Professional Swimmer Michael Andrew: Making Waves with a Nontraditional Approach
About This Episode
Like a lot of kids, Michael began swimming at the age of seven. But what started as splashing in the pool quickly became club meets, and what started as winning a few races in a row became breaking multiple youth age group records by the age of ten. When politics on the local club team began to threaten his enjoyment, Michael’s fathered stepped in as his coach. He researched the sport, attended a few conferences, and eventually stumbled upon their unique methodology – Ultra Short Race Paced Training (USRPT). It wasn’t just how he trained that was nontraditional, but also where he trained. At one point his father built a four lane pool in a condemned night club in their hometown in South Dakota and when they moved to Kansas and lacked a proper training facility there, they built a two-lane pool in their backyard. It wasn’t all for Michael, though; his father also taught private lessons, hosted training clinics, and supported the swimming community in each town they lived.
Michael continued to use USRPT which promotes training at the speed of a race to build the muscle memory of repetitive movements at high speeds. Rather than swimming thousands of yards in a given practice and subjecting his body to high levels of fatigue, Michael approaches each training session mentally and physically as if it’s a competition. The results speak for themselves as Michael has broken over 100 National Age Group records and the methodology is starting to spread throughout the sport. At age 14 Michael became the youngest swimmer ever to sign a professional contract. He sacrificed his opportunity swim in high school and his NCAA eligibility — a move that launched a wave of scrutiny. Critics vilified his parents for “forcing him” into the decision and lamented at all he would lose out on in the college sports arena. But for Michael, giving up his NCAA eligibility was an easy choice to make. Both of his parents had immigrated to the US from South Africa where the trajectory of professional athletes does not mirror the American standard. Instead of competing in high school and college before hoping to have enough love of the sport to go pro, athletes pursue their dreams at a much younger age. Michael knew that no university would follow the training style that he clearly excelled with and attending college just because “that’s what everyone did” was of no interest to him. That’s not to say the situation was taken lightly, though. “We gave the decision a lot of thought and prayer,” says Michael. But still, the comment sections of swim blogs imploded and their family philosophy was picked apart. Thankfully, through exposure on the pool deck, time together at meets, and the development of personal relationships with the Andrew family, members of the swimming community have come to realize they are all just working together to support Michael’s dreams.
If anything was difficult, it was the step up in pressure that Michael felt when he arrived at a meet. “Because I was sponsored and I felt like had something to prove,’ he says. He began to struggle with feeling anxious and nauseous before events. “I felt like I had to impress everyone,” he says. It wasn’t until he was invited to a professional athlete retreat in Texas with Olympic Chaplain John Ashley Null that he realized how much of his identity he was placing on his results. He knew that he could never thrive if he continued in a performance based mindset; what he needed was a shift towards purpose. He began by revolutionizing his mental game. He reminded himself that he has worth and value regardless of the outcome of a race. More investment was put into passions outside of swimming, like his friends and family, and he developed a more well rounded attitude toward the sport. This shift gave him freedom to show up to a meet, do his best, and not have his identity tied to the outcome. “I am not defined by what happens in the pool,” says Michael.
A lot of the credit for his mature attitude comes from his father, Peter. Critics often wonder if their relationship becomes strained as Peter juggles being a parent and a coach while Michael navigates being a son and a competitor. Michael remembers clearly when his father realized that he didn’t have to choose roles. “He heard a message called ‘Coaching Like a Father Loves’ and it changed our relationship,” he says. Rather than putting on the coach hat and then the dad hat, Peter wears both at once and coaches from a place of encouragement and edification. This has allowed Michael to take more ownership of his performance and doesn’t carry the worries that other athletes shoulder about whether or not their coach likes them or is proud of them; he knows that his dad loves him no matter what.
Heading into the 2016 Olympic Trials, Michael was aware that no one expected him to make the team. “I was awesome because I could be the underdog,” he says. Despite not making the team by a mere .64 seconds, he was proud of his performance. He was the only swimmer to progressively get faster as the meet continued and he broke a World Junior record. Those Trials put him on the map in the professional and Olympic world and the momentum still carries into today. In 2018 he picked up national titles in the 100M butterfly and 50M breastroke as well as several other big wins. “I put in the work and got up on the blocks and knew that I was capable,” says Michael. The confidence in his training, his coach, and himself have paved the way for swimming to remain fun; and that clearly shows. He openly shares the ups and downs of navigating professional swimming with fans through his YouTube channel. Filming, editing, and storytelling are all hobbies of his that he keeps up with, giving his followers a vulnerable peak into an elite athlete’s world.
Not only is Michael putting in work at the pool, but with his mindset. He says, “I have to constantly remind myself that I am more than swimming.” At the 2020 Olympic Trials, all eyes will be on him to post amazing times, but he says, “I work so hard for a result, but in the end, I have to be able to give it up.” Because he knows that a single race can last less than a minute, but he is Michael Andrew for a lifetime.