UMLY’s Brendan Burns Chasing Michael Phelps for Swimming History

Upper Main Line YMCA Swim Team member Brendan Burns poses at the end of a swim meet where he won a medal for swimming.

Eric Burns knew his son, Brendan, had the potential to turn some heads in the 200 butterfly at the USA Swimming Winter Nationals at the Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, but he wasn’t expecting it to happen so soon.

Brendan’s performance left his dad stunned. The Conestoga High School junior and Upper Main Line YMCA (UMLY) swimmer clocked in at 1:42.94, the second-fastest time in his 15-16 age group in history behind only 23-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps’ time of 1:42.10. Burns finished second in the race behind Ohio State sophomore national champion Noah Lense, a swimmer four years his senior.

“I’m still kind of in awe,” Eric Burns said. “We knew he could swim fast in this race, but not this early in the season. I thought it’d be closer to the YMCA Nationals in the first week of April. It’s definitely a surprise, but it’s a great thing that he’s so close to Phelps because it gives him a little motivation to turn it on a little more. Brendan is a very focused and determined kid, though, and when he sets his mind to something, he can usually do it.”

“He finished last year at YMCA Nationals fourth on the list, so getting to the No. 2 spot, I don’t want to say it’s a surprise, but it’s a good feeling,” Upper Main Line YMCA Competitive Aquatic Director and Burns’ coach Louis Petto said. “The Upper Main Line YMCA swim team trains swimmers to be well-rounded and adaptable. Brendan trains hard and he’s an extremely focused and committed young man, which bodes well with being extremely talented. Our goal is to work on getting faster and the results will take care of themselves. He’s in a pretty good place where he is now.”

The Making of a Speed Demon

Burns has trained at the Upper Main Line YMCA since his family moved to Berwyn from Connecticut in 2009. He initially just wanted to be on a swim team and also play other sports and his parents didn’t have any expectations, but as he approached high school, he decided to focus exclusively on swimming. He credited the unique training style of UMLY’s staff with helping him develop into the elite swimmer he is today.

“The coaches put a high focus on versatility and specifically making sure that you learn all of the strokes and do your best at all of them,” Burns said. “All of the strokes are related in one way with the way your body moves and your flexibility. We do a lot of threshold-based training, skill work and speed work, and that’s helped me a lot.”

Age is Just a Number

Moving up to only trail the greatest Olympian ever was just a part of Burns’ big weekend. He finished 17th in the 200 individual medley in a time of 1:47.20, good enough for 20th all-time in his age group, and followed it up with a ninth-place finish in the 100 fly with a time of 46.97, the fourth-best time ever for his age. Burns also finished fifth overall in the 100 back and the best swimmer under the age of 18 as he battled three Olympians, including Olympic gold medalist and world record holder Ryan Murphy.

Yes, as a high school junior. The event doesn’t classify swimmers by age groups, and only a handful of high school kids qualified. Burns was the youngest swimmer in all of his finals, with most of his competitors being college swimmers or recently out of college.

“The heat sheet lists the years that swimmers were born in, and he was born in 2001,” Eric Burns explained. “There was no one else in the 2000s [in the finals]. They were all born in the 80s and 90s, and it was just kind of a, ‘holy cow’ moment.”

Oddly enough, it didn’t have the same kind of effect on Brendan himself.

“Maybe I was just a little too naive to let it sink into me because it didn’t really hit me as hard as it should have,” Burns said. “This is also my third U.S. National meet, so I think those experiences, coupled with putting on the blinders, helped me not think about it too much.”

Chasing More Greatness

Last spring, he won PIAA gold in the 100 butterfly and 100 backstroke for Conestoga. Before his high school season started, though, it was time for him to continue making a name for himself. Now? There’s a full schedule ahead of him, complete with the opportunity to raise his profile even more.

“I’m actually headed to the Sport Fair Winter Classic this weekend at George Mason. I have a lot of great memories from that meet. I’ll work on fundamentals and also try to go get some good times,” Burns said. “Then I have high school states in March, YMCA Nationals in April and finally, I’ll go to the Phillips 66 National Championships next summer.”

By then, Michael Phelps’ age-group records might be history.