The Pirate Fighter
Senior Christian Brindamour won the 50 freestyle at the NCAA Division III Championships last year. He studies government and security. He’s a fan of metal, enjoys being in the weight room and clearly has some talent in the pool. But that’s only a tiny part of who this senior is.
Brindamour goes to school at the United States Coast Guard Academy, which means while he’s getting an education, he’s also preparing for life in the service. “I was planning on just enlisting in the Navy and not even going to college,” Brindamour said. “My cousin got married to this army officer, and he convinced me to go to college.”
So quick pop quiz: What’s the difference between the Navy and the Coast Guard?
According to Brindamour, it’s this: Coast Guard focuses on saving lives and law enforcement. The Navy – and the other armed forces – deal with hostile activity from other nations. “If someone’s boat is sinking, or if there [are] people running drugs into America, then that would be our job,” Brindamour said. “We’re both on boats, and we’re both in the military, but we’re really just completely different.”
Brindamour insists that students at Coast Guard – and in the forces in general – are more or less the same as any other college students. “We’re all just regular people,” he said. “We’re not brainwashed or anything like that. We think and make decisions just like everybody else.” The clearest difference between your average college student and young men and women like Brindamour is the amount of responsibility they are expected to take up. “They pretty much treat you as an adult,” he said. “They expect you to make your own mature decisions.”
Unlike your average college student, though, the schedule at Coast Guard is a bit more…military. Every day begins with an early morning wake up. Brindamour rises at 5:40 for formation and the 6:20 breakfast. Classes run from eight until noon, with a break for lunch until around one. Class resumes until the sports period – a two hour window from four to six set aside exclusively for athletic endeavors – followed by dinner, homework and then bed. “I guess you could say it’s pretty regimented,” Brindamour commented.
But there are benefits that come with being a cadet. Amazing summer adventures for one thing.
“Every summer cadets go out and get to experience the Coast Guard,” Brindamour said. The summer between junior and senior year is a particular adventure. Cadets have a chance to experience life as a junior officer, experiencing what they will be once they graduate. Brindamour’s summer adventure was as a boarding team member. “For two weeks I went to MSST Boston, which is basically like Coast Guard Specialized Forces,” he explained. “If a cruise ship gets taken over by pirates or something, the government might call in those guys.”
Woah. Hold on. Pirates?
But the fun doesn’t end there. Brindamour hopped down to Charleston, South Carolina to visit the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center. “Basically they train law enforcement tactics,” Brindamour said. “I learned different hand-to-hand techniques, […] handcuffing – basically law enforcement type stuff.” With two weeks in Charleston, Brindamour received his qualification. Next stop on the list – USCG William Flores out of Miami, Florida.
“That area’s the hotspot for migrants coming in from Cuba and smugglers running drugs, and other various nefarious people,” Brindamour explained. He spent seven weeks working with the crew, which was short at the time. “They actually needed me to be there, to help them out, do stuff,” he said. “It’s cool to see that what you’re learning and what you’re training for is actually going to be applicable one day.”
Knowing that is helpful when a majority of training comes in a classroom setting, rather than out in the real world. “Most of the classes I have here are strictly academic,” Brindamour said. “One thing that they get right here at the Coast Guard Academy is [the] leadership lab, and they recognize that you learn stuff in real life.”
Part of the benefit of cadets having exposure to the work they’ll be doing once out of the Academy is finding out what area they have interest in. Brindamour likes the law enforcement aspect and migrant operations. “Not many people my age get to hang out and talk to people from Cuba who aren’t American citizens, and who were just floating on the ocean for a couple days, and then to repatriate them back to Cuba and hear what their life is like there.” While that humanitarian aspect appeals to this cadet, it’s the excitement and action of law enforcement that has kept his interest.
He recounted one of those exciting moments from the summer’s adventures.
“I had just gotten off of watch. It was maybe 1:30 in the morning, and the captain calls up […] and says we’re in pursuit of a smuggling boat.” The crew was tracking the boat on infrared. “He’s traveling at a fast rate of speed of course with no lights on,” Brindamour explained. “If you have no lights on and you’re a boat going at a high rate of speed towards America from the Bahamas, the chances are you’re up to no good.”
After tracking the boat for a while, the decision was made to launch the small boat attached to the back of the Coast Guard cutter. The small boat is generally used for pursuit or to pick up migrants. “We were following them for a while,” Brindamour recounted, “and then we made the decision to put on the blue law enforcement lights.” Blue lights are the signal for law enforcement on the water. As soon as the lights went up, the strange ship made a complete turn about and started sprinting away from the coastline.
“The chase lasted about two hours,” he said. “We called in an airplane, a helicopter – both Coast Guard assets – we called in another Coast Guard small boat from a local Coast Guard station and a Customs and Border commissioned boat came in too, so it was kind of like a joint mission task force.”
Customs reported eighteen people aboard the boat, and noted that when they got close, they started throwing things over the side of the boat. “It could have been both drugs and obviously human smuggling,” Brindamour said. “Ultimately the boat got away.”
However, the next day, that boat was caught. Brindamour wasn’t involved in the catch, but one of his classmates was aboard one of the cutters that caught them. “That was the highlight of the summer,” he said. “It was really exciting.” But excitement isn’t all that has gotten this young man interested in serving. “When it comes down to it, [when you] think about where you’re going with your life and what impact you want to leave, I think you can get a lot more out of serving than out of just being a businessman or something like that,” Brindamour explained.
A Jack O’Lantern of All Trades
University of Chicago senior Jennifer Hill helped her team make a splash at the 2014 NCAA meet last year, and is itching to get back this coming season. But just because she works hard in the pool doesn’t keep Hill from exploring other interests.
The Urbana, Illinois native spent plenty of this summer working with the water as she taught swim lessons and coached a swim team. However, she also took time out to do some work at a lab at the University of Illinois. “It was research in a program that is investigating the effects of EPA and other chemicals on the development of children in pregnant women,” Hill said. “I had to analyze the urine of these women and do some secretary work in the lab,” she added.
The research opportunity came around because of Hill’s desire to gain some experience in the lab and because of her interest in biology for her major. “It was very hard, but I think everybody needs some experiences where they do a lot of grunt work so they can appreciate how hard it is,” she said. “I was the person lowest on the totem pole, but I’m happy for that experience.”
The lesson Hill took away from her summer work was simple: communication is key. “The project was so complex everybody had to make sure they were talking to each other, and messages were sent so nothing fell apart because of how complex the project was,” she said. Hill credits swimming with having improved her communication skills, but says too that it’s an area where she could use some work, still. “Communication is critical for any operation. As a swimmer on a team or a member of a research group,” she added.
Research wasn’t the only new thing Hill explored this summer. She also shadowed a pediatrician, with the goal of applying for med school at the end of her senior year and attending in 2016. “The year after college, I am going to be doing some type of activity, like working in the lab or some volunteer activity. I haven’t quite figured out what that is yet, but my long term goal is medical school,” Hill explained.
After her shadowing, which she considered to be a very rewarding experience, Hill’s primary medical interest is now pediatrics. “It called to me,” she said. “I like to serve the community,” she added. “I don’t know if pediatrics is right for me, yet, but it sure seemed like it this summer!”
While research and science are popular choices for student-athletes, Hill has also explored another activity that some consider just as demanding as sports: music. As with her choice of the University of Chicago, Hill’s interest in the violin came about because of her father. “My dad, he played trumpet pretty seriously,” she explained. “He also learned violin, so I saw him playing as a little kid. One day I pointed to the violin and said, ‘I want to play that,’ so I started taking lessons.” This love affair with music has spanned twelve years; just about the same length of time Hill has been swimming.
The instrument – and her ability to play in the orchestra – helped with the college selection process as well. “I wanted to participate in orchestra, and I guess some schools won’t allow you to participate in orchestra unless you’re a music major,” Hill explained. “The UChicago orchestra takes in undergraduates, graduate students and community members.”
Where the crowning achievement in athletics is the competition when you show off what you’ve trained to do, the best part of playing an instrument is the final performance. Hill’s favorite performance night is the Halloween concert, and who can fault her? There’s no denying the appeal of dressing up on stage to perform!
“Everybody wears a costume in the concert, and the conductor always does something outlandish,” Hill said. For example, last year, the conductor outfitted herself as Michael Jackson and paraded on stage to Thriller. “We’re usually accompanied by some kids who dance from the community,” Hill added. “That’s our biggest concert and it’s really, really funny to see the ridiculous costumes.”
Hill’s other contribution to Chicago comes from an interest in her own heritage. As an Italian citizen – through her mother’s side – Hill and several friends started up an Italian Appreciation club. The group does a number of Italy-related things, including putting on food events and going out to authentic restaurants. Hill has also been to Italy. “I’ve been there twice,” she said. “I always go to Italy after our training trip.”
Part of what has enabled this wide variety of experiences is the Division III atmosphere which Hill selected for herself. “My experience with Division III athletics has been extremely positive. I think it was perfect for me, because I wanted to pursue a lot of other things in college.”