Walnut Creek Aquanut from Moraga trades Olympic ambition
for college, career
By Lou Fancher
Upside down and often submerged, Gillian Brassil has found power and purpose in a swimming pool.
The now 17-year-old Moraga transplant arrived with her father, Tom Brassil, from their home in Andover, Mass., to train with the Walnut Creek Aquanuts in 2011. The 14-time national champion Aquanuts synchronized swimming team has won more than 200 national and world titles, and has produced eight Olympic champions and 16 U.S. Olympic athletes.
Brassil, a Campolindo High School senior, will compete with her teammates and approximately 30 teams from the United States and other countries in the 2015 U.S. National Synchronized Swimming Championships from March 31-April 4, at the Soda Aquatic Center in Moraga.
The event -- and her graduation from Campo in June -- will mark a pivot point for Brassil. Having left behind her mother and younger brother on the East Coast and immersed herself in the 24/7 world of synchro for the past four years, Brassil is in the pool approximately 43 hours per week. But soon, deliberately relinquishing the 2016 Olympic ambition that brought her to the East Bay, Brassil will embrace a new adventure.
"I decided I wanted to pursue my major in college instead of staying to pursue the Olympics," she says.
Political journalism has risen like the "ballet leg" or "Eiffel Tower" positions she has perfected in the water. An interest in diplomacy, world events and particularly issues in the Middle East, Syria, Palestine and Israel now capture more of her attention.
"I've always written about people and issues," she says. "I used to make newspapers for my family and friends."
Recruited by Stanford University and having applied to UC Berkeley, Brassil says Boston University and a handful of other top-tier schools on the East Coast are under consideration.
Regardless of releasing the original impetus for coming to California, her father says the sacrifice -- a four-year long-distance relationship with his wife, son and the Boston Celtics and New England Patriots teams he loves -- was invaluable.
"Gillian has gained confidence, close friends, traveled to foreign countries. It helped her to come out of her shell. She can speak to anyone, accomplish anything now," he says.
Team coach Tammy McGregor says Brassil has met every expectation and even surprised her.
"She was already pretty high upside down in the water," McGregor says, noting one of the primary skills of an extraordinary synchronized swimmer. "She's now one of the best in the country. But the most unexpected aspect is her taking on mature themes in solos. You can't teach that dramatic, performance aspect. When athletes have it, they take everything to the next level."
With the sport itself escalating, getting "to the next level" is increasingly difficult. Team choreography in the 1990s averaged 1,000 moves; in 2015, routines have 3,000. Coaches use slow-motion video settings to analyze routines because the human eye is too slow to catch errors. McGregor says European teams that practice the same routines for two years are pushing the edge of the sport to impossible physicality.
"It's not being done as well. Practice has to be fast to get it all done," she says.
Brassil says the pressure to perform as a top athlete and top scholar has been alleviated by the friendships she has formed and an atmosphere she did not expect.
"Coming here, since it was the best team in the country, I thought it would be intense. Instead, the people have been amazing, the unity of the team unbelievable. It's like we're sisters," she says.
At the Soda Center, Brassil will allow the silly/serious/skillful triangle she's learned to operate in as a member of the Aquanuts to reveal itself in her "Creepy Clown" solo. Using facial expression, good height in the water, and the sharp, hit-and-hold ability for which she is known, she says the focus will be on power and precision.
Reflecting on what it has meant to join a circle of young women whose bonds solder into "family" formation, Brassil says her future purpose is clear and her friendships "permanent."