IRVINE, Calif. – In swimming circles, there’s long been another Michael waiting in the wings.
While Michael Phelps was winning one Olympic gold medal after another, a young swimmer named Michael Andrew was shattering age-group records.
For the last five years, he’s been known for turning pro at the shockingly early age of 14 and the unusual way his father trained him. Yet while Andrew dominated the junior world ranks, he came close but never made a long-course senior national team or won a senior title.
That all changed at the 2018 Phillips 66 National Championships, part of the Team USA Summer Champions Series, presented by Xfinity.
“You need to be afraid of Michael Andrew at the 2020 Olympic trials,” said Mel Stewart, the 1992 Olympic gold medalist in the 200-meter butterfly and founder of SwimSwam, an influential website for the sport. “He’s proven here that this is the guy to be reckoned with.”
On Saturday, Andrew, 19, won his third senior national title in three days, but his first in an Olympic event – the 100-meter breaststroke with a time of 59.38 seconds while beating three Olympians in the field.
Andrew qualified for next month’s Pan Pacific Swimming Championships in Tokyo after already securing his spot at the 2019 world championships by winning the 50-meter butterfly and 50-meter breaststroke. He was fourth in the 50 back and will race the 50 free Sunday.
“I do feel like this is kind of the kickstart of my adult professional career,” Andrew said. “It is the first official long course international team that I’ve made. I definitely think that gives me a lot of credibility, especially with the way we train being so different.”
His father, a native of South Africa, trained him in their backyard pool in Lawrence, Kansas, though they will soon move to California so his sister can pursue surfing and a ministry in the sport.
Andrew trains at race pace – “My training partner is a stopwatch,” he said – and his workouts are shorter with less yardage than those in more traditional programs.
“It just goes to show that it works and there’s different ways to do things,” Andrew said. “Everything is coding our brain to do what we need to do in the race. It’s much like coding a computer. It’s all about creating those neuro-patterns.”
He won’t call one stroke his best. “I could never put that label on myself,” Andrew said. “My ultimate goal is to be the fastest in the world in all four 50s. “And the 100s can come after that.”
Or, as the pool deck interviewer joked, “world domination.”
“That sounds like a comic book thing,” said Andrew’s father, Peter, who is his coach. “He just wants to be fast.”
This meet marked a new chapter for Andrew.
First, Andrew beat Olympic gold medalist Caeleb Dressel on Thursday in the 50-meter butterfly, which is not an Olympic event but is contested at worlds.
“This is the first race I cried afterwards,” said Andrew. “I’m not an emotional person; I really never cry. Worlds is a year away still, but to have that sealed now is a huge weight off my shoulders. It’s an amazing feeling. I feel free.”
Then on Friday he swam three races in about an hour. After placing third in the 100 butterfly, he was back on the blocks 24 minutes later for the 50 breaststroke, which he won. About 20 minutes after that, he was fourth in 50 back.
“This is the most ready I’ve ever been,” Andrew said. “I am physically where I need to be to make these teams. That adds a lot of confidence knowing I can step in the blocks and know I’m strong and I’m not going to die the last 20 meters like I used to.”
At the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Swimming, Andrew broke the world junior record and was fourth in the 100 breast. A year later, he won three gold medals at the world junior championships, setting junior world records in the 50 free, 50 back and 50 fly. He also took bronze in the 100 breast.
“Obviously our training hasn’t changed, but what has changed is my attitude and my frame of mind going into training,” Andrew said. “I’m starting to realize that this is my career and it’s something that I really want to not take for granted and put everything I can into it so I don’t stand on the blocks another time and say, ‘Oh, if only I did this and this.’”
When he turned pro at such a young age and signed major sponsorship deals, the pressure washed over him.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself to have to perform,” Andrew said, “and to constantly prove my worth and I learned very quickly from spiritual mentors and friends that I’m not to be defined by sport, but to live a purpose-based identity. I think that makes all the difference, especially racing on this stage where one day you’re in, one day you’re out.
“It’s tough because people are so quick to just kick you out because of a slow race. That’s something I feel like I’m here for a purpose: To help other athletes and also to learn myself.”
Stewart calls Andrew one of the “top pro swimmers on earth.”
“This guy is a true professional,” Stewart said. “He knows how to stand up and win because he’s been doing it for so long as a pro.
“He’s the youngest guy to turn pro at 14 years of age and everyone went crazy because swimming in college is almost like a religion. So, this was sacrilege. He and his parents took on extraordinary criticism and he kept standing tall and kept his spine straight.”
Andrew acknowledged the criticism.
“We’ve been through a lot as a family,” he said. “I think that’s what shaped me as an elite athlete. There’s a lot I’ve been able to learn from that and now I can apply this to other professional athletes and what they’re dealing with.
“It’s actually a blessing that we did go through some negative feedback, because now I’m able to impact others positively.”
His father added that by turning pro early, he has already learned the ropes.
“I feel like this is the beginning of his career,” said Peter Andrew, “and so we just build and build and build from here. And look at his body. He’s a little boy still, so if we do it right, what could be achieved?”
Peter said his son is 6-foot-6 and 198 pounds.
“He thinks he’s big when he shakes his arms,” he said, “but there’s lots of room for improvement. He’s going to become a man and get bigger and stronger, so we just have to do everything smartly and see what the outcome is later.”