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Peter Andrew knew this wasn’t normal, so he did what men sometimes do when they are confused: He called his wife.
“I remember he told me to stop what I was doing and come down to the pool to watch Michael swim,” Tina Andrew recalls.
By the time their son, Michael, was 7 years old, he was competing in his first youth swimming meet in an outdoor pool near Brookings, S.D. On his very first swim, he qualified for the state meet.
It looked as if this life had taken another abnormal turn.
• • •
Peter used to swim. Actually, he used to swim really well. He may have even been an Olympic-caliber swimmer, but being born and raised in South Africa, there wasn’t much use thinking about the Olympics. It was during the time when South Africa was banned from Olympic competition because of its policy on apartheid.
So Peter long ago had moved past swimming. He and Tina — also a South Africa native — got married and took off to see the world. There was Israel, Turkey, Egypt, England, Jordan, Greece, a lot of Europe and a bit of America.
“A lot of people call it a walkabout,” Peter said. “For most people, it is a year. Ours ended up being eight.”
When he returned to South Africa to take over the family farm, he learned it is easy to return home. But sometimes it’s hard to figure out how to stay.
Tina remembers when the government started taxing the rainwater that fell on the farm.
“But the taxes were nothing,” Peter said. “It was the people getting killed everywhere. You had to travel to town with guns.”
By the time Michael was born, the couple were living in America.
Little did they know they had started another walkabout of sorts — and this one was going to be wet.
• • •
Talk about abnormal: Michael Andrew just turned 14 years old and already is about 6 feet 4 inches. If you are a parent and want to send your wallet into a full-blown sweat, just look down at his feet. They’re size 15 and growing.
That first swim meet as a cold and nervous seven year old in South Dakota wasn’t a fluke. In rural Lawrence, there lives an honest-to-goodness teenage phenomenon. No, Michael Andrew is no Justin Bieber, but in the world of youth swimming he’s a legitimate star. Google him if you don’t believe me. You’ll find one Associated Press article on the Sports Illustrated website that says he may very well be the next Michael Phelps.
Big words indeed, but Michael Andrew as a 10-year-old broke 12 USA Swimming national records for his age group. As a 12-year-old, he broke 20 more. On 32 occasions, he swam faster than any American his age — including Michael Phelps — had ever swam before.
• • •
Peter gets asked the question a lot, I’m guessing. Any parent who has done a simple summer’s worth of taking their kids to youth sporting events starts to break out in hives as they learn what the Andrew family must spend for this sport.
First, the Andrews have a two-lane, heated, indoor pool at their rural home northwest of Lawrence. Then there is the travel: Two meets at least every six to eight weeks but usually more. When I talked to them, they had just returned from Clearwater, Fla.
And then there are all the normal types of kid expenses. Michael and his 11-year-old sister are home-schooled, in part, to accommodate Michael’s training schedule. He has two one-and-a-half-hour training sessions each day with Peter, who serves as his full-time coach.
“But it is not just eat, sleep and swim,” Michael said.
The family lives just a short distance from Clinton Lake, and spends a good amount of time wakeboarding. Plus, he golfs, fishes and likes to do all sorts of activities with his youth group friends at Lawrence’s Mustard Seed Church.
“We really do try to ensure that he leads a balanced life,” Tina said.
Great. But how do you balance the checkbook?
“We promise not to rob any more banks,” Peter said with a laugh.
Tina is a Lawrence real estate agent. While living in South Dakota, however, Tina founded a national staffing agency that specializes in bringing in overseas seasonal workers to the states. She continues to own part of that business.
But the simple answer is that the couple live a lot off savings and keep the American Express card reasonably warm.
“We have such a short time with our children,” Tina said. “It is just the blink of an eye. When I was starting my business, I used to work 20 hours a day doing that. I missed so much, and I don’t want to do that again.”
And Peter doesn’t want to be an ungrateful receiver of a gift.
“I believe God gives us all gifts,” Peter said. “Michael’s is swimming fast. I knew right from the first day I saw him swim that he had a gift. We have a responsibility here.”
In other words, sometimes you have to be open to the world of abnormal.
• • •
Unlike that first walkabout, there is a destination circled on a map this time: Rio de Janeiro. That’s where the Summer Olympics will be held in 2016.
The Andrew family expects Michael to be on the U.S. Olympic swim team. Others seem to be thinking that way too. Agents are approaching Michael, and he already has decided he won’t swim for a college team. NCAA rules would prohibit him from taking an endorsement deal, and the family alludes that one might not be too far off.
But there is a simpler reason why the family thinks this journey will take them to Rio. Several years ago, they dove into the deep end of this pool of dreams. In 2011, it looked like a green-card issue was going to require the family to leave the U.S. The Andrews decided they were going to see the country in their final months in America, and they were going to do it through swimming. The family moved from South Dakota to Lawrence, in part because of its central location, and also because the Lawrence Indoor Aquatic Center was where Michael set his first national record.
The green-card issue has since been resolved, but there is no turning back on this walkabout. Each day, it seems, takes the family a step closer to the pressure-packed event known as the U.S. Olympic Trials, where just one bad day will ruin the best of Olympic plans.
“My worst fear is trying to figure out how to cure him if he gets a cold right before the Trials,” Tina said.
When the conversation lingers on the subject of the Olympics, it is easy to see the tension in Peter as well.
“You really have me thinking now,” he said to no one in particular. “It is really close. It is only three years.”
Michael jumps in.
“I’m definitely going to be the calmest of the three,” he said, looking at his parents.
In chatting with him for about two hours, Michael sure seems calm. He comes off as bright, articulate, polite, gracious and constantly trying to pull off a balancing act that is tough for anyone, let alone a teenager: walking that fine line between confident and cocky.
“In your mind, if you don’t think you are the best, you’ve already lost the race,” he said.
Even then, you still lose some races. Recently, he swam against one of the other top youth swimmers in the nation in a special exhibition for a large crowd at an elite meet. The other boy out-touched Michael at the end. Michael — who says he hates to lose more than he loves to win — got out of the pool and grabbed the other boy’s hand and raised it in victory to the crowd.
“It probably was one of the proudest moments in my life,” Peter said.
There might be more to come and not all of them in swimming. Maybe this walkabout will produce an unexpected finding: That swimming wasn’t the gift at all. Maybe swimming was just the package that it came in.
“We really are privileged to get to spend this much time with our children,” Peter said. “Look at how many kids there are who don’t want to be with their parents. When we go to meets, he actually wants to hang out with us. I tell him that is not normal.”
“But,” Michael jumps in again, “we’re not normal.”
At least he hopes not. They don’t give gold to normal.
— Each Sunday, Lawhorn’s Lawrence focuses on the people, places or past of Lawrence and the surrounding area. If you have a story idea, send it to Chad at email@example.com.