Carmel Valley student overcomes adversity to excel at swimming and running

Brendan Santana
Brendan Santana

By Karen Billing/Staff Writer

In water and on dry land, Brendan Santana is almost always first to the finish line. At only 11 years old, the double-threat Carmel Del Mar sixth-grader is blazing a trail and leaving a wicked wake in the competitive running and swimming worlds.

“I like both really well but if I have to choose I would go with swimming,” Brendan said.

His swimming goals are to get junior national and national qualifying times by age 14, swim in an Olympic trials by age 15 and get to the Olympics at age 16—look out Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

The oldest of triplets by one second, Brendan was born with cerebral palsy. Doctors recommended swimming as part of his physical therapy so he was in the water by age 2.

He began swimming competitively at age 5 and joined Pacific Swim team at age 7. Now he is logging 50,000 yards of swimming a week.

“I never get bored,” Brendan said. “Something always has to be going on in your head because otherwise you’re just staring at the black line (on the bottom of the pool).”

At 11, his cerebral palsy no longer affects him and is actually an asset—it left him “super, super flexible” from all the required stretching by his physical therapy.

In short and long course (Olympic-distance) competition, Brendan is ranked 16th in the nation, fourth in the Western Zone for his age group.

His best strokes are butterfly, backstroke, distance freestyle and the individual medley (IM), a race which includes each of the four swimming strokes. Recently, Brendan was anxiously gearing up to race his first 400 IM in a meet, four laps of each stroke.

He holds the Western Zone record in his age group in the boys 10 and under 100 butterfly and holds San Diego-Imperial County records in the 50 and 10 butterfly, 50 and 100 back, some that were on the books as long ago as the 1970s until he came along. At the Junior Olympic level he holds records in long course 50 and 100 butterfly, long course 50 and 100 backstroke and short course 50-yard butterfly.

At last year’s Zone meet when he was 10, Brendan was three-tenths off of Michael Phelps’ record in the 100 meter butterfly.

His dominance isn’t limited to the pool—in open water swimming he’s won his age group in the La Jolla Rough Water Swim three times.

On dry land, Brendan is just as swift.

“I always knew I liked to run, I started when I was 4,” Brendan says and mom Gabriela quickly corrects him: “It was probably as soon as you could walk.”

Just last year Brendan started competing—he is just wrapping up his cross country season with RoadRunners and will begin his track and field season with the Millennium Express Track Club, where he specializes in the 800 and 1500-meter races.

Javelin, especially, brings a wide smile to Brendan’s face.

Since third grade at Carmel Del Mar, Brendan takes part in the weekly Mileage Club, which gets kids running during lunchtime. Brendan usually does about 4 miles on the field during lunch in the 25-minute time slot. When he is in cross country season, he’ll be running about 9-10 miles a week.

He enjoys trail runs—one course in the Carmel Mountain Preserve he calls the “rollercoaster” for its up and down hilly terrain.

On Dec. 11, Santana competed in the USA Track and Field National Junior Olympic Cross Country Championships in Hoover, Alabama. His San Diego So Cal RoadRunners team placed first in the 1.8 mile-race. Individually, Brendan had a rough day—he was in fourth place when he got pushed off the trail and sprained ligaments in his knee. Although it was painful, he finished the race 92nd of 277 runners.

To be among the top 100 is still an amazing accomplishment, “But I was in fourth,” Brendan winces, wondering how high he could’ve placed. Fortunately, his injury has healed without putting a kink into his training regime.

It seems only natural that a talented runner and swimmer would want to tackle the triathlon and Brendan has that event in his sights. He hopes to become an Ironman (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, 26.2-mile run) triathlete after he is done with his swimming career.

Mom still thinks triathlons are too dangerous for a kid his age, he says, and since he is only 11, mom is still the most important coach he has to listen to.



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