Former South Carolina swimmer Jennifer (Van Assen) Brunelli (2000-2004) didn’t need to add to her “street cred,” but when you’re working with professional football players, it doesn’t hurt to add “Hall of Famer” to your name. Brunelli is part of the 2017 class for the University of South Carolina Athletics Hall of Fame, sponsored by the Association of Lettermen, after earning All-America honors seven times while swimming for the Gamecocks. She is currently in her fourth year as a sports dietitian with the Carolina Panthers.
“My husband (Nicholas) was inducted last year into the Arizona State Hall of Fame, so that’s pretty cool for our family,” Brunelli said. “I was shocked when I found out. Some of the players with the Panthers know about it. Some of them follow me on social media. [Former Gamecocks] Damiere Byrd and Captain Munnerlyn are here, so they’ve been teasing me a bit, calling me ‘hall of famer.’ Now my husband can’t claim he’s the only one in the house. It’s been fun.”
A New Jersey native whose family vacationed in the Carolinas when she was growing up, it was the warm weather that drew Brunelli to South Carolina.
“When I was first getting recruited, we were vacationing in the Outer Banks, so we drove over to meet with (then head coach) Donald Gibb,” Brunelli said. “The pool was being worked on and a lot of the buildings were being renovated so there were just some trailers by the old Roundhouse area. I met him in a trailer with all the other coaches in this dirt lot. I remember telling my parents this is where I have to go. We still joke about it.”
As with the improved facilities, Brunelli’s career continued to grow and she earned a school record five All-America honors in 2004.
“I took second at NCAAs in both of my events my senior year,” Brunelli said. “I was perfectly content with that because I knew how far I had come.”
I loved my time at South Carolina... I feel like my four years there changed the direction of my life.Jennifer (Van Assen) Brunelli
She left Columbia holding Gamecock records in the 200 free style, 200 free relay, and 400 free relay, but it’s the friends she made at the University that make up her best memories.
“My friends from college are like family,” Brunelli said. “My coach is going to be able to come back for this. I wanted to be a great athlete. Everybody wants to, but you’re not always given the tools to do that. He made it very easy for me to be successful there. He made it easy to find out more about myself and what I was capable of and believing in myself.”
Her interest in nutrition and athletic performance increased after graduation in 2004, and that interest soon became a passion. She married Nicholas Brunelli, who was an American record holder in the 50 free style and world champion, and the couple was training in Arizona for Olympic trials when she decided to go back to school to get a degree in nutrition. After retiring from swimming in 2006, she chased her dreams out of the pool. She began running a private practice while helping North Carolina State build a program within its athletics department. That eventually led her to the Panthers as the NFL began to catch on to what more and more colleges were doing.
“Getting to stay in the athletics mindset is what I like the best, and the immediacy of doing things,” Brunelli said of her career. “I always enjoyed that in sports. I like being able to continuously work to be better regardless of how good you have already become.
“I’m so grateful to always be involved in sports. I had a couple of years where I thought I was going to have to be a ‘real’ person and go into finance. It’s the connection with people, especially athletes, who are very like-minded in always wanting to be better. I always want myself to be better and grow in my own right. So this is a way I could support other athletes.”
The 35-year-old mother of two aims to help each athlete maximize performance and understand how proper nutrition can do that, while also allowing them to eat foods that taste good. She noted that feeding professional athletes who need, and burn, a lot of calories is different than what is needed for the average person.
“It’s the fact that they need more than they think they do,” Brunelli said. “They do eat large meals, but a lot of them don’t eat enough or frequently enough. We have a late night snack that starts at 9:30 here. Most people try not to eat at that point, and I’m trying to force people to eat.”
As she prepares for induction festivities on September 21 in Columbia, Brunelli looks forward to seeing familiar faces.
“I’m very honored,” Brunelli said. “I loved my time at South Carolina. I always joke with my husband that that’s the job I could go somewhere for. I just really loved my time there so much. I feel like my four years there changed the direction of my life.”