The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

New Olympian Michael Andrew quieted his doubters, but the scrutiny isn’t going away

Michael Andrew reacts Friday after winning the men’s 200-meter individual medley final. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

OMAHA — For someone just 22 years old, Michael Andrew already has lived countless lives as a swimmer. He has been a preteen phenom. He has been a national age group record-breaker, more than 100 times over. His unconventional journey and beliefs have made him a curiosity and a lightning rod — an inspiration to some, a freak show to others. He has been a maverick, a cautionary tale, a marketing sensation and an international champion.

What Andrew had never been until this week was an Olympian. It is a designation he gained — along with another, American record holder — by winning the 100-meter breaststroke in 58.14 seconds Monday night at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials. He will head to Tokyo next month as a medal favorite in the event, his winning time making him the third fastest in the world in that event this year.

On Friday night, with another epic swim at CHI Health Center Arena, Andrew qualified for Tokyo in a second event, winning the 200-meter individual medley in a time of 1:55.44 — slightly off the 1:55.26 he posted in the semifinal. That made him the third-fastest American all-time in that event, trailing only Ryan Lochte (1:54.00) and Michael Phelps (1:54.16).

More than Andrew’s dazzling performance, Friday night’s 200 IM final is likely to be remembered as the final competitive race for the 36-year-old Lochte, a four-time Olympian and 12-time medalist, who finished a distant seventh at 1:59.67 to end his quest to reach a fifth Olympics.

“I really wanted to be on that Olympic team,” Lochte said. “I think this is probably my most important swim meet that I’ve ever had in my entire career, the one that meant the most to me. So falling short and feeling like I let everyone down was one of the hardest things.”

Ryan Lochte wraps up emotional U.S. swim trials with an Olympic miss

Lochte was the last swimmer to leave the pool and the last to leave the pool deck, blowing kisses to the crowd as he ducked into the tunnel and out of sight.

“It was an honor to share a pool with him,” Andrew said, revealing that Lochte told him he was “passing the torch” to him. “It’s a special moment I’ll remember forever.”

For Andrew, the win checked off another item on his list of goals for Omaha. He arrived here having qualified for the most events — seven — of any male swimmer. He entered his name in six but scratched off two to focus on his core events, one of which is now remaining: the 50-meter freestyle on Saturday and Sunday.

But Andrew’s ascension to Olympian status won’t ease the scrutiny or erase the controversy surrounding him. Andrew revealed on the YouTube swimming series “Inside With Brett Hawke” in January that he did not want to take the coronavirus vaccine when it became available — in part because he had just had covid-19 and in part because of some unspoken concerns.

“So my thought pattern is kind of like, if I’ve already got it, there’s not as much health risk for me,” he said. Speaking about his family’s stance toward the virus, he added, “We’re kind of, I wouldn’t say conspiracy theory type family, but we’re definitely on the side where we look for what other methods are there. The same with the way we train. Just because everyone’s heading in one direction, why do we have to follow that direction?”

A USA Swimming spokesperson said the organization cannot mandate vaccinations for its athletes because the IOC is not mandating them but that unvaccinated athletes would be subject to different health and safety protocols in both Tokyo and at the U.S. Olympic swim team’s pre-Tokyo training camp in Hawaii, which starts at the end of this month. USA Swimming President and CEO Tim Hinchey estimated before the start of this meet that 90 percent of the national team had been vaccinated.

Tina Andrew, Michael’s mother, said Friday her son “doesn’t mind doing whatever it takes, whatever protocols they want, short of having to take the vaccine. He will do everything that is required, but he won’t take the vaccine.”

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The list of ways in which Andrew’s swim career has been unconventional could fill an Olympic-sized pool. His father is his coach, training Michael in the beginning in a two-lane pool in their backyard, and his mother has served as his business manager. He was home-schooled as a child, his family — tightknit and deeply religious — driving around the country in an RV to his meets.

“People might think we’re crazy,” Tina Andrew, like her husband a native of South Africa, told ESPN in 2015, when Michael was 16. “What we are is very thoughtful.”

Perhaps most notably, Andrew turned pro at age 14, a decision widely criticized across the sport. Andrew was two years younger than Phelps was when Phelps, who had already made an Olympic team and set a world record, made the decision. Among other things, it meant Andrew would not be able to swim collegiately. “Michael doesn’t need to be inundated with sex and drugs and ideas from liberal professors,” Tina Andrew said to ESPN at the time.

In a sport where most swimmers train essentially the same way, the Andrews adopted a controversial method called Ultra-Short Race-Pace Training (USRPT) that eschews the longer yardages and “dry land” exercises of traditional training in favor of smaller bursts of speed, faster intervals and shorter periods of rest.

“We don’t lift weights. We don’t do anything outside of the pool really,” Andrew explained. “It’s all pace, all speed, creating neuro pathways so that in theory we can come to the race and it happens naturally.”

Andrew felt overwhelming joy after Monday’s breaststroke win, sharing a hug on the pool deck with his parents and his sister, Michaela. He felt relief, after his nerves that morning left him with the worst case of nausea he could recall. He felt redeemed, following a series of near-misses and disappointing showings.

He quoted Bible verse at his post-race news conference, and said, “As athletes we work really hard. We discipline our bodies for an outcome. This outcome is today, where we are now, and it’s amazing, but it’s perishable. And I think I can stand up on the blocks today and tomorrow and the rest of my life with a lot of freedom knowing that it doesn’t increase my worth and my value to my friends, my relationships, my family, and ultimately, with Jesus Christ.”

But Andrew experienced another emotion few of his peers could feel so deeply, that of vindication and validation. It’s not as if he swims to prove the doubters wrong, but he certainly doesn’t mind that that is a byproduct.

“It feels great, like I’ve vindicated myself — yeah, stick it to ’em,” Andrew said following his Tokyo-clinching swim. “[It’s] hard for people to say that the way we train and the things we do don’t work, because [now] we have officially made it on the biggest stage.”