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Monson: Young Utah swimmer has fun chasing — and beating — Phelps

Evan VanBrocklin topples youth record set by Olympic legend.

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Evan VanBrocklin is a lot like your kid.

He’s 8 years old, ready to enter the third grade at Butler Elementary School. He’s 4-foot-nothing, weighs just 50 pounds, can be kind of a goofball, likes watching Phineas and Ferb cartoons, and does things 8-year-old boys love doing. His perfect day would begin with him riding his bike and end with him playing Legos.

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And in between?

How about breaking Michael Phelps’ age-group mark in the 100-meter backstroke?

That’s exactly what Evan did on the eve of Phelps’ retirement after the great Olympian won his last gold medal in London. He was swimming at the 2012 Utah Long Course State Championship at the Kearns Aquatic Center, churning through the water and touching the wall a second and a half faster than Phelps did 18 years ago.

And Evan just missed bettering Phelps’ time in the 100 butterfly, both swimmers’ favorite event.

"He’s ranked No. 1 in the nation in the 8-and-under fly," says Oliver Cahoon, Evan’s coach at the Cottonwood Heights recreation center. "He has a great competitive heart."

Evan’s parents, Sheri Holmen and Matthew VanBrocklin, who are researchers at the Huntsman Cancer Institute, introduced Evan and his older sister, Brooke, to swimming when he was 3 and she was 9. "We didn’t want to worry about them going to a friend’s house and falling into a pool," Holmen says.

A few years later, after Brooke took to competitive swimming, Evan also dove deep into the endeavor. Sheri and Matt, neither of whom were swimmers, simply figured the pursuit was healthy and productive.

"It’s a good life skill and good exercise," says Holmen.

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They were blown away when their then-6-year-old son turned into a mini-torpedo. He set a team record in the 50 butterfly in the first race he entered — when the family still lived in Las Vegas.

"He’s always had energy and a competitive spirit," says Holmen. "But … we were shocked, happy and thrilled."

When they moved to Utah last fall, Holmen says she and her husband looked for a home near an aquatic center to cut down on travel time to the pool. They settled on Cottonwood Heights, and since then, Evan’s times have steadily dropped lower.

"All he does is go fast," Cahoon says. "A lot of it, at this point, is that competitive heart. I try to get Evan to slow down and work on his technique. For 10-and-under swimmers, they can throw their bodies around. But Evan drives. He’ll push through any pain. … He loves getting in the water. Everything I give him, he wants more. It’s extraordinary. We’ll get done working out and he’ll stay in to work some more. I’ve never had a kid who pushes so hard."

The idea that swimmers must be tall, with large hands and feet is a misnomer, says Cahoon. For his age, Evan is undersized. He was one of the smallest swimmers at the Utah meet.

When he bettered Phelps’ mark, swimming the 100 back in 1:24.07 — Phelps did it in 1:25.68 — his coaches and family made a big deal out of it. "We were all wired," Holmen says. "We couldn’t sleep. We went home and celebrated."

Not before stopping at a game store on the way to reward Evan with what he treasured as much as beating Phelps — a new set of Legos.

"I really like swimming," he says. "It’s fun. I like to work hard and race a lot."

The operative word there is the best word in all of youth sports: fun.

The work part of the equation consists of a 90-minute practice at the pool five days a week. Evan frequently competes in local meets, and the family sometimes travels to meets in other states. Holmen knows, as Evan’s times go lower, the chase is bound to get more serious. But, at present, everyone around the youngster seems to remember the most important word.

"Evan’s a fun little guy," Cahoon says. "Right now, he’s just having a lot of fun — and doing some amazing stuff while he has it."

GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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