The Boy in the Bubble

by Casey Barrett

Michael Andrew, child swim star… A “pro” at age 14… 

I always followed the kid by the numbers, the times. Those cartoon crazy swims he posted when he was 10, 11, 12, 13, and now 14 – they’ve always been eye-popping. I didn’t know anything else about him, but the numbers were enough. He was a swimmer on the rise. Perhaps the Next One. Maybe in our desperate, impatient search for the next Phelps, the kid was already upon us. Maybe Michael Andrew will go on to win nine gold medals at some far off Games and make Michael the official sacred name of swimming royalty. Maybe he will… but let’s hold up for a second: He hasn’t done anything yet.

By anything, I mean a World Record, I mean an Olympic berth, I mean a top world ranking. I mean the things that lead a young phenom to turn pro because he is so good, so young that he feels it’s impossible to resist the opportunities on the table. Phelps was a World Record holder and already a seasoned Olympian when he turned pro at 16. Missy Franklin collected five Olympic gold medals in high school, and she decided not to turn pro. Michael Andrew has set eleven National Age Group records in his short career, and yesterday his parents decided that this was promising enough for their son to turn pro.

Let me now say what the rest of the swimming community is apparently unable to utter publicly: This is a wildly premature and inappropriate decision. It’s deeply messed up. It reveals so many layers of American madness that one hardly knows where to begin. But before we do, let’s get one thing clear up front: Michael Andrew, the 14 year old boy, is in no way being judged or criticized for this decision. The kid is 14. He lives at home in Kansas. He goes to school at home. He goes to practice at home, in his backyard, two-lane swimming pool. His father is his coach. His mother, his teacher. He is a fantastically talented boy trapped in a bubble of his parents’ ambition. I used to be in awe of his age group times. Now that awe remains, along with a heavy dose of sympathy for the position this kid’s parents have put him in.

Let’s get to the layers of madness:

First, that this is even a decision at all. The fact that a brilliantly talented young athlete should even have to choose between an education and an endorsement is beyond absurd. Does anyone care if Michael Andrew, or anyone else, makes a few bucks from a random supplement company as he trains for greatness? Would that be so against the ideals of the holy NCAA? This is so marco mad that it hardly warrants further ranting. We shouldn’t even be having this discussion.

But since we are, let’s dig a little further into the company at the heart of all this. Michael Andrew is now a “pro” swimmer because he accepted an endorsement deal from a company called P2 Life, a “performance nutrition” company founded less than two years ago. Its founder and CEO is a guy named Tim Shead. He’s a Masters superstar, with 43 Masters world records to his name; his corporate bio also states that he’s a “past US National Head Coach”, but I can’t seem to find where or when this occurred. That corporate website also states that “40% of the U.S. Men’s Olympic Swimming Team were active users of P2 products.” If this is the case, I’d love to know who they are, and why they aren’t signed up for lucrative endorsement deals with Mr. Shead.

In the absence of those actual Olympians, P2 signed a 14-year-old age group record holder instead. Presumably because the upside was so great, and they were getting in on the ground floor… which in start-up language means cheap. Whatever they paid the Andrew family, one can be fairly certain it does not add up to the price of a four-year college scholarship. Though that’s clearly not a priority for young Michael. In his webcast interview with Garrett McCaffrey today, Andrew appeared to brush off the issue of higher education. He’s being home-schooled after all, so high school competition isn’t even a thought, and on the subject of college, he indicated that his mom was just finishing up some online courses, and that path sounded just fine to him right now. (Again, no judgement on young Andrew, he’s only doing what he’s being told, what he knows…)

How about another layer of American madness? If you’re great at something, all bets are off. Everything is permitted. When I first read this news this morning, I tried to find some relatable analogy in other sports. The comparison with Todd Marinovich, the boy in the bubble USC quarterback, is too easy and dated. It was twenty-five years ago, and sure the kid had some similarities – ie boundary-less fathers intent on building their sons into the perfect athletic specimens in their favorite sports. But at least Marinovch had the chance to go to college -and win the Rose Bowl – before he unraveled with too much freedom and blow and weed and punk rock.

A better analogy is what’s going on in surf and skating. Friends who follow these sports quickly pointed out that signing young groms and skate rats is standard practice these days. I was fed names like Kolohe Andino and Kanoa Igarashi and Jack Robinson and John John Florence — young rippers who were sponsored and successful in their early teens. Maybe Michael Andrew fits in that mold, I thought. Maybe swimming’s just far behind the cooler ‘action’ sports, where young studs aren’t bothered by silly things like NCAA eligibility. This would be nice. I wish I could believe it. But here’s the difference – there is visual value in watching young surfers and skaters do their thing. It’s exciting to see, and companies like Billabong and Quiksilver righty recognize the value in getting their gear on these kids. But is that true with young swimmers? I watched Michael Andrew’s latest NAG record on SwimSwam – a blistering 23.4 in the 50 free at some meet in Iowa – and it was impressive enough, but would I watch it again? Probably not. Would I rather watch a 14-year-old rip up a high blue wave? No question. And this is coming from a confirmed swim geek who doesn’t surf without getting pinned to the ocean bottom after two wobbling seconds atop the board.

I’d love to know P2’s business plan when it comes to their newest sponsor, young Andrew. I’d also love to know of any other companies lining up with potential deals in the works. Because if Michael Andrew is as insanely talented as it seems, here’s the best case scenario three years from now: He makes the 4×100 free relay in Rio. He places 4th or 5th or 6th in the 100 free at 2016 Trials in Omaha. That’s about as good as I can see for the kid who’ll be 17 by that time. It would be an incredible accomplishment. I’m fairly confident in stating that he’d be the youngest member of that prestigious relay in history. It would set him up for a huge Games four years later in 2020, in a city yet to be named. If he manages to do that, then that might be a fine time to roll the dice and turn pro. But to do it now? Three years before that big maybe? It defies reason.

Of course, this isn’t about reason, is it? It’s about parents smelling greatness in the bedroom across the hall. The kind of greatness that means a free ticket to travel the world. The kind of talent that forces you to believe the hype and sign on the dotted line…

Here’s hoping that it all works out for the amazing Michael Andrew. Here’s hoping that he hasn’t been sabotaged before he’s even begun.