.

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While at the Summer Nationals last year, Brewer said he was overheard talking about his training and was told he should contact Dave Salo, coach of the Novaquatics, because they shared philosophies.

“I called Dave and we immediately clicked,” Brewer said. “I told him I’d like to come out there, so I came to California with no money in my pockets and started to swim with the Novaquatics. It’s been working great ever since.”

Salo said he believes Brewer stands a good chance at qualifying for the 2000 Olympics.

“Bobby has a very fast turnover and he does things in the water I can’t explain,” Salo said. “He certainly has the heart and guts.”

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Notes

Other county swimmers competing at Spring Nationals next week include: Mission Viejo Nadadores--Chad Carvin (200/400 free); Jamie Cail (400 IM, 400/800/1,500 free); Jie Lee (400 IM, 200 butterfly, 200/400 free); Ari Gardner (100/200 free); Asa Sandlund (400/800/1,500 free); Allen Ong (50/200 free, 100 butterfly, 200 IM); Carlo Piccio (200 fly, 400 IM); Oat Sethsothorn (400 IM, 400/800/1,500 free); Juan Veloz (200 fly, 400 IM, 400/800 free).

Irvine Novaquatics--Amanda Beard (200 IM, 100 butterfly, 100/200 breaststroke); Brad Bridgewater (100/200 back); Jason Lezak (100 fly, 50/100 freestyle); Garly Geehr (400 IM, 200/400/1,500 free); Aaron Piersol (400 IM, 100/200 back); Stacianna Stitts (200/400 IM, 100/200 breast); Jessica Hayes (100 back, 50/100/200 free); Kristen Caverly (100/200 breast); Gonny Shimura (100/200 back); Laura McDonald (800/1,500 free); Kyoko Yokouchi (200/400 IM, 100/200 back); Morgan Hoestery (100/200 breast); Lindsey Buck (100/200 fly); Shannon Flahive (100/200 breast); Daniel Kim (100/200 breast); Erin Zehntner (200 fly, 200/400/1,500 free); Jeri Moss (100/200 back).

Gators Swim Club--Shauna Barnard (200/400 IM); Kaitlin Sandeno (400/800/1,500 free). Team Tyr--Steve West (100/200 breast).

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