On a quiet June morning, the future of American swimming is sitting at the edge of a kitchen table, his eyes focused on the screen of his Apple computer. It is after 10 a.m., and the smell of eggs and bacon wafts through a modernized, two-story home a few miles west of town.
Another morning training session has been completed and logged, and another family breakfast — loaded with protein, lipids and fruit — is being prepared. But first, Michael Andrew, a newly minted 16-year-old, wants to see what the swimming world is saying about him today.
“I wonder if the comments are more positive this time,” Michael says, looking up from his computer and toward his parents, Peter and Tina.
Today is a big day in the Andrew house. Two hours earlier, the family officially announced that Michael, their oldest child, had signed a sponsorship with sports giant Adidas, the latest career move for one of the country’s youngest professional athletes. If all goes to plan, Michael Andrew will one day be wearing the company’s logos while he piles up Olympic gold medals and becomes America’s next great swimming ambassador — the Next Michael Phelps, perhaps, in a sport that rides the wake of its biggest stars.
If all goes to plan, the Andrew family will help revolutionize the swimming community with a hotly-debated training method, silencing a litany of doubters and skeptics. And if all goes to plan, the Andrews will prove that their way — a homeschooled education, a two-lane training pool in the backyard and a household structured around born-again Christianity — was the right path all along.
“I have been blessed with a gift to move fast through water,” Michael says. “As weird as it sounds, that’s what I’m best at. When I’m in the water … it’s like my superpower.”
OK, yes, time to slow down for a second; a reality check might be needed here: Michael Andrew may be one of the top 16-year-old swimmers in the world, but he is still very much a teenager. He enjoys fishing in the pond near the family’s 12-acre property. He likes to fly his personal drone — a DJI Phantom 2 Vision Plus. He’s a regular at a local church youth group in Lawrence. He doesn’t even have his driver’s license yet.
And on this morning, he feels compelled to pull up an Internet post about his sponsorship, scroll to the comments, read the words of strangers, and wonder how the rest of the world is processing his latest bit of news.
On the other side of the table, Peter and Tina Andrew, South African natives who moved to the United States before starting a family, are curious, too. For the last decade, they have lived a relatively quiet life, a solitary routine of swimming, family and God. Now the future is coming, starting with the U.S. Olympic trials next June. The tentacles of the modern sports machine — more fame, more exposure and a new level of pressure — are out there in the distance, the gears beginning to grind, awaiting their oldest child.
“It’s so radical, what we do,” Tina says. “It’s very controversial and there’s been a lot of propaganda, a lot of questions.”
“He’s got to be nurtured,” Peter adds. “You don’t want him to just be swallowed up by the system.”
“So nothing is working today,” Peter Andrew says, standing on the edge of a cement pool deck.
It is an early summer morning, and Peter and Michael are at the family’s two-lane training pool, which sits in a compact, narrow building about a 30-second walk from the back patio. The training pool has concrete walls, a wood-beam ceiling, fluorescent tube lights and two lanes that run 25 meters.
Peter, Michael’s coach, had the pool constructed when the family moved onto this property a few years ago, troubleshooting through a long list of city ordinances and regulations. Over the years, they’ve added speakers that play Christian rock during morning swims and painted the walls with Bible verses and motivational sayings.
On one wall: “When life tinkles in your pool of dreams, just add chlorine and jump back in.”
On this day, Michael is working on a re-fashioned butterfly stroke, and Peter is inspecting the results on a computer video system that sits in one corner of the room. Using an underwater camera, Peter draws a 90 degree angle on the screen, showing how the stroke should look.
“The time is too slow,” Peter says, a deep South African accent echoing across the pool. “So maybe we’ll just start a new stroke.”
Michael switches to the breaststroke, but again, his times are too slow. The goal for today, Peter says, is to complete 30 reps — 25-meter sprints — at 100-meter race-pace training. But on this morning, something is wrong. Michael is not hitting his usual times. Peter suspects the excitement from the Adidas announcement has sapped his son’s energy. Perhaps it’s just one of those mornings. But instead of grinding through the workout, Peter shrugs his shoulders and moves on.
“My biggest thing is not to be frustrated as a coach,” Peter says. “Sometimes I feel like we need to do something, but you have to walk away.”
This moment, this failed workout, Peter will explain, is at the heart of the Andrew Plan, the somewhat controversial training method that has taken Michael to the top of American youth swimming. The method is called Ultra-Short Race-Pace Training (USRPT) and it is the brainchild of San Diego State professor Brent S. Rushall, an Australian academic who has spent part of his career challenging conventional training techniques in sports.
Traditionally, swimming training programs have always been defined by long, grueling workouts, the laps and meters counted in the thousands. In USRPT, which has infiltrated swimming circles in the last five years, the focus is on swimming less, but doing everything at race pace.
“Usain Bolt doesn’t run a marathon to be fast,” Peter explains.
Inside the swimming community, USRPT still has its skeptics. The method, they say, is a fad. All high-level swimming coaches incorporate some aspect of race-pace training to their arsenal, but to adhere to it so religiously is a mistake, says Eric McGinnis, a former Kentucky All-American swimmer who now trains athletes at Spectrum Sports Performance in Florida.
“We’ve been making swimmers faster forever, so it’s not like we’ve never done anything right,” McGinnis says. “To me, it’s a piece of the puzzle.”
Peter Andrew, meanwhile, sees the process as revolutionary — and backed by scientific studies.
The proof, he says, is in the results, and it’s hard to argue with the raw data. At age 16, Michael has set 75 national age-group records and ranks among the top 50 in the world — among all age groups — in the 100-meter breaststroke. He hasn’t yet hit Olympic-level times, but he is closing in fast.
In late June, at an Arena Pro Swim Series event in Santa Clara, Calif., Michael finished fourth in the 100-meter breaststroke, fourth in the 50-meter butterfly and 17th in the 200-meter individual medley against professional swimmers — some more than 10 years his senior. He is doing things, in other words, that have been accomplished by only a short list of young American swimmers — Phelps among them.
“He’s the real deal,” says Clark Campbell, the women’s swimming coach at the University of Kansas, who has monitored Andrew’s career. “As far as being a 16-year-old and a mature athlete, he’s off the charts.”
For the Andrew family, each successful swim is an affirmation of the process. A testament to daily workouts in their Lawrence backyard — one in the morning, one in the evening. An endorsement for USRPT. And a sign from God that they are on the right path.
In the cutthroat and insular world of competitive swimming, Michael is still a genuine curiosity. A phenomenal age-group swimmer, yes, but someone who will have to prove himself against the sport’s elite. But then again, the Andrews have never feared challenging conventional wisdom.
Michael and his sister Michaela, 13, take home-school classes through an online program run by Liberty University, a non-profit Christian school in Lynchburg, Va. The home-school schedule allows flexibility for Michael’s training.
Tina Andrew adds that the American public-school system runs counter to her family’s beliefs.
“We don’t believe in evolution and stuff like that,” she says. “When my kids were young, I didn’t want them to be taught about that until they had a mind that was sound and they could choose for themselves.”
The family’s belief system also influenced Michael’s decision to turn pro at 14, which made him the youngest professional swimmer in American history. Two years ago, just seven weeks after his 14th birthday, Michael signed on with P2Life, a performance nutrition company that would become his first sponsor. Accepting the money meant Michael couldn’t compete at the high school or college level — a decision that was generally derided in the swimming company.
But the Andrews felt at peace with the decision.
“We prayed on it a lot,” Michael says.
Peter added: “We didn’t really want Michael to sit underneath the teachings and brain-washing (of a university).”
The family’s worldview extends beyond swimming and education, to everything from nutrition (“Carbohydrates are killing our society,” Peter says) to their extensive travel schedule (“We’re very nomadic people,” Michael says.)
Sometimes, Tina says, she worries how people must perceive her family. But in many ways, they are most comfortable as outsiders, challenging the norm, doing what feels right, making the journey together.
“Why do we just take things, like, ‘This is the way it should be, because this is the way it’s been done all along?’” Tina Andrew asks. “I’m at the point where we’re just challenging everything.”
Before Peter and Tina were raising America’s next great swimmer, pushing against the traditional walls of U.S. swimming, they were immigrants, a young couple trying to make it in America.
They met at home in South Africa. Peter was a diver in the South African Navy and an accomplished swimmer. Tina was a gifted athlete herself, having once enjoyed a stint on “UK Gladiators,” the British version of the early 1990s American television show.
“She never lost,” Michael says, reciting a bit of family lore.
In 1997, Peter and Tina settled in Aberdeen, S.D., a quiet place to raise two children. Peter worked a job in agriculture, while Tina started a business, an organization that helped land job opportunities for immigrants. They lived with a singular focus, Tina says, an intense combination of survival and family and the trappings of American life.
“We were so caught up in the American Dream there,” Tina says now. “We worked 20 hours a day.”
In the early days in Aberdeen, a young Michael began swimming with a local club, and one afternoon, Peter showed up to watch. There was his son, sinewy and buoyant, perfectly built to glide through water.
“I called Tina right away,” Peter says. “This kid has got a gift. Drop whatever you’re doing and come and watch this.”
Michael began decimating the competition, defeating kids two years older and racking up national-age-group records. By age 13, he had crushed Phelps’ age-group record in the 200-meter individual medley, and the national swimming community took notice. In most ways, Michael says, his childhood felt normal. He played soccer. He dabbled in other sports. Years later, after moving to Lawrence, he would spend a year as a kicker on the Free State High freshman football team. But the water, he says, is where he belonged.
“I never not want to practice,” Michael says.
The family relocated to Lawrence in 2011, after a falling out with the local swim team in Aberdeen. Tina says they needed a fresh start. They pondered a move to Australia, but after seeing Lawrence while in town for a swim meet, it seemed like a suitable place to regroup. In Lawrence, they found a friendly and open Midwestern town with reliable pool access, a “docking station,” as Tina put it, where they could find a place to rent month-to-month and figure out there next move.
Nearly five years later, they are are still here. Lawrence, for the moment, feels like home.
“We love it here,” Michael says.
Back at home on a summer morning, Michael is plowing through his plate of eggs while Peter and Tina ponder the future. A few weeks earlier, a rep from HBO’s “Real Sports,” a influential television program, had called the family, interested in doing a story on Michael. That came after ESPN the Magazine had published a profile on Michael earlier this spring. The glare on their son is increasing, which is good in most tangible ways, but Peter and Tina are finding the environment trickier to navigate.
On this day, the ESPN story is a topic of conversation at the breakfast table. Tina felt the story made her family look like zealots, turning their only son into an “indentured swimmer.”
“When they see he’s that good, they think: They’ve got to be driving him so hard,” Peter says. “People think we train 24 hours a day. We train less than any swimmer.”
Sometimes, Peter wonders if the family needs to be more guarded, more conscious of the image they are projecting, more hesitant to talk about their son with reporters. It’s the conversation that every major professional athlete has considered at one point or another. How much do I open up? How much do I offer to the general public? Except Michael is still just 16, still growing into his 6-foot-5 frame, still learning about himself. The family is learning, too.
“We’re not guarded,” Peter says. “We just talk, and we’re ourselves. And people just kind of pick things. We got to be different when we’re with people like that, and it’s not right.”
He pauses for a second.
“We’re not crazy!” Peter says, his affable accent morphing into a laugh. “We’re happy!”
The conversation continues, with Tina discussing how the athletic prodigy story has become ingrained in American society.
“Ultimately,” Michael says, jumping in. “ESPN doesn’t want to do an article on a perfect family that’s happy with what they’re doing and everything.”
Moments later, Michael gets up from the table.
“I’m going to go do some schoolwork,” he says.
On April 12, six days before Michael turned 16, the Andrew family walked in the front door of the Adidas headquarters in Herzogenaurach, Germany. They had traveled to Europe to discuss a possible sponsorship deal with the sporting giant, and when they stopped in the lobby, Michael saw a wall of large televisions. A photo of Lionel Messi, the global soccer star and Adidas pitchman, beamed back at them. And then came the message:
Adidas welcomes the Andrew family.
“It was pretty sweet,” Michael says.
During a series of meetings, the company laid out its vision for Michael. They assured the family, Peter says, that they were in it for the long haul. The family cannot disclose the terms of its multi-year partnership, except to say that it will provide some financial peace of mind. But Peter and Tina left the meetings feeling comfortable. The focus, they said, was beyond next year’s Olympics in Rio and on the future, toward the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo, when Michael will be 21.
“Michael’s drive, talent and personality fit perfectly with Adidas’ ambition to empower young swimmers around the world,” said Christine Barth-Darkow, who works for the swimming arm of Adidas Global. “We look forward to supporting Michael on his journey to leave his mark on the global stage — for many years to come.”
But still, the family knows what’s at stake next year. If Michael can qualify for Olympics, at 17, it would launch him into a stratosphere reserved for the sport’s prodigies. Phelps, of course, swam in the 2000 Sydney Games at 15, setting the stage for the dominance to come.
“I’ve had dreams about it,” Michael says.
For now, Michael will have to make up ground before the Olympic trials next year. But Peter believes his son can push for a spot in both the 100 fly or 100 breast, in which Michael cracked the worldwide top 50 this season with a time of 1 minute, 1.6 seconds.
“According to other people, he’s not even on the radar,” Peter says. “Because here’s a 17-year-old … there’s no way a 17-year-old male makes the U.S. Olympic team. But we don’t go on what people think.”
Back at the breakfast table on another June day, Michael Andrew is polishing off another plate of protein while Tina Andrew breaks into a story from the early days. When her son was 7, she begins, the family packed into a car and road-tripped to Atlanta for a swim camp hosted by Phelps and a group of fellow Olympians. It was months before the 2008 Beijing Games, months before Phelps would win an record eight gold medals, and when the week was over, Michael Andrew penned a letter to Phelps.
My name is Michael Andrew, and I’m going to break all your records.
Years later, Michael barely remembers the note. (“I don’t think that would be something I would do,” he says, mildly skeptical.) By now, though, the comparison is impossible to shake. He’s heard it so much — on swimming message boards, in interviews, from die-hard fans at meets — that he’s developed a stock answer for the topic.
“I want to be the first Michael Andrew,” he says.
It’s an easy answer, of course, a familiar cliche. And yet, it’s hard to escape the shadow, hard to think about a swimming prodigy named Michael without thinking about the one that came before; hard to think about a young swimmer entering the machine without pondering one that already has.
As the meal comes to a close, Michael says he has never looked at Phelps as a swimming idol or a template. He reserved that status for God, he says, and anyway, he never really saw Phelps as a role model. Instead, he simply saw him as a measuring stick.
“He’s the GOAT — he’s the greatest of all time,” Michael says. “Obviously, he’s made some bad life decisions, but I’m not going to go into that.”
For now, of course, there is more to worry about than Phelps. In a few days, the family will leave for a meet in California. In a week, they will play host to a youth swimmer from Turkey, a young lad looking for tutelage in the ways of USRPT. From Aug. 6-10, Michael will compete at the U.S. national championships in San Antonio, hoping to score a coveted spot in the upcoming World Junior championships in Singapore.
There are other things to focus on, too. Like being 16 years old. Like finally passing his driver’s test. Like adding some gadgets to his personal drone — the DJI Phantom 2 Vision Plus. It’s a quad-copter, Michael says, with a computer system that can connect to at least six satellites and the capacity to carry a camera. On a calm day in Kansas, when the sun is shining, and the conditions are perfect, and each part of the machine is working properly, Michael Andrew can fly his drone and look out into the distance, the perfect escape from the future.