This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's May 11 Fight For Perfection Issue. Subscribe today!
IT IS 9:30 P.M. in the alfalfa fields just west of Lawrence, Kansas. While most folks around here prepare for bed, Michael Andrew stands atop a metal starter's block, his head nearly touching the wooden ceiling inside this shoe box of a room. "It all starts with a dream," Michael's father and coach says in a booming South African accent. "If you can't dream you can swim in the Olympics, you won't." Michael nods and dives in.
This is where 16-year-old Michael is living and training while he competes for a place on the U.S. Olympic swim team next year: off a darkened rural road in a small two-story log house with his parents, his sister and this 25-meter, two-lane pool out back. Under the fluorescent din, one of the country's youngest professional athletes takes a couple of slow turns, pauses at the near end and looks expectantly at his father, who is holding a stopwatch. "Go!" Peter Andrew shouts. Michael's head disappears under the water, his body pulled in a ball tight against the wall. He presses off, and you're sure his feet are going to break through.
Michael swims the butterfly stroke from one end to the other, and his father calls out the time. Twelve-point-eight seconds. Peter writes the number in a pink, orange and purple zebra-print notebook. Each practice is recorded here -- his son's young life logged as a series of pen strokes as if it were a mathematical calculation.
Michael rests a few seconds, sucking in deep breaths.
"You look great, now go!" Peter hollers.
Michael pushes off.
"Very nice!" Peter says. "That's way nice!"
"Remember to breathe! Again! Go!"
The house is up a small wooden gangway from the pool. Michael's mother is there, answering emails, checking texts, building Team Michael. A Brazilian television crew (the 2016 Olympics are in Rio de Janeiro) will be visiting soon; representatives from an athletic-apparel company want to chat. Michael's father has much loftier aspirations beyond today's pressures. While some see his son as a dominant young swimmer, Peter is a true believer. His son is a gift who must be shared with the world -- a mission he and his wife can't afford to mess up.
"God has given Michael to us," Peter says plainly. "It's my duty to build him into the best that he can ever be."
MICHAEL IS THE most hotly debated prospect in American swimming right now -- a human inkblot for how we think young athletes should be developed, nurtured and promoted. Despite his 75 national age-group records, he is fighting for respect. A future burnout, he is called; a puppet for his family; a religious fanatic. Most of the negative comments center on a similar theme: His parents are stealing his childhood.
Michael is 6-foot-5 and 190 pounds. He wears a size 14 shoe. When the sunlight hits him just right, his skin can take the color of café au lait; his sandy hair is perpetually mussed in the way of an Abercrombie & Fitch model. His eyes are crystalline and piercing, his abdominal muscles in perfect alignment. He is a gorgeous young man. That's what you hear when you're poolside. This, teenage girls and their mothers whisper, is a boy they simply must get to know. He is, however, still a boy. His voice cracks; he has a few scraggly hairs sprouting from his chin. On the starter's block, his elongated torso makes him look as skinny as a No. 2 pencil. He is not a man-child as much as he is a rough outline, an approximation of the man he will soon become. His father is 6-5, wide and good-looking with graying hair, a chiseled jaw and massive biceps. Michael's mother, Tina Andrew, is nearly 6-2 and spent part of 1996 as Laser on the show UK Gladiators, donning a red-and-white two-piece, flexing her muscles and firing tennis balls from a miniature cannon.
Michael, his family says, can be his generation's Michael Phelps. To that end, his parents have prescribed a near-monastic focus on swimming, and God. He is home-schooled through an online program from Liberty University, an Evangelical college based in Virginia. His mother monitors his Twitter account. He can't date. He can't go fishing with friends. And in the past two years, he has swum an astonishing 611 individual events -- more than five times what Phelps swam at the same age. "People might think we're crazy," says Tina, who is also her son's business manager. "What we are is very thoughtful. We are doing the best we can."
On June 9, 2013, seven weeks after his 14th birthday, Michael accepted a check from a performance nutrition company called P2Life. With the money -- the family won't disclose the amount, but it was hardly a megadeal -- he became the youngest professional swimmer in U.S. history. Internet comment boards lit up.
"He seems like a nice kid, but this decision is totally absurd."
"This is a huge mistake. He's foreclosing huge chunks of his future."
"His parents have brainwashed him. This should be illegal."
Tina and Peter prayed many hours over the decision, which, they say, was Michael's to make. Giving up a chance at a college scholarship played no part in the discussion. ("Michael doesn't need to be inundated with sex and drugs and ideas from liberal professors," Tina says.) Without college as a carrot, Michael saw no reason to stay an amateur. "I wanted to go pro more than anything," he says. "We don't do anything small. We can't settle."
The news caught the swimming world by surprise. Bob Bowman, Phelps' coach, took to Twitter. Without mentioning Michael Andrew by name, Bowman wrote that Phelps had set two world records, won a world championship and been in an Olympic final before turning pro at 16. He punctuated the tweet with #justtobeclear. In other words: Smash all the records you want, kid, you haven't done anything yet.
It was a fair criticism. At the time, Michael ranked 59th nationally in the 50-meter freestyle -- a nearly unheard-of showing for a 14-year-old boy but an eternity when racing the world's elite men. Michael had proved himself a dominant short-course swimmer (a pool that measures 25 meters or yards), but Olympic swimming is done in 50-meter, long-course pools. And while the United States has a history of wunderkind swimmers like Phelps, Missy Franklin and Katie Ledecky, they were amateurs when they made their first Olympics. "The question is how he's going to progress as he gets older," Bowman told me recently after watching Michael swim. "He's on my radar for being a really great age-group swimmer, but that's about it right now."
For the first couple months of Michael's pro career, it looked as if the critics were right. He was a wreck. He wouldn't eat before meets, and when he did he'd throw up. He struggled to match times from six months earlier, something that had never happened before. "When I turned pro, I thought I couldn't allow anyone to beat me ever again," Michael says. "Like, if I'm beaten, I'm not worthy." Tina and Peter began researching whether they could give back the sponsorship money, regain Michael's amateur status, turn him un-pro.
"We wondered if maybe he wasn't mature enough to handle it," his mother says. But by late summer 2013, working with Josh Davis -- a devout Christian and two-time Olympian -- Michael was back on track. He smashed Phelps' 13-14 age-group record in the 200 individual medley. He set more age-group records than Phelps had at a similar age. And if he reaches the Olympics next year -- less than four months after his 17th birthday -- he will be the youngest American male on the United States' swim team since, yes, Phelps in 2000.
Creating an athletic prodigy takes time, which is something Peter and Tina never have enough of. There's a manic energy that permeates everything Team Michael does, fueled, in part, by the family's siege mentality. In 1997, Peter and Tina came to the U.S. from South Africa, three years after the end of apartheid dramatically changed the balance of power in the country. Peter talks of friends who were kidnapped, of seeing a man arrive at his family farm in Dargle with a hatchet in his head. "We lived in constant fear for our lives," Tina says. "In South Africa, you live closer to God. Your life was always threatened with violence."
Today, they still operate as if everything around them is under threat. For example, Michael was passed over last year for a spot on the U.S. Youth Olympic team competing in China. His parents thought it was because they were too revolutionary for USA Swimming. Michael simply wasn't faster than four older teenagers, a swimming official told me. And when Michael set an age-group record at the Austin Grand Prix this year and video of the swim wasn't immediately available, Tina was sure it was a conspiracy. Dinner-table conversations often turn into a list of complaints against those who have ignored them, who have dismissed them, who have failed to acknowledge Michael's greatness.
But there's no doubt the kid has always been great. As a young boy, Michael showed an aptitude for sports. At 7, he joined a swim team in Aberdeen, South Dakota, where the family had settled and Peter worked as a farmer. Michael destroyed other kids in the pool. By 8, he was swimming the short-course 50-meter freestyle in 29 seconds -- a time a really good 10-year-old might post. By 10, he'd shaved off another four seconds.
While Michael's team was using time-tested training techniques, Peter discovered the teachings of Brent S. Rushall, an Australian expat and professor emeritus at San Diego State University. Most coaches build swimmers on the idea of more -- more distance, weights, drills. Rushall promotes less, but done extremely fast. Using a method he calls ultra-short, race-pace training (USRPT), Rushall eliminated kickboards, weights, flippers and virtually every other training tool in favor of small bursts of speed in rapid intervals with short periods of rest. "I felt like Indiana Jones when he was searching for that cup," Peter says. "I found Doc, and I found the magic."
They tried to bring the concept to Michael's team, but the idea went nowhere. So Peter and Tina started their own team based on USRPT. Michael started setting national records, and younger sister Michaela began developing into a solid swimmer. Within a few months, other parents were moving their children to the program. In less than a year, two immigrants from South Africa had one of the most competitive teams in the state.
It didn't last. "There was hatred toward us because of what we'd done and how we did it," Tina says. "It wasn't healthy for our children or for us." In 2009, Peter shut down the team and quit his job to train Michael in private. Two years later, the family moved to Lawrence for no reason other than it had the Plains look but didn't come with the baggage.
Using their savings, Peter and Tina immediately launched Team Andrew Indie Swimming, and Michael exploded into perhaps the best young swimmer this country has ever seen. "Since I was 10 years old, I knew this was something I could do for my future," Michael says. "I was blessed with a gift." Of course, he adds, "it'd be cool to get so many gold medals."
THE ANDREWS TRAVEL the Lower 48 by GMC conversion van, the family vehicle that has logged more than 28,000 miles in the past year. When they arrive at one of their myriad destinations -- where Michael is besieged by journalists, autograph seekers and pawing teenagers -- you get the distinct feeling a traveling circus has come to town.
As the van lumbers along back roads to a meet in Topeka one afternoon, Tina is on her phone, scrolling through emails. She reads some correspondence with a popular athletic-apparel company that sought Michael's input on a swimsuit. There are no promises of an endorsement, but the message sounds encouraging. Tina is sure this could be the break they've been waiting for.
"Baby!" Peter says, then looks in the rearview mirror at his son and jokes: "And they're going to be asking for your times at the meet this weekend because that'll help in their decision."
Tina playfully swats at her husband's shoulder. "Stop pressuring him!"
"Toe-pee-kah!" Peter says, laughing.
Tina shifts in her seat so she can face her son. "How does that make you feel?" she asks. Michael says nothing, just looks out his window at the passing landscape. If he feels pressured these days, he hasn't told anyone.
We reach the meet and pull folding chairs from the back of the van, staking out a spot in the shade. While we wait for his first event, I ask Michael where he sees himself living in 10 years, should the whole Olympics thing work out. "Maybe we'd be on a beach in California -- La Jolla, San Clemente, San Diego," he says, emphasizing the we. "We'd have to buy houses side by side."
IN SPRING OF 2014, Michael qualified for the Grand Prix in Mesa, Arizona, one of the nation's biggest swim meets. Although the event was billed as Phelps' triumphant return to the pool 20 months after his retirement, the meet was thick with other American swim stars: Ledecky, Ryan Lochte, Allison Schmitt. Tickets sold out within 48 hours.
While Phelps spent much of his time in Arizona out of the public eye, Michael walked the pool deck wearing his Jesus-themed "My Lifeguard Walks on Water" T-shirt and watched fans clamor around him. A photographer was scheduled to do some underwater shots one afternoon. Journalists passed business cards to Tina. At a swim clinic for Mutual of Omaha -- another of Michael's endorsements -- teenage girls quietly battled over who got to swim in his lane. Peter stood off to one side and admired his boy. "I want him to be the biggest athlete in swimming," he said. "Michael Andrew is just going to be a beast."
In an interview with reporters, Michael was jovial, giving glory to God, to his parents and to his training program. Although he hadn't made the United States junior national team -- and the Olympic trials in Omaha were still more than two years away -- he sounded like someone who thought he belonged. "I believe in myself," he said.
But getting people outside Team Michael to believe hasn't been as easy. Before the meet, Michael was introduced to Phelps, who took a photo with him and made small talk but didn't seem interested in sharing space beyond that. Later, Phelps acknowledged Michael's youthful dominance but reinforced the idea he'd done it at a lower level. "I'm excited to see how he can transition," Phelps said, adding: "Short-course is for training. Long-course is where the big meets are at."
Finding the event for Michael to qualify for Rio is an important step. While Team Michael wants to shoot the moon, there are quieter avenues that could get him to the Games. For instance, a top-six finish at the Olympic trials in the 100 freestyle would qualify him for a relay and put him on the same track as former stars like Davis and Matt Biondi, an 11-time Olympic medalist. Tina doesn't think like that, though. To her, the next swim is always the most crucial.
It was overcast and rainy the last day in Mesa. Phelps had swum his final event the night before, creating a void in the day's energy. Only a couple of hundred fans were in the stands, and nearly everyone was wearing a jacket.
In one corner, Michael was next to his mother, arguing about his schedule. He had already made it through 12 swims that week. The Grand Prix is a long-course meet, and Michael had already shown what he could do: He ripped off an eighth-place finish in the 100 backstroke and a 12th-place finish in the 50 free.
But now Michael looked exhausted. His shoulders drooped, his head was down. He didn't want to swim the 200-meter individual medley, the most grueling of the events on his schedule -- and his 114th in the past two months. While Peter was conscious of the potential burnout ("We need a break," he told me several times during the meet), Tina wasn't having it. The 200 IM could be Michael's shot for Rio.
"Mom, no," Michael begged.
"I know it's cold, but you need to go to a happy place," she told him. "Don't let the cold get into your mind." Michael rolled his eyes.
"Don't roll your eyes at me," she said.
Michael gave in. He did a quick stretch on the grass, hugged his father, then headed to the pool. His personal best in the event was 2:03.53. He stepped onto the block, slapped his chest and exhaled deeply. There was a beep, and he was off.
Michael was out from the start. He struggled to hold a pace. His strokes looked uneven, lethargic. He lost ground with every kick. When he finally touched the wall, the clock read 2:11.50. He got out of the water but didn't look at his father, who was standing a few yards away. "That was awful," Peter whispered to no one in particular. "I don't like that."
Tina was already marching over to the cool-down pool when Michael hopped in and offered an excuse: "It was too cold. The muscles in my arms were getting tight."
"No, man," Peter said, shaking his head. This, he told his son, was a test that Michael just failed. "If you're at the Olympic trials and it's not perfect, how are you going to react?"
"Look, this is all mental now," Peter said.
"I can't make it warmer," Michael shot back. At that moment, the first rays of sunlight peeked from behind the clouds. Peter looked up and offered bluntly: "It's warm now."
A few moments later, Peter and Tina were watching their son go back and forth in the pool. "You see him, and he looks like a man," Tina told me. "But he acts like a kid sometimes." She wondered whether her son threw the race to send her a message. Tina waved Michael over. "Did you swim that way on purpose?" she demanded to know.
Michael looked incredulous. "I don't manipulate my races, Mom," he said and swam away.
"You can't push and push," Peter told his wife as they stood together on the pool deck. "This could mess him up. He'll bite back."
AT THEIR HOME two months later, Michaela prepares breakfast while Tina waters the geraniums on the front porch. It's a beautiful day. Peter opens the front door.
The conflict in Arizona is behind them, and now Tina is thinking about her intensity. "I have an anger issue," she says. "I have a short fuse. I expect excellence, and I rule the roost. I wish I could be more gentle."
Peter looks at his wife. "If we are truly wanting to use this as a mission, you really need to have people see you as loving," he tells her. "Not angry. We'll be judged much more harshly if we're professing to be Christians."
Tina insists nothing has been about money but admits it's become impossible to ignore. Michael has just two sponsors so far, and travel costs and food burn too easily through those checks. On top of that, Peter and Tina have made a decent living flipping houses in Kansas, but Peter is tired of the work. He wants to spend more time at the pool with Michael, figuring out the next step to Olympic dominance.
Tina remains prayerful. "If you are totally walking with God, you will never, ever want for anything," she says. "All we have to do is keep going and stay within the will of God. I don't want Michael to be stressed, thinking he needs a deal."
There's also the matter of their daughter, who was once a talented swimmer. On almost any team in the country, Michaela would have been one of the better swimmers her age. But when your brother is Michael Andrew ...
"I take responsibility for driving Michaela out of the sport," Tina says. "I broke her little heart." Tina pauses, then begins to cry. Peter stands there for a moment, unsure of what to do, then walks back inside. "For her to look up from her race and see I'm so upset," Tina continues, "I know that's why she stopped swimming."
Michaela pokes her head outside and sees her mother wiping away tears. "Breakfast is ready," she says.
We pray over plates piled with eggs and bacon, at the kitchen table overlooking the pool. "Thank you, Lord, for a good night's rest," Tina says. "Thank you for a roof over our heads, a bed to sleep in and your abundant provisions. Please fill us with the Holy Spirit. Clothe us with the armor of God. Help us make good choices today ..."
MICHAEL AND HIS sister grab fishing poles and plastic kayaks from a garage one afternoon and spirit me to the neighbor's pond that backs up to their property. They drop the kayaks next to the water, and with a few shoves, we glide out.
There's a setback at one end, and we decide to settle there. Michael swivels to face the watery expanse and casts his line. A few minutes later, he's reeling in his first crappie.
"Look!" he hollers excitedly and holds up the fish. "First one!"
His sister has a camera. She paddles over, puts the camera to her face. "Smile!" she says.
It's a different world out here.
No pressure. No stopwatch. No laps. No autographs, no message boards, no critics. No parents. It's idyllic, peaceful. A light breeze ripples the water; the sun slowly disappears on the horizon. Michael has a leg flipped out of the kayak as he casts his line. He looks at ease -- a typical teenager.
After a few minutes, there's a bite at the other end of the line. Michael whips his pole back and lets out a sharp laugh. He's hooked another fish. His sister cheers, reaches for the camera. Michael starts reeling. He's smiling. For now, in this moment on the water, everything is perfect.