Swimmer Michael Andrew Sets Sights on 2020 Olympics

Lawrence-based pro swimmer Michael Andrew balances family, faith and a career that could take him to the next summer Olympics.

Michael Andrew carries a tremendous amount of weight on his shoulders.

The 17-year-old, who lives in Lawrence, Kansas, was the youngest American swimmer to go pro at 14. His family’s focus is on his swimming—mom Tina manages his career while father Peter acts as his coach. Then there’s the little matter of Michael being the most high-profile athlete in the sport using Ultra-Short Race-Pace Training (USRPT), a controversial method criticized by many in the swim world.

He’s broken almost too many records to count—three years ago, he already held the most national age group records in the history of swimming—and narrowly missed qualifying for the 2016 Olympics.

It’s easy to imagine most people, let alone most teenagers, buckling under the pressure. But Michael seems to take it all in stride, sometimes feeling anxious about expectations but also impressively able to keep his career in perspective.

“There’s a quote I have in the pool that says, ‘Swimming is what I do, it’s not who I am,’” he says.

Family Ties

Michael started swimming as a 7-year-old in South Dakota, where the family was then living, and quickly proved to be a natural. When South Africa natives Peter and Tina couldn’t get their green cards renewed, they took to the road before a planned move to Australia and found a temporary home base in Lawrence. Their green cards came through unexpectedly, and the Andrews decided to settle in the college town more permanently. Michael trains in a pool built in their backyard when the family isn’t busy traveling for meets.

Despite standing at 6 feet 5 inches, Michael is unmistakably a teenager as he sits talking with his parents, doling out good-natured barbs.

Circled around their kitchen table, the Andrews family dynamic is on full display—they talk over one and other, debate who is right—but are clearly in it together, despite the complications that may arise.

“I think there have been times when it gets difficult, but I think what’s nice is that because it’s family and we do it together, we’re so comfortable communicating,” Michael says. “I think that communication helps sort out all those things so much more effectively than it would with any other coach or manager.”

“We are a family,” Peter adds. “We love. We all love each other.”

“Speak for yourself,” Michael jokes.

Talked About Training

In addition to Michael’s natural talent and ideal swimmer’s build, Peter credits his son’s level of success to USRPT. Peter learned about the training method in 2009 while listening to a presentation from Brent Rushall, a professor emeritus of exercise and nutritional science at San Diego State University.

Rushall’s research led him to believe there was a better way for swimmers to train.  While traditional swim training emphasizes accumulating yardage, USRPT is all about specificity, Peter explains.

“We want him to swim as fast as he would in the race, which means his technique, the velocity, everything that he does actually mimics how he’ll race,” he says. “That way when he stands up on the block, he doesn’t have to think about anything because his body’s already programmed to swim exactly that way.”

Although Michael’s training regimen varies, the core idea is to break down an event into shorter segments. If they’re working on his 100 Freestyle, made up of four 25-meter lengths in a short-course pool, Michael will swim one length at full speed, rest for 10-15 seconds and swim the next length, and so on. The goal is to swim four times the race length in this manner.

Critics of USRPT say it’s too tiring on the body; Peter says that because Michael isn’t swimming long distances day in and day out, Michael will actually experience less wear and tear, giving his career longevity and positioning him for a spot on team USA in the next summer Olympics.

“2020 is going to be radical,” Peter says. “In 2020, he’s going to be 21 years old and he’s going to be mean. He’s still pretty much a little baby.”

Finding Joy

Despite his achievements, swimming has its downsides for Michael. He experienced them most acutely as he made the transition from amateur to pro.

“I just felt like now that I was this professional athlete, people looked at me differently and I had to win and I had to be the best and I had to break more records and swim faster each meet,” he says. “I’d come to meets so afraid to not do that that I’d end up kicking myself out of the race before I even had a chance to perform. I was just crippling myself with fear.”

During those times, Michael says he was bottling up his emotions. Lightening his emotional load and focusing on his Christian faith have made things easier.

Although he’s learned to cope, Tina still sees his feelings as the root of bad practices and meets.

“It’s emotional,” she says. “He’s dealing with being a teenager. He’s dealing with pressures and stuff that he has to figure out himself. When he was 10, he believed us when we said he’s really fast and he’s amazing.”

Michael interjects, “I still believe I’m fast and amazing, it’s not even that, it’s just…it’s easier to swim slowly.”

He’s just come off a rough practice and the pressure is on ahead of the Michael’s attempt to make the national team and rank high enough to earn a stipend, which would help take pressure off the family.

It’s a step toward achieving his career goals, which are typical for an athlete: make the Olympic team, win gold medals and break records. Still, maintaining a sense of joy about swimming would be the ultimate accomplishment to Michael.

“We have goals and we have things that we look forward to, but it became easier when we realized it wasn’t as much about winning Olympic gold or holding world records or anything, but figuring out what our ‘why’ is. Why do we do this? Why do I swim? I swim because I love it,” he says, adding, ”I think my biggest goal is to be one of the first professional athletes who really loves what he does for [my] entire career.”