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.
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.
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.
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.”