For the first time since he finished “Captain Underpants” in his elementary years, Michael Andrew is going to finish a book from front to back. It’s “Wild at Heart” a book by John Eldredge which encourages men of Christian faith to take more risks, to conquer things.
Andrew, a 17-year-old swimming phenom who is the youngest swimmer to go professional in United States history, has spent the last week lounging around his family’s log-sided home a few miles west of Lawrence.
He’s discovering new movies — his favorites are “Braveheart” and “Secretariat.” He’s spending more time with his family. His father Peter, who is also his trainer, mother Tina, and sister Michaela — they’ve been listening to Norman Vincent Peale’s “Power of Positive Thinking.” He’s eating dinner with friends on most nights. He’s getting more sleep than he ever has. He’s only training in the pool for one hour a day, down from his usual three, and replacing that time with spiritual training with family.
The entire Andrew household is calm. But Michael is blending his tranquil week with his focus on this weekend, when he will compete at the Olympic trials in Omaha, Neb., for a spot on the United States Olympic swimming team.
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Come Sunday, when he swims his first of five scheduled races, it will have been 10 days since he last logged onto his Twitter, Instagram or Facebook. He left his 30,000-some Instagram followers with a message of “laser focus” then, just for good measure, handed his phone to his mom, who has kept it in her bedroom since.
“It’s not like that’s all we think about,” Michael said. “There’s a lot more to life than just swimming and making the Olympics.”
Of course, having dedicated much of his life to swimming over the last 10 years, there’s still plenty of pressure to perform at the trials.
Making the Olympics would be a massive accompishment. Peter acknowledges that it’s the biggest meet of Michael’s life to this point. Calling the trials just another meet as many other swimmers will do is “rubbish,” said Peter in his thick South African accent.
But in another way, a 17-year-old at the head of his professional career missing the Olympics is by no means a failure. Michael acknowledges life will stay mostly the same if he doesn’t earn a spot on the team, but will become dramatically different if he does.
“Michael, he’s got a good handle on what he would like to achieve,” Peter said. “If it doesn’t happen, then it’s not like it’s all over. His career is just starting.”
Wearing a red T-shirt with the logo of one of his sponsors, adidas, printed on the front, Michael interrupts his father: “But it’d be nice if it started with an Olympics.”
Michael has been working for this chance since he started swimming 10 years ago. He’s thought of winning an Olympic gold medal, just like most swimmers, and what he would do afterward. He’s heard Michael Phelps comparisons since he turned pro, and even some before that.
Peter has thought about crowning his son — how he would walk up to him, what he would say, what he would feel. He can’t come to fathom it.
In 2015, when Michael reached new personal bests in every event he swims, he looked like a decent bet for the Olympic team in 2016. But then, for the beginning of 2016 as Peter tweaked Michael’s training regimen, it seemed his best times were stuck in 2015. Swim blogs and commentators, which Peter and Michael keep a close ear to, called it a slump.
“It was kind of heartbreaking in a way,” Michael said. “Because I knew I was capable of so much more, but there was something holding me back.”
Then, after not training for two days prior, he went to get a feel for the CenturyLink Center pool in Omaha and broke two national age group records in 17-18. He dropped his 100-meter breaststroke time to 1 minute, 37-hundredths of a second, which would be seventh-best in the United States, and 0.31 seconds off the time that qualified him for the Olympic trials.
His best times in almost a year came after less physical training, more rest, and more mental training.
“(The slump) was a lot to do with suppressing my fears and my worries, and kind of bottling it up,” Michael said. “Once we started to release that and let that out, things started to change to the point where I can go out and race free.”
A poster of the 2012 Olympic swim trials at CenturyLink Center hangs in the family’s living room, a symbol of a goal and, for Michael, a reminder of his own expectations.
By many, he’s still considered a dark horse to make the Olympic team. He will likely need to drop under a minute on his 100-meter breaststroke. He’s got a chance in the 50-meter freestyle as well. He’ll also race the 100 fly, 50 freestyle, and the 200 IM.
Michael doesn’t see himself as a darkhorse at all.
When he thinks of the trials, Michael goes back to Peale’s “The Power of Positive Thinking.” Peale says if one’s mind has any thought about not succeeding, the body will accept that too. If one feels sore during a race, the body will switch into reserve mode.
So as Michael reads another page of his book, watches another movie, gets an extra hour of sleep, he stays mentally sharp, he is trying to ride only one train of thought.
“I know that I will make the Olympic team,” Michael said. “I need to go in knowing that I’m going to make the team. That way I set myself up for the best possibility.”