Rio, the 1-year-old Catalina Macaw, perched on Michael Andrew’s shoulder and nuzzled Andrew’s cheek with his beak. The affection drew a quick smile from Andrew as he stood outside a Wichita restaurant on Saturday.
The choice of pet for Andrew, a standout swimmer from Lawrence, certainly isn’t the normal pick for a teenager.
But, really, Andrew isn’t exactly your normal 14-year-old.
First of all, he’s a professional swimmer.
Andrew, who won the open division 50-meter freestyle in 24.09 seconds and the 200 individual medley in 2:09.67 at the Missouri Valley Long Course championships Saturday at the Wichita Swim Club, lives in Lawrence. In June he signed an endorsement deal with P2Life nutritional supplements. He is the youngest American swimmer with an endorsement deal — the previous youngest was Olympian Michael Phelps, who signed his first deal at 16.
While Andrew’s professional status is a hot topic, what has set him apart from his peers even more is his training. Instead of swimming yardage upon yardage, Andrew, who is 6-foot-4, focuses on sprints in what is called ultra-short race-paced training.
“We want to revolutionize the sport,” said Tina Andrew, Michael’s mother.
The backlash after Michael’s parents, Tina and Peter, decided Michael would go pro was intense. They saw the comments on blogs about how they embody everything wrong with sports today.
“When he went pro, that was crazy,” said Peter, who like Tina, is a native of South Africa. “We should be at the end of our career and go pro? Why?”
“I think it helps me because it kind of drives me,” Michael said of the criticism. “Not to prove them wrong … but at the same time, to prove them wrong.”
The endorsement contract, the terms of which are confidential, has resulted in comments about how Tina and Peter are controlling, that they keep their son in a bubble, isolating him from others. The decision to homeschool Michael and his sister, 11-year-old Michaela, feeds even more into the perception that they’re excessively domineering parents.
But they are insistent they are a normal family, one with the two-lane above-ground pool that Peter built behind their house.
They drive to swim meets in their black Yukon, watching movies, with Rio cuddled next to Michael. They make trips to the lake for fishing, knee boarding and water skiing. Michael and Michaela play Wii and Kinect on a PlayStation3. They are vocal in their love of God.
“There’s got to be balance in everything,” said Tina, 41. “I know we have such a short time with our kids. I’m starting to feel like my son is growing up. He wants to drive, wants to have a girlfriend.
“Can’t I keep him a baby for a little while longer?”
Since he’s a pro, Michael cannot compete for high school or college teams, but neither have been goals for Michael. He wants to be an Olympian, wants to compete in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro so badly that he named his bird after the city.
“Anything’s attainable as long as you can believe it,” Michael said. “And I have the Lord on my side.”
His short-term goal is to make the junior national team. He needs to finish in the top six in an event for all male swimmers 18 and under.
After Saturday night’s finals at the Swim Club, the Andrew family started the drive to Irvine, Calif., for the U.S. Open, where Michael will compete in the 100 butterfly and 50 free. Then it’s the junior nationals, also in Irvine, in which Andrew will compete in the 200 backstroke, 200 individual medley, 100 fly, 100 back, 100 breaststroke, 100 free and 50 free.
After he turned pro, Michael felt added pressure —so much that he sometimes vomited before meets.
“I’m always his mum first, and I’ve been very concerned about him putting self-imposed pressure on himself,” said Tina, who is 6-2 and a former athlete who competed in Britain’s and South Africa’s versions of the Gladiators television show. “‘I’m a pro and my peers can’t beat me.’ I don’t want him to put unnecessary pressure on himself.
“He’s such a perfectionist and sets such a high bar for himself. We don’t need to be the pushy, helicopter parents because he’s so driven and puts so much pressure on himself that we have to take it off him. When he has a bad race, we take the pressure off him.”
When Peter first saw his son swim as a 7-year-old while the family lived in Aberdeen, S.D., he immediately recognized Michael’s natural talent. Michael advanced to the state meet in the 50 free within a month after he started swimming.
“Some people can feel the water, and some people don’t,” said Peter, 43, who is 6-5 and swam in high school. “It’s a natural ability. I could see in the water he owned the water. That’s something you’re born with.… God has blessed him with that talent, so it’s our responsibility to help him be the best he can be in whatever he’ll be.”
Peter and Tina take that seriously, and have researched techniques. Peter spoke with Russian scientists before coming into contact with Brent Rushall, an exercise scientist from San Diego State, who developed ultra-short race-paced training.
The Andrew family was hooked.
Michael doesn’t swim thousands of yards every day. Instead he swims no more than 50-meter sprints for 15-20 minutes, then cools down, doing three sets twice a day.
He focuses on staying at race pace for each sprint. For instance, if he’s training for the 100 free, Michael and Peter figure out what his split should be for each 25 meters in a race, and that’s what his goal is for every training sprint. So he does flatout sprints for 25 meters, resting for 10 seconds between each sprint, always staying at race pace until he fails. His goal is 2 1/2 times the distance, so for a 100 free, it’s 10 25s.
Peter said the training leads to constant improvement and fewer injuries due to overuse.
“We train to stay just below fatigue, so when you’re fatigued, we stop and rest,” Peter said. “We never swim broken. You get tired and your strokes start to get off. We hold our technique all the time, and when it’s not, then we stop.”
Michael added: “It makes sense.… All the training is revolved around how we compete.”
Peter nodded and said, “When we train for the 100, we train at exactly the pace he races. He trains at that speed, so he races at that speed. It’s so easy to understand, and there’s so much scientific data to back it up.”
Much of the swimming community is entrenched in high-yardage training, but there are coaches who are reaching out to Peter about Michael’s training. One week the Andrews received e-mails from four countries, all people seeking more information on the training.
Michael usually trains alone, but more visitors are asking to watch and learn. Tina, Peter and Michael are eager to talk about the training and the results.
Tina spoke of a young girl who trained with Peter for a week this summer and shaved 14 seconds off in one event. And there are often visitors to their pool to watch how Peter, stopwatch always in hand, trains Michael.
Michael’s results are undeniable. He set 10 age-group records in 10-and-under, 22 in 12-and-under, tied the 100 yard butterfly in 13-14s and owns the 50 free long-course in 13-14s.
“The conversation that we want to get out more is that the training is so unique and so revolutionary that it can change the sport,” Tina said. “We feel passionate about it.”