Just keep swimming: After Iowa cuts program, Merkel brings talent, lessons to Missouri

Brecken Merkel thanks swimming for teaching her more about herself and the world surrounding her.

Brecken Merkel’s swimming journey began at a young age.

As a toddler, Merkel envisioned sharks at the bottom of the pool when she heard eerie sounds from below during her swimming lessons. She despised submerging herself in the bitterly cold water.

But Merkel just kept swimming.

Years later, at a national meet, Merkel’s teammates surrounded the outskirts of the pool, cheering her on as she dived into the water, swimming her quickest 200m butterfly ever. Merkel came within two seconds of making the Olympic Trials cut.

To this day, Merkel finds marine life fascinating — on her bucket list is swimming with sharks. But as she applied for colleges, none of the mascots were sea creatures. Instead, she chose to be a Tiger when she committed to Missouri in late September.

This wasn’t Merkel’s original plan. Merkel’s life turned upside down when she saw a social media post toward the end of last summer.

In late August, the University of Iowa announced plans to cut its swimming and diving programs after the 2020-21 season because of financial struggles worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. Merkel originally committed to Iowa, but because of Iowa’s future plans, she needed to find a new school.

“I felt that out of the schools I was looking at the time, [Iowa] felt most like home,” Merkel said. “On top of that, they offered me basically a full ride, so financially it would’ve been an extreme help.”

Merkel’s friend Will Whittington, who committed to Missouri in June, couldn’t imagine if he were in this situation.

“That's like me finding out right now if Mizzou got cut, that'd be six months out,” Whittington said. “That'd be absolutely devastating. It's like a full reset on your whole program.”

Merkel grew up in Crystal, Minn. among a family of swimmers. Her mom swam freestyle and backstroke at Arizona State University, and her aunt swam at North Dakota State University. Two of her cousins swim at the University of Minnesota.

“My parents kept pushing [swimming] on all of my siblings, and it stuck with me,” Merkel said. “My brother’s the musician, my sister’s an actress and I’m the athlete of the family.”

Merkel’s high school, Edina, won free relays four years in a row where Merkel played a significant role. Despite her high school success, competing in the butterfly and individual medley races, Merkel opted not to swim at Edina her senior year. Instead, she swam with her swim club, the Aquajets.

“I think that was a good decision for myself because my coach really knows me,” Merkel said. “[She] knows what kind of training works for my body and what kind doesn't.”

In 2019, Merkel finished as a Class AA finalist at the 2019 Minnesota High School State Championships. She placed third in the 200 IM (2:04.26) and sixth in the 100 fly (56.19). But those aren’t the achievements that stick out to her.

“A lot of my main achievements are a non-athletic kind of thing,” Merkel said. “I’ve definitely learned how to be a great teammate, how to support my friends, how to inspire others and how much more meaningful achievements are when earned and shared with others.”

As an aquatic toddler, Merkel learned to swim. But as she continued to develop in the sport, she started swimming to learn life lessons.

Merkel talked about how swimming helped her understand her personality and the world around her, plus how to overcome adversity and disappointment.

There’s been a lot of those lately, since the COVID-19 pandemic has athletes like Merkel facing near-constant uncertainty as competition tries to resume.

“With COVID shutting down the [swimming] facilities, keeping a positive mindset is extremely important,” Merkel said. “Otherwise, we’re just going to take a step back and keep trending the wrong direction if we don’t continue to think about our goals that will make us better later.”

Merkel reflects on a time when chronic hip and knee pain sidelined her. Despite that injury, Merkel was focused on returning healthier than ever and cheering on her team.

That was another lesson for Merkel: being part of a team.

Swimming also taught her how to manage time effectively, a challenge for student athletes.

“Time management is extremely important since I have to juggle school, swimming and a social life,” Merkel said. “Making sure I utilize every hour of every day is very important so that I’m able to accomplish everything that’s important to me.”

That's the only way Merkel gets a reasonable amount of sleep every night — so she can perform academically and physically the next day.

Merkel is more than just a swimmer and student; she’s an individual who loves to give back to the community. Merkel is a peer tutor in math, science and English at her high school. She’s also a teaching assistant for Spanish at her school because she’s fluent in the language.

“I enjoy participating in these services since I love to help others and give back,” Merkel said. “I also enjoy learning something new from teachers and other students.”

Merkel went from a status as one of the earliest commits on the Aquajets to one of the last commits due to Iowa’s situation.

“It was very courageous to go on a wing like [Merkel] did and search for other schools,” Whittington said.

While Merkel visited Missouri’s campus with her mom, recruiting was in a ‘dead period’ because of COVID-19. As a result, Merkel couldn’t meet her coaches and teammates face to face.

“One thing that was extremely helpful is how amazing the coaches are at communicating,” Merkel said. “They were always super quick to reply to texts and set up phone calls to check in during the process.”

With her future team finally in place, Merkel is able to reflect on what her swimming career means, and what her priorities are moving forward in the pool.

“The things I remember most about swimming aren’t necessarily the times I’ve swam or the meets I’ve been to, it’s the people I’ve met and the memories I’ve made with them,” Merkel said. “Make sure you constantly remind yourself of your goals, but also make sure you take a step back and realize the memories, friends and experiences the sport has given you.”

Edited by Jack Soble | jsoble@themaneater.com

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