Turning pro isn't crazy for 14-year-old swimmer Michael Andrew
When swimswam.com broke the story of 14-year-old Michael Andrew signing an endorsement deal with P2Life nutritional supplements this past weekend, thereby becoming the youngest US swimmer ever to turn pro, the site's comments section buzzed to life. The comments ranged from tidings of good luck to admonishments for the parents who had "brainwashed" the boy, to forecasts of burnout, regret and comeuppance. After all, the only successful elite U.S. male swimmer to pass on at least a few years of NCAA competition is Michael Phelps, and he had broken two world records, won a world championship and made an Olympic final before he turned pro at age 16.
Michael Andrew, who is already 6'4", weighs 178 pounds and wears size 15 shoes, has done none of that. While his talent and potential are obvious -- he has broken 32 national age group records and still owns 11 of them, including a 23.47 in the long course 50 meter free on June 1, which he set just six weeks after he turned 14 -- he hasn't even made a cut worthy of entry into the U.S. world championship trials in Indianapolis later this month.
But for him, signing an endorsement contract now is neither crazy nor hubristic. Turning pro before he can legally drive is not the only pioneering thing Michael has done, and it's not the only reason college swimming isn't an option for him.
Michael, who has been home-schooled since sixth grade, trains in a two-lane above-ground pool in the family's backyard northwest of Lawrence, KS, with his dad, Peter, as coach and his 11-year-old sister, Michaela, or a changing cast of other swimmers or curious visitors, as company. His method of ultra short, race-paced training (USRPT), developed by Dr. Brent Rushall, an exercise scientist out of San Diego State, defies decades of aquatic orthodoxy that holds that massive yardage is the key to developing successful swimmers. That's part of the reason he swims mostly alone, his dad's stopwatch his most constant training partner.
"Old-school training didn't make sense to me," says Peter, a 6'5" former swimmer who competed in college in his native South Africa. "That's how we trained, and I didn't like it. It was horrible."
Instead of churning out thousands of yards daily, Michael trains twice or three times a day, for about 45 minutes less each session. The total yardage per day usually runs around 4000 yards or meters, depending on the pool set up. He almost never swims more than 50 meters at a time, but those 50 meters are intense. If Michael is training for, say, a 100 meter freestyle race, Peter will take his best time in that event, divide it by four and have him do 25s at that pace, with brief rests in between, until he can't hold the pace any longer. For a 200-meter race, he holds pace for 50 meters at a time.
"Our goal is to make 2 ½ times the race distance before failure," says Peter. "At 10 lengths (for a 100 race) we're doing well. In one set we'll do three fails. So if he can go ten, ten and ten, that's a good set." The theory is that this method produces far less of the lactic acid that makes muscles feel sore and heavy than traditional aerobic yardage does. "Michael is never broken down," says Peter.
Two Australian swim clubs that use Rushall's USRPT method for age-groupers were recently ranked #1 and #3 in that country for overall performance excellence, but his philosophy has been mostly resisted or overlooked in the US. Says Peter, "There is so much dogma in swimming here that people just can't bring themselves to change or try something new."
Peter and his 6'2" wife, Tina, another talented athlete from South Africa who served stints on both the British and South African versions of Gladiators in the '90s, have rarely been hamstrung by convention. After the two were married in '93, they traveled the world for several years, finding odd jobs to support themselves along the way. The two were working on an agricultural exchange program in Minnesota in 1998 when Tina became pregnant with Michael. The couple moved back to South Africa with the intention of settling there, "but things had changed so much there since we left, we didn't feel safe," says Tina. "My biggest fear was being car jacked while driving into town with the baby."
They headed back to the States before Michael was born, in Edina, Minnesota, in the spring of 1999. The family eventually moved to Aberdeen, SD, where the couple made money flipping houses and Tina started an international recruiting and placement agency. At seven, Michael took his first swim lessons and joined a team. After training for just a month, he qualified for the state meet in the 100 free in his very first race. "It was obvious to us he had a gift," says Peter.
By the time Michael was eight, his parents were searching for a different training method than what most clubs offered. Peter consulted numerous coaches and sports scientists before he encountered Rushall at a coaching convention.
"His philosophy just made sense to me," says Peter. "The more I researched it, the more sense it made."
Michael's team wouldn't accommodate special coaching for him, so the couple bought a former nightclub in downtown Aberdeen and built a four-lane above-ground pool in the 100 x 50 foot space. "We cleared out like six dumpsters of stuff out of the basement," says Tina. "Some people thought we were certifiable."
Others thought they were on to something and asked to train with Peter. Before long he was coaching a 32-member team called the Aberdeen Aquaholics. ("There was no pun intended with us being in the night club," says Tina.) But after two years in the former nightclub, the Andrews encountered some green-card issues. The family packed up, expecting to decamp back to South Africa. While awaiting a renewed passport for Tina, the Andrews landed in Lawrence, the place they decided to call home after their green card issues were eventually resolved. The backyard pool was finished about two months ago. "It's so convenient," says Tina. "If Michael's tired or not reaching his times, he calls it a day, sleeps and plays or fishes and goes back later."
Michael had often told his parents he wanted to turn pro as soon he made national cuts. But about four months ago, an agent based in Connecticut approached the family about signing on with him. Though the Andrews turned him down because the timing didn't feel right, the agent's persistence got the family thinking about Michael's professional prospects.
This season Michael entered three Grand Prix meets, including the Charlotte UltraSwim, where he made the B final in the 50 meter fly and the D final in the 100 meter fly. With every entry, he'd get an email warning from USA Swimming about drug testing. A link to the USADA website led Tina to the cautionary tale of Jessica Hardy, who had to withdraw from the 2008 Olympic team when she tested positive for a banned substance she had ingested in a contaminated nutritional supplement.
"I started to think maybe we weren't being diligent enough, trusting that the innocent protein shake is okay," says Tina.
In a search for certified safe protein products, she came across P2Life, a company run by South Africans. Michael liked their products, and as Tina called up to put in orders, she had many conversations with Michael Shead, whose family founded the company. When she told Shead about Michael's recent NAG in the 50 meter free, he asked if Michael would be interested in an endorsement deal.
"It was an easy decision at that stage," says Tina, who can't reveal the terms of the contract. "The only con we thought of was the negativity, because we knew we were going to be crucified. I knew people were going to say we're bad parents and its all for the money and that stuff, but we know who we are."
Missing out on NCAA swimming wasn't much of a consideration. Michael is going into tenth grade, and his mom figures he'll be half way through an online undergraduate degree by the time his peers graduate from high school. "He'll get an education, though it will be non-traditional," says Tina.
As for the swimming? "If there was a college coach that I believe was doing exactly what I'm doing, I think we'd have considered it a lot more," says Peter. "I really researched the coaches. There's one that's a little similar but not really the same. I don't think Michael would transition well from our training style to an NCAA system. A massive mileage program would just kill him. So we couldn't have done the college route anyway, unless I became a coach, and no one is going to take me on."
Michael recently got a taste of conventional high-mileage training when he attended a USA Swimming zone select camp. "It was grueling and, oh my goodness, it hurt so bad," he says. "When we got back home my practices weren't very good because I felt the pain."
Similarly, friends who have dabbled in Michael's race-paced training have struggled. "I have so many friends who hear about it and say, 'that is so smart, that makes so much sense,' but their coaches won't let them do it," he says. "I had a friend in Florida whose team tried to do one of our sets and they couldn't make any of it. It's not easy."
Michael likes having training partners who can handle the intensity, though he doesn't have one at the moment. "The way we train, we don't need a team, in fact, it wouldn't be good to have a team," he says. "My dad has s stopwatch on every single lap that I do. It would be hard to run with 30 different kids, it wouldn't work."
His short-term goals include breaking all the national age group records he can. "I'm going to work hard to get all the hundreds, the 200 IM and so forth and I'm working really hard to get on the junior national team," he says. "We compete in the US Open and juniors in like five or six weeks, and I have to come in the top six out of all the 18-under athletes for me to be to qualify for the junior national team. That'll be fun." His longer term goal? The 2016 Olympics in Rio.
Michael says he thinks often about his role as a training pioneer. "Without trying to sound like I'm special, I do think of it, like, I'm probably going to be the first guy to train the Doc Rushall method and succeed with it," he says. "We really want to revolutionize the sport," he adds, sounding a bit like another Michael, whom he happens to idolize. "We want to change the way people train."
His parents share his vision. "You don't have to spend hours in the pool, you can do this and be darn good at swimming and have fun while you're doing it," says Tina. "Michael is having a lot of success doing it his way. With that comes a lot of amazingly cool things. More than anything, I want Michael to have a balanced life. We've kind of given up on the normal life."