Sports Spectrum Weekly

Record-breaking swimmer Michael Andrew sees his sport as place to 'meet Jesus in the water'

Michael Andrew stepped onto the starting block inside the spacious natatorium in Budapest, Hungary, set for his final individual event at the 2022 FINA World Championships. In a stacked 50-meter freestyle field, the American swimmer knew a spot on the podium would not come easily. He knew just how close these elite-level races could be decided. Less than a year prior, at the Olympic Games in Tokyo, he had come three-hundredths of a second from a medal in this same race.

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But this time, he stepped onto the block with a newfound perspective, and less internal pressure. If there was one main focus for the 23-year old coming into this major international meet, it did not involve time, or medals. It was solely based upon perspective, recognizing the opportunities God had put before him, and making the most of those in the present.

He did just that, and raced with nothing to lose, powering his way down the 50-meter pool in lane two. When he hit the wall, the scoreboard displayed a lifetime best time of 21.41 seconds, just nine-hundredths behind gold medalist Ben Proud, as Andrew claimed the silver. More than a personal best or an international medal, Andrew’s performance in the 50m free made history. The Minnesota native became the first swimmer to earn a medal in three 50m events at a single world championships — and he did so after never previously winning an individual worlds medal.

On top of that, he left Budapest with a gold in the 4x100m mixed medley relay and a silver in the men’s 4x100m medley relay.

“It was a bit of a different perspective I went into it with,” Andrew told Sports Spectrum in a recent interview. “Coming off worlds in Gwangju in 2019, I swam all four 50s there and the 100 breaststroke. I had put a ton of pressure on myself to try to perform. With it being my first long-course (50-meter pool) worlds, I went into it being like, ‘I need to win a medal in all four 50s and do this and that.’

“Coming into this one, the attitude was very much focusing on the blessings I have in the sport. I was just enjoying being able to do what I love again. I had this crazy freedom to just be able to race and the joy that I get from being able to swim, and take it one race at a time.”

 

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Resilience is a prime quality in a swimmer, especially one on Andrew’s level. Mere milliseconds regularly decide who ends up on a podium, and having competed professionally since the age of 14, it is a quality he has developed well. Take for example the first two nights of competition in Budapest.

He qualified for the 50m butterfly final to open Day 1, and minutes later, was back on the blocks, in position for an event that many predicted he would earn a medal in — the 100m breaststroke. But he deviated from his race strategy, and disappointingly missed the cut for the final on Day 2, finishing narrowly outside of the top eight in ninth place. Less than 24 hours later, though, he found himself on the podium in the 50m fly, having gone toe-to-toe with fellow American and world-record holder Caeleb Dressel, earning a bronze medal.

“After that 50 fly, it was my first long-course medal I had ever won, I broke the camel’s back. I thought, ‘Ok, I got my medal. Now I can just race.’ At the end of the day, I felt like I was reminding myself, ‘It’s kind of silly, how much pressure we put on ourselves.’ That’s where faith plays a huge role.”

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Andrew is in a unique position, as a Christian in a largely individualized sport. It is an aspect he realizes, with plenty of emphasis placed on the “I,” whether it be in training sessions or race performances. He broke onto the national scene by the age of 12, becoming well known for his unique method of training, known as USRPT, or Ultra Short Race Pace Training. As a junior swimmer, he broke more than 100 national age-group records. In 2016, at the age of 17, he became the youngest American to swim the 100 breaststroke under one minute. But through it all, and with the strong influence of his parents, Peter and Tina, Andrew remained grounded.

“In the sporting world, it’s a very selfish world,” Andrew says. “It’s all about what I can do, what I can control and what I’m capable of in my own strength. But from a young age, I learned to recognize that I have no power; I do not control the outcome. I can only best prepare myself to race. That’s where having the mentality of ‘let go and let God’ has gotten better over the years.”

He notes that even heading into Tokyo last summer, he felt a substantial amount of pressure from both internal and external sources, but like so many things, the results were not in his hands. Instead, a reliance on God was necessary, and that included embracing the moment in even the difficult aspects.

“All I can do is my best to work with the Lord and my craft, recognizing that swimming is an act of worship and a place for me to basically meet Jesus in the water. Through that sport, He connects me to other like-minded people to spread His message of how faith has helped me. It allows for me to accept whatever the Lord has to give me in that moment, and sometimes it’s great, sometimes it’s not. But I still have to find a way to celebrate the eighth place like I celebrate the first place.”

“All I can do is my best to work with the Lord and my craft, recognizing that swimming is an act of worship and a place for me to basically meet Jesus in the water.” — U.S. swimmer Michael Andrew

A professional career spanning nearly nine years has been filled with plenty of peaks for Andrew, but he is also open about the disappointments. In Tokyo, he swam a strong breaststroke leg on the men’s 4x100m medley relay, helping the U.S. to gold and a world record. But individually, it was not the meet he had hoped for, finishing fourth in two events (100m breaststroke, 50m freestyle), and fifth in a third (200m individual medley). And yet, looking back a year later, he has found major positives, things that he credits with contributing to his perspective in Budapest two weeks ago.

“I think the only reason I’ve been able to figure out how to manage that and swim so free [this year] is the fact that I had failed to do that in the past and gone through those experiences,” Andrew says. “Tokyo was great, and I came away with a gold medal [in the medley relay] but it wasn’t the individual meet I had wanted or was capable of.

“After going through that in the weeks after, soul-searching and focusing on relationships, I realized that it really doesn’t matter. So I wonder, had I done really well and not struggled through certain seasons, would I be able to step up on the blocks here at this worlds and realize the blessings I have in the sport?

“I am too blessed to stress and I say that a lot to people, but it goes for all of us in life. We have so many blessings that we become pretty naive to, because of the distractions that society paints around us. Relying on faith comes from having tough seasons and recognizing that through those tough seasons, I’m able to grow and have a healthy understanding of what I do and why I do it.”

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Tokyo had its additional challenges for Andrew, who was ostracized by the media for his personal decision to not receive the COVID vaccine weeks before the Olympics. But he remained bold for the Lord. In the call room before the 50m freestyle, he noticed some South African swimmers writing Bible verses on their masks, and decided to write “1 Corinthians 9:24-27” on his. A team manager attempted to put a stop to it minutes before the athletes were called on deck, but Andrew just shook his head. There he was, walking to the blocks on an international stage, publicly professing his faith.

“I had noticed friends of mine from South Africa were putting Bible verses on their masks,” Andrew recalled in an interview with Brett Hawke. “I thought that was the coolest thing. What an easy way to be bold in my faith.”

Michael Andrew

Michael Andrew before the men’s 50-meter freestyle final at the Tokyo Olympics, Aug. 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

That boldness has grown over what has now been nearly a decade of professional competition. Sponsorships are a major aspect of the sport, and as he enters conversations with a variety of companies, there are times when he is asked about his perspective, and it is then that he has opportunities to share his faith. It seems there are few athletes more genuine and authentic when it comes to the highs and lows of sport than Andrew, but he is also grounded in a foundation that goes beyond medals and best times.

“I have an opportunity to live a purpose-based life over a performance-based life,” Andrew told Sports Spectrum. “Whether they are a company of faith or not, they recognize the uniqueness and importance of having that perspective.

“They recognize that what I’m doing is a very healthy approach. It’s cool, because it’s also a foot in the door, because it’s like, ‘You agree with what I’m saying, but here’s why I believe it, and that’s because of Jesus.’ That’s part of that powerful testimony that comes from going pro at such a young age. A lot of people didn’t understand it and I had to find faith in my own way through that. I had to own it. I couldn’t fake it. Obviously that came with time.”

Through that time, he leaned on Scripture. Philippians 1:6 has always stuck out to him, especially as he examines his sport with a lens of faith. In that verse, the apostle Paul writes, “[B]eing confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”

“Philippians 1:6, that is a verse I’ve always leaned on,” Andrew says. “To me I recognize that there’s nothing I can do to stand in the way of what God is going to get done. That takes a lot of pressure off of me to stand boldly and firmly in what I believe in and take life a day at a time and not put all this crazy pressure on myself, but always to recognize that God wants good for us. This isn’t a prosperity gospel. You’re going to have challenges and go through things, but at the end of the day, God is in control.”

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