Andrew had turned after three laps in first place by a full second in the final of the men’s 200-meter individual medley at the Tokyo Olympics. He was 50 meters from a triumph that would bring another gold medal to Team USA and validate his unconventional — to say the least — swim career. But he just couldn’t seem to get to that last wall.
He was passed by one swimmer, then two, then three and finally by a fourth — a disastrous final lap that left him in fifth place, shut out of the medal stand in an event in which he was the gold medal favorite and an event that Michael Phelps had won at each of the past four Olympics.
Andrew’s final time of 1 minute 57.31 seconds was more than two seconds off the winning time of gold medalist Shun Wang of China (1:55.00), as well as that of silver medalist Duncan Scott of Britain (1:55.28), and more than a full second behind bronze medalist Jeremy Desplanches of Switzerland (1:56.17).
“Yeah it hurt really bad,” Andrew said, speaking more of physical pain than emotional, though either might apply. “I think it hurt worse than it looked, and it looked pretty bad … Now we go back to the drawing board, and we figure out what we can do [better next time].”
It was the latest soul-crushing disappointment for the swimmer who has been a flash point at these Games for things other than swimming. The only member of the U.S. Olympic swim team who has acknowledged being unvaccinated, he has answered far more questions about that stance than about the fact he was swimming in three individual events in Tokyo, with the added possibility of a medley relay or two, and was poised, if all went well, to come out of the Games with a hefty haul of medals.
Instead, he has met only heartbreak: a fourth-place finish in the men’s 100-meter breaststroke, missing the medal stand by half a second, and now this.
Notably, Andrew went maskless in his session with reporters in the mixed zone immediately after his race, citing his inability to breathe as well with his mask on. Despite that, almost every other athlete during this meet has worn a mask while in the mixed zone, an interaction that almost uniformly occurs immediately following races.
After investigating whether Andrew had committed a violation of Tokyo 2020 covid protocols, the USOPC determined he was within his rights to keep his mask off in the mixed zone.
“Michael has been reminded of the Games policy and established covid protocols,” the USOPC said in a statement, “and has acknowledged the importance of following all guidelines intended to keep athletes and the community safe.”
Andrew’s freestyle split in Friday’s 200 IM final — an unsightly 30.69 — may haunt him the rest of his life. Wang, the winner, and Scott, the runner-up, went more than three seconds faster — a stunning amount of time over 50 meters of freestyle.
“Just disappointing,” Andrew said of that last lap.
A 30.69 final freestyle lap is almost unfathomable in a race of that distance at this level. Consider: When Ryan Lochte set the world record in the 200 IM in 2011, he went a 27.49 freestyle leg. This week, Bobby Finke closed out his gold medal swim in the men’s 800 free with a final lap of 26.39. Katie Ledecky closed out her win in the women’s 1,500 free in 29.95. Perhaps the most damning statistic of all: of the 45 swimmers entered in the preliminary heats of the men’s 200 IM here, 44 of them came home in faster than 30.69, including Andrew himself (30.03).
Instead of validating Andrew’s unconventional training regime — grounded in the controversial method called ultrashort race-pace training, which favors shorter, higher-intensity training sets over the longer, methodical, aerobic-building ones that are standard throughout the sport — Friday’s result may have condemned it.
It was never going to be the butterfly that Andrew had to worry about. He would hold his own in the backstroke, absolutely crush the breaststroke. Everybody at the pool Friday morning knew this. If Andrew was going to win, he had to be able to bring it home. He had to save something for the freestyle.
Andrew has always tended to be a “fly and die” IM’er — which, in swimming circles, means to go out as hard as you can in the butterfly leg, hold it together in the back and breast and then try to get to the wall in the free.
Friday, Andrew did it more or less perfectly until the free. He was under the pace of Ryan Lochte’s 2011 world record at the first turn, following a blazing 24.21 fly split, and stalking the leaders after the backstroke, never his best stroke. He grabbed the lead again after the breaststroke, as everyone expected. But his form appeared to break down in the freestyle. He was stuck in neutral, his rivals zooming past him.
“I knew I had to be fast to the 150 [mark], and then I was praying for some holy spirit power to get me home in that [last] 50,” he said. “And it wasn’t all there.”
Andrew had done almost the exactly same thing in the semifinals of the event the day before, with his freestyle split of 30.68 almost two seconds worse than anyone else in his heat. Even at the trials in June, where he finished first, he had been under world record pace after 150 meters only to fade in the freestyle. At this point, Andrew’s penchant for falling apart in the freestyle is a problem crying out for a solution.
The Tokyo Games were the ones Andrew and his family had circled when Michael controversially turned pro at age 14, a move that immediately brought condemnation within the world of elite swimming. He nearly made the U.S. team for Rio de Janeiro 2016 at age 17, finishing fourth in the 100 breast at the Olympic trials, but Tokyo 2020 was the target.
Andrew came out of the Olympic trials last month looking like a serious threat for multiple medals in Tokyo. He set an American record in the 100 breast, put up the fastest time in the world this year in the 200 IM and added a third Olympic event with a 21.48 in the 50 free. In doing so, he established himself as arguably the most versatile elite sprinter in U.S. history; no one in the country’s history had qualified for the Olympics in the breaststroke as well as one of the other individual strokes.
But before he could get out of Omaha, Andrew had sparked a new controversy — one that would prove to have staying power — when it was revealed he was not vaccinated against covid-19 and did not plan to get the vaccine before Tokyo. His mother, Tina, told The Washington Post, “He’ll do everything that is required [in terms of covid protocols], but he won’t take the vaccine.”
Although his choice drew widespread condemnation, some of which came from within the normally tightknit community of former U.S. Olympic swimmers, Andrew himself defended his choice in an interview with the Fox Business Network, arguing he is “representing my country in multiple ways and the freedoms we have to make a decision.” The freedom to decline the vaccine, he said, is “something I’m willing to stand for.”
And now, the triumphant Olympics that Andrew envisioned, the one that would silence the haters, has melted away. He has one last individual race in which to try to salvage it, in the 50-meter freestyle, with three rounds that would start Friday evening and end Sunday morning. It would be a long, long wait to get there.