Another Michael set to make splash at Mesa Grand Prix

Michael Phelps, Michael Andrew
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Michael Andrew has drawn a wave of comparisons to Michael Phelps, for breaking so many national age group records he’s lost count and for signing an endorsement deal last year at age 14, becoming the youngest professional swimmer in U.S. history.

Andrew’s common reply, respectfully, is that he doesn’t want to be the next Michael Phelps. He wants to be the first Michael Andrew.

They’ve favored different distances, plied opposite training techniques and are separated by 13 years in age. But last week they were nearly identical, one right after the other, on paper.

On April 14, USA Swimming announced Phelps’ return to competition for this week’s Arena Grand Prix in Mesa, Ariz. USA Swimming later published what are called “psych sheets,” which list all swimmers entered for every event, in order of “seed time,” which essentially ranks them going into preliminary heats.

Below is the psych sheet for the 50m freestyle, one of three events Phelps entered and one of nine events Andrew entered. Phelps rarely swam the 50m freestyle before his 2012 retirement, so he is seeded fairly low, 25th. That’s one spot lower than Andrew, whose seed time is .01 of a second faster than the most decorated Olympian of all time.

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Initially, Andrew was seeded 25th and Phelps 26th, which SwimSwam.com pointed out would have meant they would swim in side-by-side lines in preliminary heats Friday afternoon. However, a swimmer seeded 21st since scratched, moving Andrew into a different heat than Phelps and depriving swim geeks and photographers of up-close comparisons.

Andrew, who turned 15 last Friday, could still see Phelps in Arizona. The meet runs from Thursday through Saturday. It would be their first meeting in several years. Andrew said he can only remember being next to Phelps once before, at a “Swim with the Stars” clinic.

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Courtesy Tina Andrew

His mom saved pictures.

For as long as Andrew can remember, the family has road tripped to his meets across the country. He currently holds more than 20 national age group records from 10 years old and up (that’s more than Phelps still owns).

His father, Peter, is a former college swimmer and Navy diver from his native South Africa. Andrew believes he recently grew taller than his dad, inching above 6 feet, 5 inches. Peter drives their black 2014 GMC Savana Presidential Edition full-size van from meet to meet.

His mother, Tina, competed as “Laser” for several years on the Great Britain version of “Gladiators.” She’s also the “momanger” for the family, arranging travel plans.

His sister, Michaela, is 12 and also swims, back after taking a break from the sport.

The family racked up several thousand in a little over three months on the van, which was purchased between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Their road map of swim meets went from their home in Lawrence, Kan., to College Station, Texas, back to Lawrence, to Tulsa, Okla., and then a Florida swing — Orlando, Clearwater, Daytona and Clearwater again over the last month.

Andrew spends much of his time sitting in the back of the van, doing home-school work or playing “Call of Duty,” “FIFA” or “Forza Motorsport” on a 26-inch TV.

Peter was prepared to get back in the driver’s seat for 36 hours and 2,500 miles to make it to Arizona this week. Tina does not drive, and Michael hasn’t started, though he is old enough for a permit. So Peter relies on his Navy training for sustenance.

“We learned to sleep for a couple minutes, and then you’re good for another six hours,” he joked. “I feel like my training’s come back to me at an old age. If I stop and take a 20-minute nap, I can keep going. I enjoy it.”

But the family thought better of it and flew to Arizona, partly to ensure they get back to Florida in time for a Caribbean cruise with Peter’s parents from South Africa.

Andrew aims to compile many more airline miles this year. His goal is to be selected for international junior events, including the Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, China. He also plans to swim next to the likes of Phelps again at the U.S. Championships in Irvine, Calif., in August. His goals there are not necessarily to challenge the big boys, but to break more age group records.

Andrew’s preferred distances are 100-meter events, but picking a single stroke is tougher.

“If I would have to choose a favorite, it would be between my breaststroke and my butterfly … and maybe my backstroke, and my freestyle,” he said.

He soaks up the sport completely, retweeting swim news stories, posting a selfie with his competitors and choosing two non-American swimmers as his favorites.

“I’ve always kind of looked up to Katinka Hosszu,” he said of Hungary’s world champion in both individual medleys. “She’s known as the Iron Lady of swimming, how she competes all the time. I want to be known as the Iron Man or Iron Boy of swimming. My mom likes to call me the Iron Baby.”

He’s also developed a pre-race ritual on the starting block, slapping his chest. He picked that up after meeting Brazil’s Cesar Cielo, the exuberant world record holder in the 50m and 100m freestyles.

Peter said his best Olympic event going forward is the 100m butterfly, which Phelps has won at the last three Games.

Andrew was profiled by The Associated Press in 2012, signed his first endorsement deal with P2Life, a nutritional supplement manufacturer, in 2013 and recently added Mutual of Omaha to his portfolio. He’s been approached by several large swimsuit companies, his mom said, but he can’t get into R-rated movies alone for another two years.

He’s been home schooled since the fifth grade, though he did take one high school class last fall (art) in order to kick for the junior varsity football team. The story is reminiscent of Tim Tebow, whom the Andrews look to as a role model.

Andrew hopes to finish high school early, before the Rio Olympics.

“We’re always thinking about Rio,” he said.

Andrew must continue shaving seconds off his best times to make the competitive U.S. team in two years, but it’s very possible. He’ll be 17 at the 2016 Olympic Trials. The U.S. Olympic Team included 15-year-old swimmers at the last three Olympics, but all of them were women. The last time a man as young as Andrew will be made the Olympics was in 2000, when Phelps was 15 and Aaron Peirsol was 17.

“I’d love to look in my crystal ball and tell you that he’s on the same path as the other Michael, but there will never be another Michael Phelps,” NBC Olympics swimming analyst Rowdy Gaines said.

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Michael Andrew, 15, could become the youngest U.S. male swimmer to make an Olympic Team since Michael Phelps in 2000.

Gaines also pointed out that the track record for exceptional pre- and early-teen U.S. male swimmers developing into Olympic champions is not great, but also that Andrew’s incomparable times over the last two years, genes and unique quality-over-quantity training regimen put him into a different category.

“He’s definitely a man in a boy’s body,” Gaines said of Andrew, who is near Phelps’ height, perhaps taller. “He’s got a different makeup. It’s a different philosophy. Who knows?”

The concerns are there. Scrutiny. Expectations. Burnout. The family recognizes them and embraces the challenges ahead together.

“We’ve expressed to sponsors, you’re not just sponsoring Michael. We’re a unit,” Peter said. “[Michael] is really secure in who he is and what he’s up to. I don’t have any reservations about what we’re doing. We keep a very balanced life. We do it all as a family, and we make everything fun.

“We don’t force our kids to do anything. I don’t think you’ll ever be successful if you were forced to do something. These are his choices. It’s my choice, as his dad, to help him to be the very best that he possibly can be.”

The road has been rocky at times. Once, they were held up overnight driving from Colorado to California by a jackknifed truck. They arrived at the meet 30 minutes before Andrew’s first scheduled swim. He broke a backstroke record having slept in the back of the van.

“Let me tell you the worst experience,” his mother said, remembering a trip to College Station in February when she forgot to book a hotel, and they contemplated sleeping in the van. “We got a room in a dive of a place. It was so scary. You could not put your feet down on the carpet, because it sticks to the carpet.”

Andrew broke national age group records on back-to-back-to-back days.

“So the joke is we need to stay in fleabag motels going forward,” she said.

On a more serious note, Andrew developed a spontaneous pneumothorax in his lungs a year and a half ago, a needle-sized hole with air escaping between his chest and ribs. He consulted doctors, had X-Rays, and it healed by itself. Doctors focused on his growth plates and told him he could grow to 6-8 or taller.

“I think I can will myself to 6-10 if I wanted to,” he joked.

Andrew will have to squeeze plenty of strength out of that body (and size 14 feet) in Mesa the next three days. He’s entered in the 50m free, 100m free, 200m free, 100m fly, 100m breast, 200m breast, 100m back, 200m back and 200m individual medley, though he could scratch out of events.

The focus in Mesa will be on Phelps and his potential road to Rio. The next two years could see the other Michael become quite a storyline, too.

“I’m dreaming right now,” Andrew said, “but it’s definitely a dream that can come true.”

How, when to watch Michael Phelps’ return

Japanese pair edges Americans for historic Grand Prix Final figure skating title

Riku Miura, Ryuichi Kihara
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Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara won the biggest title ever for a Japanese figure skating pair, taking the Grand Prix Final and consolidating their status as the world’s top active team.

Miura and Kihara, last season’s world silver medalists, barely outscored world champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier in Turin, Italy, in both Thursday’s short program and Friday’s free skate to win the six-pair event that is a preview of March’s worlds.

The Japanese totaled 214.58 points, distancing the Americans by a mere 1.3 points after Frazier erred on both of their side-by-side jumping passes in the free skate. Italians Sara Conti and Niccolo Macii took bronze.

“We had a very late start to our season than initially planned, so as we have been performing at each event, I see us getting stronger, improving things,” said Frazier, who with Knierim had their best short program and free skate scores of the autumn.

Knierim and Frazier didn’t decide to continue competing together this season until July.

“I feel a little personally disappointed tonight just for myself for my jumps,” Frazier continued. “I was a little all over the place and, normally, I can execute better, so I feel a little bad, but I’m very proud of us overall. We’ve done a great job of improving each competition and looking forward to the second half of the season where we can start tapping into our best skating.”

GRAND PRIX FINAL: Results | Broadcast Schedule

Miura and Kihara, who partnered in June 2019 and train in Ontario, both waited with trepidation for their final score to be posted, worried that each’s separate mistake on jumps might cost them the title. When they learned they won, both burst into tears.

“This was the first time in eight years that I made a mistake with a Salchow, so I thought we might not get a good score, and it would be my fault,” Kihara said.

Miura and Kihara entered the competition ranked No. 1 in the world by best scores this season ahead of Knierim and Frazier, who in March became the first U.S. pair to win a world title since 1979.

Last season, Miura and Kihara became the second Japanese pair to make a Grand Prix podium and to earn a world championships medal. Their ascension helped Japan win its first Olympic figure skating team event medal in February (a bronze that could be upgraded to gold pending the Kamila Valiyeva case).

In Grand Prix Final history, Japan had won 11 gold medals and 40 total medals, all in singles, before this breakthrough.

Knierim and Frazier, already the first U.S. pair to compete in the Grand Prix Final since 2015, became the first U.S. pair to win a Grand Prix Final medal. The Final has been held annually since 1996, though it was canceled the last two seasons due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Miura and Kihara and Knierim and Frazier ascended to the top of the sport while the top five teams from the Olympics from Russia and China have not competed internationally since the Winter Games.

All Russian skaters are ineligible for international competition due to the war in Ukraine. China’s pairs, including Olympic champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, didn’t enter last March’s worlds and did not compete in the fall Grand Prix Series.

Later Friday, world champion Kaori Sakamoto of Japan led the women’s short program with 75.86 points, 1.28 ahead of countrywoman Mai Mihara. American Isabeau Levito, the 15-year-old world junior champion, was fifth of six skaters in her Grand Prix Final debut.

Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier topped the rhythm dance with 85.93 points, edging Americans Madison Chock and Evan Bates by .44. Both couples are bidding for the biggest international title of their careers. None of the Olympic medalists competed internationally this fall.

The Grand Prix Final ends Saturday with the men’s and women’s free skates and free dance, all live on Peacock.

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A Winter Olympic medal still being decided, 10 months later

Fanny Smith, Daniela Maier
It's still unknown whether Fanny Smith (green) or Daniela Maier (blue) is the Olympic ski cross bronze medalist. (Getty)
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There is a second Winter Olympic medal result still in question, 10 months after the Games.

While the figure skating team event results are still unknown due to the Kamila Valiyeva case, the bronze medal in women’s ski cross is also in dispute.

Originally, Swiss Fanny Smith crossed the finish line in third place in the four-woman final at the Winter Games in February. Upon review by the International Ski Federation (FIS) jury, she was minutes later demoted to fourth place after making contact with German Daniela Maier near the end of the course. Maier, who originally was fourth, was upgraded to bronze.

“I tried to be OK with the fourth place. I was very disappointed, I have to say, [then] the jury was like this,” Maier said then. “I am really sorry for Fanny that it’s like this right now. … The jury decided like this, so accept it and be happy with the medal.”

Smith and the Swiss ski federation appealed. FIS reinstated Smith as the bronze medalist nine days after the race and six days after the Closing Ceremony. A FIS appeals commission met four times and reviewed video and written documentation for several hours before deciding that “the close proximity of the racers at that moment resulted in action that was neither intentional or avoidable.”

But that wasn’t the end. The case ended up reportedly going to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), whose rulings are usually accepted as final. The CAS process is ongoing, European media reported this week.

CAS has not responded to a request for comment. A FIS contact said Friday, “There is currently no update to provide in regards to the bronze medal in ski cross. Should there be any update, we will inform you.”

Smith said there should be news soon regarding the case, according to Blick.

Maier still has the bronze medal at her home and enjoys looking at it, according to German media, which also reported that the German ski federation expects Maier to win the case and keep the medal. Smith and Maier spoke extensively about it in recent training sessions and cleared things up. Maier said the best outcome would be bronze medals for both of them, according to the report.

For now, FIS lists Smith as the bronze medalist. The IOC lists Maier as the bronze medalist.

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