ATLANTA — The skinny kid trying to talk his way into Jon Howell’s Emory University swim program in the summer of 2011 wasn’t much of a swimmer, but there was something endearing about him. When Howell sent the high schooler back north with some target times to hit his senior year, the kid came back the next spring with the results to prove he had. And after a couple of breaststrokers Howell had been recruiting decided to go elsewhere, he finally agreed to take this kid, this Andrew Wilson.
What that skinny breaststroker has done these past four-plus years defies conventional swimming wisdom, and what he is on the verge of doing would defy more than 40 years of swimming history. After being the last guy to make the Emory swim team in 2012, Wilson has left himself, through some combination of untapped talent and unbridled determination, on the verge of making the U.S. team for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
With less than six weeks to go before the start of the Olympic trials in Omaha, Wilson, a 22-year-old Bethesda native, ranks first among American swimmers this year in the 100-meter breaststroke and sixth in the 200; the top two in each at the trials will earn spots on Team USA for Rio. The rise has been so rapid and so astonishing, even those closest to Wilson have a hard time wrapping their heads around it.
“Somebody asked us if we’re really anxious about his prospects,” said Wilson’s father, Bruce. “My response is always: In order to have anxiety, you have to have expectations. And all of this is so unexpected, we have trouble getting anxious about it. It all seems so surreal.”
Should Wilson make the U.S. squad for Rio, it would be nothing less than historic. Though no definitive record-keeping exists, an informal survey of veteran college swim coaches at this weekend’s Atlanta Classic Swim Meet, as well as one of Olympic historians around the country, suggests a potential milestone: Should Wilson qualify, it is believed he would become the first Division III swimmer to make the U.S. Olympic team since the NCAA split off into divisions in 1973 .
“It’s a phenomenal story,” Howell said.
This weekend in Atlanta, Wilson won the 100-meter breaststroke in 1 minute 2.06 seconds — well off the stunning 59.65 that won the U.S. nationals in August and announced his arrival as an Olympic hopeful — and finished fourth in the 200 breast at 2:18.91, also well off his best times. At this point in the season, however, when swimmers are nearing the end of their most grueling stretch of training before tapering ahead of the trials, times can be deceiving.
Explaining how Wilson went from a fringe Division III swimmer to a strong Olympic hopeful in the span of less than five years is not easy. But success stories usually reside at the intersection of talent, desire and opportunity, and that is a good place to start with Wilson.
“I’ve thought about this quite a bit because it is so exceptional,” Howell said. “If you could find a way to bottle that, you’d be on to something. He has all the qualities you would expect for someone like him — amazing worker, highly dedicated. All those cliches that you would think of definitely apply to him.
“But to me the thing that makes him special is he’s a tremendous optimist. And when he first came in, he talked about doing stuff like he’s doing now. Here was this kid who could barely swim under a minute in the 100[-yard] breast, and he had these big ambitions.”
Wilson’s path to this level was unusual, to say the least, and not a recommended one for Olympic hopefuls. Unlike most elite swimmers, he didn’t swim year-round until he arrived at Emory, having swum as a kid for Kenwood Golf and Country Club in Bethesda in the summers, then going to Phillips Academy, a boarding school in Andover, Mass., where he did a different sport each trimester: water polo in the fall, swimming in the winter, lacrosse or ultimate Frisbee in the spring.
His older sister, Jenny — a graduate of Sidwell Friends who swam for Northwestern University and likewise has qualified for the Olympic trials as a breaststroker — was a year-round swimmer throughout childhood, rising at 5 most mornings for practice and often training twice a day throughout the school year. “Andrew watched that,” Bruce Wilson said, “and said, ‘I’m not going to swim year-round.’ ”
Eventually, Andrew began swimming back home in the summers with the Nation’s Capital Swim Club — the same club that produced 2012 Olympic champion Katie Ledecky — to supplement his high school training, but he was still far shy of being a full-timer.
“I was only swimming four or five months out of the year as opposed to all 12,” Wilson said. “A big part of [the improvement] was going from not working at all to actually putting the time into it. I’ve grown, I’ve gotten bigger, and lifting [weights] has helped a lot. And my coaches have helped a ton.”
At Emory, Wilson’s improvement was breathtaking. At first, he couldn’t even crack the Eagles’ travel squad, but once he did, he took off. At one of his first meets as a freshman, he swam against the two breaststrokers who had spurned Howell’s program the summer before, opening up the roster spot for Wilson himself — and beat them. “The other coaches,” Howell recalled, “were like, ‘Who the heck is this kid?’ ”
Wilson dropped about four seconds off his 100-yard breaststroke time his freshman year, 1½ seconds his sophomore year and three more seconds his junior year, ultimately getting down to a Division III record 51.72 seconds — one of three such records he set as a junior, along with the 200 breast and 200 individual medley.
As 2016 approached and as Wilson began to reach the Olympic trials standards, he had a problem: NCAA rules prevent Division III coaches from training their athletes out of season, so Wilson decided to take a year off from Emory and train with the Longhorn Aquatics team at the University of Texas, under legendary coach Eddie Reese. There, surrounded by Division I champions and Olympic hopefuls, he has been building toward June’s Olympic trials — and perhaps beyond.
“It would be ridiculous to say I don’t want to be there and do things there,” Wilson said when asked about the prospect of making it to Rio. “But right now focus is trials. Obviously I’ve thought about my goals for after trials. But the first step is just making it there, and in the U.S., that’s hard enough in and of itself.”
What would be easy would be sitting around and wondering what he could have accomplished by now if he had gone down a more conventional path.
But Wilson said he has no regrets.
“What I did is what got me here, so I’m not really complaining about it,” he said. “I don’t know that I would change anything. I also see a lot of people who started [year-round] early who are really burned out now.”
In the fall, he plans to return to Emory, where he holds a 3.96 grade-point average in physics and applied mathematics, for his final year of collegiate eligibility. If everything breaks right this summer, he will do so as an Olympian and a history-maker.
It hardly seems possible, but then again, at one time, none of this did.
Notes: Fellow Bethesda product Katie Ledecky scratched out of the 800-meter freestyle, an event she dominates internationally, to focus on two of her non-core events on the final day of the meet. She finished third in the 100 free, with a time of 54.55, behind two of her future Stanford teammates, Simone Manuel (54.11) and Lia Neal (54.31), and fifth in the 200-meter individual medley in 2:15.20.
Ledecky, 19, scored decisive wins this weekend in the 200 free and 400 free, two of the three events (along with the 800) for which she is the favorite to win the gold in Rio. She will head to Colorado Springs on Monday for 10 days of high-altitude training, and her coach, Bruce Gemmell, said they are undecided as to whether she will swim an additional meet before the Olympic trials. If they do, they likely would choose between a pair of meets the first weekend in June, in Indianapolis and Austin.