The rising star of USA swimming tells Olympic Channel how taking up chess has made him a better swimmer, and why many early critics of his unique methods have now turned into supporters.
Michael Andrew is breaking the boundaries of swimming.
At 14-years-old, he became the youngest professional swimmer ever in the United States in a move that shunned the traditional route of progression through college, and ruffled a few feathers.
Since then, the trailblazer has experimented with science, philosophy, and even chess to create unorthodox training methods, which have already seen him win a world title.
Alongside his father and coach Peter, Andrew is not afraid to incorporate any new idea that may aid the 21-year-old’s win Olympic medals and break world records.
Nowhere is thought process his better personified, than with Andrew junior’s recent decision to take up chess during the COVID-19-enforced quarantine.
“I’ve been working with a chess coach, and it actually really ties into the training and the elite mindset of things,” the Minnesota native told Olympic Channel via video link.
“It’s pretty cool. I play every week with him, and there’s so much strategy that goes into it, like learning how to think quickly and how to see steps ahead, which I translate into my sport.
“There are three main rules: control the centre, develop the players and protect the king. If I go into a race and I know Caeleb Dressel is next to me, then he will go out really strong. I see him with his pieces out in the front and he’s got the centre. If I panic and I forget how to develop my own race, I’ll put my king – or my chances of winning – in danger. It’s about remaining calm, assessing the situation in front of me, and attacking when I’m ready.
Tapping into his cultural mindset
Both of Andrews parents hail from athletic backgrounds in their native South Africa. His father was an accomplished swimmer and rugby player, while his mother Tina appeared on popular TV game show Gladiators, where they take on ‘Contenders’ in fitness pursuits.
Andrew believes that it is their family’s cultural tradition to be competitive and challenge the norm.
“I think I have a lot of South African values that have been instilled in me because of the way I’ve been raised.
“We don’t believe in following the status quo and we realise just because everybody is doing it one way doesn’t mean that we have to do it that way. So we reached out to some scientists and tried something different.”
The birth of race pace swimming training
This thinking led to the development of Ultra Short Race Pace Training (USRPT).
The Andrews were looking for a more efficient way to train, and used science to challenge the traditional thinking behind many tried and tested swimming methods being used in the United States.
“In 2009 we went to a swim convention in Fort Lauderdale, where Dr. Brent Rushall was speaking. He spoke about the seven great myths in swimming, and debunked altitude training, aerobics, and all this stuff USA Swimming is so known for.
“You could hear a pin drop in the auditorium. And immediately afterwards my dad walked up and told him this is what we’ve been looking for. So we started working together and in 2011, the term USRPT was coined.
“If I was to use one word to describe USRPT, it’s ‘specificity’. It’s very repetitive, but we’re not in the pool for hours and hours and hours just going up and down.”
“In training we want to give the brain automatic responses, so that it can control the tempo, speed, velocity, stroke and fatigue in races.
“The idea behind it is we’re doing a fraction of the work, but essentially I’m racing every time.”
The father and son working relationship
On top of their revolutionary training techniques, Andrew and his father’s working relationship also needed to evolve.
While parents coaching their children in professional sport is by no means unheard of, it was typical of the Andrew clan that they did not see a lack of qualifications as a barrier to producing great results. A point that was ultimately proved right.
“We both started from ground zero together. It was really crazy because Dad had no coaching background, but he sought out people smarter than himself. Even now, he’s just constantly researching and studying, reading the science journals.
“In the earlier stages, we would argue a lot and it was hard because he didn’t know when to turn off the coach, and become Dad again. If a training session went poorly, it would affect the rest of the day and we’d all be in the dumps.
“We eventually realised through spiritual mentors that Dad needs to coach like a father loves. There has to be this level of grace and understanding and also the same perspective of you know what? It’s just swimming.
“Now it’s great. We’re able to communicate clearly, work hard, but not let it define us. It’s not all about performance and pressure.”
The decision for Andrew to turn professional at such a young age gained several detractors.
Their rejection of the traditional college path to becoming an elite, combined with their disruptive new coaching methods, led to some personal criticism of the family online.
“People were basically saying my parents were putting me out there in order for their own gain, like they were somehow receiving from me being a professional, or they were like living through me vicariously.
“People were comparing us with Andre Agassi’s strained relationship with his father. They had no idea what was really going on, but made these assumptions and because people have anonymity online, anybody can say what they want.”
Ironically, their father-son coaching team may actually turn out to be the envy of the swimming world during the COVID-19 lock down, given that Andrew will be one of the few athletes globally that hasn’t been separated from his coach.
Winning the ‘haters’ over
Nothing silences a critic quite like success, and so it proved when Andrew started smashing junior national records
“At the start of my career we felt like we were hated by everybody.
“We had to weather the storm before finally showing people, hey, we’re not a crazy family. We just love swimming fast and we’re going to do it the way that we think works.
“When I was 14, I had broken all the fifties, all the hundreds, all the two hundreds of stroke national records. People said that our methods only worked for sprints. So we trained three months one hundred percent on the 400 IM, and sure enough, I broke the national record by two seconds in a race that I absolutely hate!
“But these days we work with a lot of clubs and a lot of international athletes who are interested in learning about our method of training. So it’s cool to see the swimming community come full circle.”
Beating the alpha horse
His success culminated in winning the 100m individual medley victory at the 2016 short course world championships, before beating Dressel in the 50m free final at the 2018 Pan Pacs.
“It was really big. Caeleb is an incredible athlete and I always know that he is going to rise to rise to the occasion. His accomplishments will tell you that.
“I knew like this was an awesome stepping stone for me and learning what it’s like to beat him and how I can do so. And it also gave me a lot of just motivation going into and following years, knowing I look like it can be done.”
When you give a person that level of power, your body is not going to let you go.
“We actually learned this when we went to the Kentucky Derby and got to meet the jockeys before all the racing had happened. They said they bring the horses in at night, but put blinders on them because there’s always going to be an alpha horse. And so when this when any other horse sees the alpha, even if it’s ready to pass it on the track, it’s not going to pass it because it’s already recognised that that’s the alpha.
Learning to love the medley
Andrew’s physique and natural talent are such that he swims at an elite level across all four major strokes.
While this presents more opportunities for him to swim in different races at one event, it can also prove a hindrance, as he will almost always be swimming against specialists every time he races.
It is for this reason that Andrew has had to learn to love the individual medley, where all four strokes are combined in one race. Typically, he has found his own way to swim the race.
“I definitely am made for it. I used to really hate both the two IM and the four IM. But I’ve come to love the two IM because I’ve figured out how to race it like a hundred.”
“I’m able to switch strokes, using different energy systems, in order to last through it and pace in the way that conserves my energy.
“My goal is to break some world records”
Heading towards the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, Andrew is clear which races he wants to compete in, and is intent on making history in the process.
“My main three events going into these next games are going to be 50 free, 100 breast and 200 IM, and my goal is to break some world records.”
“I think it’d be pretty interesting to be the first athlete, I believe, to medal in a 50 free and a 200 IM. I don’t think anybody’s ever even qualified for that at the same Olympics before.
Once the quarantine is over, Andrew’s focus will be on competing in a revamped Season 2 of the International Swimming League (where he co-owns the NY Breakers franchise with his parents).
With a whole extra year to keep experimenting and learning before the Olympics in 2021, expect Andrew to continuing calling ‘checkmate’ on his detractors and rivals, as he continues to make history in the pool.