Preteen Kings

by Casey Barrett

Michael Andrew and the curious case of 12-year-old greatness…

I still turn to those back pages of rankings. Back in the day, I used to be obsessed with them. Seeing my name listed there in Swimming World, in that tiny 8-point font among the NAG Top 16, that was the highest honor a 12-year-old swimmer could hope for. I still have those issues, stacked somewhere in some moldy basement box.

These days I scan these same rankings with a mix of nostalgia and professional interest. Here at our team in New York, we have swimmers just as obsessed with making those same lists. And every one of them knows the name of one kid at the top of virtually every list in his age group. His name is Michael Andrew. If you follow age group swimming at all, or if you’re a parent of any swimmer under the age of eighteen, you’ve heard of him.

Of course, the dry land world has already made its easy comparisons to you-know-who. Last spring, ran a piece about the inevitable comparisons to that other Michael. Andrew dutifully recited the Phelps party-line, as if Bob Bowman were whispering to him from the wings. Said Andrew: “I would be more than happy to be as great as Michael Phelps, but I’d like to be the first Michael Andrew.”

Yeah, we’ve heard that before, back when young Phelps was referring to that guy named Spitz.

That’s all lovely and absurdly premature, but those of us who live inside the swimming world know that there are other comparisons to be made first. To guys that only swimmers remember. Guys by the name of Chas Morton and Danny Ott and plenty of others. Guys who were once like Michael Andrew — the greatest age groupers on earth.

None of them became Phelps. Or Lochte. Or Clary. Or, well, you get the idea… In fact, few National Age Group record-holders at twelve go on to make U.S. Olympic teams at all. That’s not to say that their precocious preteen success resulted in sad burnout. Most went on to perfectly respectable All-American careers at top colleges — in Morton’s case, at Stanford; in Ott’s case, Auburn. But their slowed acceleration through the ranks does give you pause, before you start handicapping Games many years from now.

In Michael Andrew’s case, it’s very easy to get carried away with such things. As a 12-year-old, Michael Andrew broke seven National Age Group records, and finished his last preteen year ranked first in the nation in a staggering 13 events. He was the top ranked swimmer in all four strokes; the only stroke where he didn’t break a NAG record was backstroke. Those records are now held by someone whose acceleration has not slowed a bit as he’s charged through high school. His name is Ryan Murphy. Backstroke can fairly be called Michael Andrew’s worst stroke; he’s not far off the times posted by Murphy when he was 12.

While Andrew is clearly the ultimate all-around age group swimmer, his future might lay in the sprints. His 50 and 100 free at age 12 are hard to fathom: 21.85 in the 50 / 47.95 in the 100. The next best kid in those events was a full second back in the 50, and almost three seconds behind in the 100. According to that SI story, Andrew was also 6-foot-2 with size 15 feet by the time he turned 13. His hands, to borrow a Phelps phrase, are the size of dinner plates. Not bad specs for a budding sprinter. Even if he stops growing tomorrow, size shouldn’t slow him down.

This wasn’t the case for guys like Chas Morton and Danny Ott. Both were big, early-developing kids – and both seemed to reach their full height by high school. At 12, they too were ranked first in damn near every event. They were men among boys in the most literal sense. That’s the problem with putting too much stock in early age group success. If you’re lucky enough to reach puberty a few strides ahead of your peers, it’s almost unfair to race alongside the ones still on the soprano side of the choir.

Sooner or later, the rate of development ceases to matter and the true talents come out in the wash. The rest of the boys in Michael Andrew’s generation have a hell of a lot of catching up to do, and he might be the second coming of Phelps (or the first coming of Andrew) by the time we reach Rio. But to all those guys swimming in Andrew’s considerable wake right now, you can take heart in two notable facts:

1. Even Michael Andrew was not able to break two of Chas Morton’s legendary national age group records, in the 100 fly and 200 IM, set way back in 1984. Morton’s career peaked as a Pac-10 champion at Stanford; nothing to scoff at, but he never sniffed at making an Olympic team.

2. The guy who holds the world record today in the 200 IM? That would be Ryan Lochte. He never set a single national age group record growing up.