Growing up, Loyola Blakefield junior Ryan Branon dreamed of swimming for the University of Texas. The Longhorns are arguably the best program in college swimming, winning 14 national championships — the highest mark in Division I.
On Nov. 22, Branon was able to make his dream a reality. He committed to Texas, choosing the Longhorns over California, Michigan and Virginia. For Branon, Texas’ team culture set it apart from the other schools in his final four.
“The way they treat each other and act as a team, I’ve never seen anything like it, “Branon said. “And that really just drew me in.”
Branon’s passion for swimming started early. He can still remember doing swim lessons at the Meadowbrook Swim Club when he was 4 years old and thinking he needed to join the Meadowbrook Tomatoes swim team. Two years later, Branon’s family became members at Roland Run Club in Lutherville, Md., and he joined its swim team. Branon’s coach that summer encouraged him to swim year-round, and he joined Loyola Blakefield Aquatics (LBA).
“I loved it immediately and thought this club year-round swimming thing was like the coolest thing ever,” Branon said.
He continued to improve, eventually winning his first Maryland Local Swim Committee championship in the 100-meter butterfly when he was 11. Branon also played soccer and lacrosse, but swimming remained his favorite. He dropped lacrosse in seventh grade and soccer in eighth grade. The summer before high school brought another change for Branon, who left LBA for the North Baltimore Aquatic Club.
The former home of Michael Phelps remains the top club in the Baltimore area, and Branon had heard good things about Paul Yetter, who returned to lead the club in 2016 and is now Branon’s coach. In Yetter’s first stint at NBAC from 2002-2009, he coached Katie Hoff to three medals in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where he was an assistant coach for Team USA.
“After two practices I was like, ‘I’m staying here,'” Branon said. “This is where I wanted to be and I loved everything about it, like the intensity they brought every day.”
“Ryan has a lot of the intangibles that a lot of great athletes have,” Yetter said. “He’s got the ability to bring the most out of himself during competition and he’s a quickly improving practice swimmer. But those two things combine to make a really great up-and-coming athlete.”
Branon’s always been fast, but he’s taken his swimming to another level at NBAC. His 200-yard butterfly time of one minute, 46.54 seconds ranks seventh in the class of 2022, and his 100-yard butterfly time of 48.46 is 17th.
While representing Loyola Blakefield, Branon won the 100-yard butterfly at the MIAA championship as both a freshman and sophomore. He won that event and the 200-yard freestyle at the National Catholic High School championship in January. Before the coronavirus pandemic postponed the Olympic Trials, Branon was about a half second away from qualifying in both the 100 and 200-meter butterfly.
Branon had to wait for three months after the pandemic hit before coaches could contact him starting June 15, which was stressful.
“I wasn’t racing, wasn’t training and it was really weird because I was in the mindset that I still had something to prove and I had to do these times,” Branon said. “That was the worst part of it because you wanted to do so much and you just couldn’t.”
That didn’t stop coach after coach from reaching out to Branon when they were allowed to contact him, which made for what he said was a “pretty crazy week.” After the first week, he narrowed it down to seven schools. With in-person recruiting canceled until April 15, 2021, recruiting took place over Zoom, with calls featuring campus tours and conversations with potential future teammates.
Texas was high on his list from the beginning, and Branon connected with assistant coach Wyatt Collins right away. He also already knew Texas sophomore Peter Larson, who spoke at the USA Swimming Eastern Zone Select Camp Branon attended in May 2019 along with some of the top other swimmers in states ranging from Maine to Virginia.
Following the camp, Larson and Branon stayed in touch. Branon also connected with NCAA champion and NBAC and Texas alum Austin Surhoff. Surhoff, who is the son of former Oriole B.J. Surhoff, swam for the Longhorns from 2010-2013, and NBAC’s Yetter was his coach in high school.
“Their will to sacrifice for a team, their willingness to advocate for themselves and their teammates, these are things they have in common and those who swim for the University of Texas value,” Yetter said of Branon and Surhoff. “It’s going to be a great fit.”
With his commitment done, Branon is back to fully focusing on training. NBAC doesn’t have any meets planned for the future, though it is looking to attend some long course meets in the spring. Branon’s goals remain the same from earlier in 2020. He wants to swim in the Olympic Trials (June 2021 in Omaha, Neb.), win the 200-meter butterfly at junior nationals and make the National Junior Team. To make the national junior team, he would have to be the highest-ranked 18-and-under swimmer in the country in an event.
It’s been nearly a year since Branon competed, but Yetter isn’t worried. Branon is excellent when it comes time to race.
“He’s got an ability to really block out everything else but that big moment of racing when it’s racing time,” Yetter said. “That’s something when you look back to the best NBAC athletes — Michael Phelps is certainly one of the athletes that I’ll point out. The ability to concentrate is highly underestimated by many and is a hallmark of all of NBAC’s great athletes, including Ryan Branon.”
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Ryan Branon