Swimming wasn’t always the sport of choice for Brendan Burns.
He spent seven years during his childhood playing baseball, mainly first base, though he often found himself on the bench.
At age 12, Burns dropped baseball. He was going to focus on swimming.
“The clock doesn’t lie,” Burns said about swimming. “That’s something that really drew me in.”
For Burns, swimming was originally a backup plan. Though once he put all of his time into the sport, Burns emerged as one of the best swimmers in the nation. Burns prolific high school career led him to be named the No. 1 swimmer in the nation for the class of 2019 by College Swimming.
And this fall, Burns will be wearing cream and crimson.
Swimming runs in Burns’ family. Both of his parents swam in college. While his parents introduced Burns to the sport, the only thing they forced him to do was take swim lessons.
In 2009, Burns’ family moved from Connecticut to Berwyn, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. The Upper Main Line YMCA was just down the street from Burns’ home.
Burns joined his YMCA's club team, but early on he wasn’t focused on his training. From ages 6-9, Burns said he would mess around in practice instead of consistently working to improve.
That all changed when he was 10.
Burns participated in the Pennsylvania YMCA state championships where he won the 50-yard butterfly. It’s a moment he said changed his perspective.
“I look at that as a turning point in my swimming career, when stuff just started to click and I really wanted to pursue the sport,” Burns said.
Even at 10, Burns said his win helped him realize what he could get out of the sport if he put all his focus into it.
After his age group state title win and dropping baseball to go all in on swimming, Burns rapidly improved. He joined the swim team at Conestoga High School in Berwyn while continuing to swim for his YMCA team.
Burns hasn’t lost an individual high school race since his freshman year. He is a three-time state champion in the 100-yard butterfly as well as a three-time state champion in the 100-yard backstroke.
In 2018, Burns won the 200-yard backstroke, 100-yard backstroke, 200-yard butterfly and 100-yard butterfly at the YMCA Short Course National Championships. In 2019, Burns won both the 100- and 200-yard butterfly again as well as the 100-yard freestyle and 200-yard individual medley at the same event.
Burns set the national public high school record in the 100-yard butterfly in 2018, and in 2019,he set the record in the 200-yard freestyle. Burns' main competition in the pool has been himself, but he’s never gotten bored.
“Winning never gets old,” Burns said.
When Burns began the recruitment process he thought he would go to either the University of Texas at Austin or the University of California, Berkeley, which also happen to be only two schools to finish better than IU at the 2019 NCAA championships.
But for Burns, there was something different about IU. It was the first school to send a recruitment email to him and the first school to call him. In April 2018, Burns came to visit for Bloomington for the first time.
Immediately, he knew IU was the right fit.
“The aura around the swim team really caught me," Burns said. "It was just something I knew I wasn’t going to find anywhere else. When you visit colleges, a lot of people say you get the feeling at the school you know you’re going to go to, and I got the feeling.”
After coming to Bloomington, Burns canceled his upcoming visits to Texas and the University of Virginia, which finished 10th at the 2019 NCAA championships.
“It’s never happened to us,” IU Head Coach Ray Looze said. “We beat out Texas so rarely. That’s kind of the way it had to happen for us to be successful: Don’t even let him visit.”
Burns was about 15 when Looze first heard about him from his coach at the time, Glen Neufeld. At that age, Looze wasn’t able to begin recruiting Burns due to NCAA policies, but he kept an eye on the promising young swimmer.
When he was old enough that schools could start recruiting, IU was the first school to contact him. After Burns came to IU, Looze heard praise from Neufeld about the visit. Looze was confident.
“I think we were very genuine, both as a staff and as a team,” Looze said. “We just were really consistent. I think he had a great visit. He visited us and then went down and visited Louisville. I know we outdid Louisville."
On May 2, 2018, Burns announced via Instagram that he would be committing to IU.
“It was an intense battle,” Looze said. “That was our last big fish. It was all or nothing.”
Joining the IU team will give Burns something he has never experienced before. He won’t be the best swimmer on his team.
“When I get to Indiana next year, I will be nowhere close to who the best swimmer in the pool is, which is both daunting and exciting,” Burns said. “I know Indiana’s mantra is ‘Never Daunted’ so I’d like to say that I’m not daunted.”
Looze said he plans to utilize the versatility that Burns brings. Burns’ new head coach believes he can swim the butterfly, backstroke, freestyle and individual medley all at an elite collegiate level. As Burns excels the most in the butterfly, he appears to be in line to replace the graduating Vini Lanza. Though Looze said he knows that isn't an easy replacement. Instead, Looze wants to see Burns produce on the level of IU's 2018 freshmen.
“I’d love for him to be as impactful as some of our freshman this past year,” Looze said. “Michael Brinegar and Zane Backes got in the A-final and if Brendan can get in more than one A-final that would be great. It’s hard for a freshman to get in an A-final and even harder to get in multiple A-finals so if we can pull that off that would be really good.”
Burns will headline the freshman class on the men’s side while Emily Weiss, the 100-yard breaststroke national high school record holder, leads the women. The two star high schoolers make up what is one of the highest rated recruiting classes in IU history. In a year in which Lilly King, Lanza and Ian Finnerty all graduate, Burns and Weiss will be key pieces in keeping IU at the level of success its experienced over the last four years.
"The precedent has been set." Burns said. "We just have to build off of that.”