The greatest age grouper in history ages up to the big leagues... For most teenagers, turning fifteen is a bit of a shrug. It's a birthday before the big one, the one that comes with driving privileges and all that open road freedom of the imagination. But for swimmers, aging up to fifteen is a passage into adulthood. From that point forward, you're no longer an age grouper, cozily collected into comfortable age brackets at most meets. At every meet from here on out, now you have to race with the big boys, age be damned.
Last Friday, April 18th, Michael Andrew celebrated his 15th birthday. However, thanks to a clause in the swimming rule book that stipulates that your age when a swim meet starts is the age you will be, for record-keeping purposes, throughout the competition, Andrew had one last shot to shatter a few more National Age Group records. He did. Of course, he did; for the last few months it feels like the kid has crushed another NAG record every time he touches water. His last one may have been the most jaw-dropping of all: 46.95 in the 100 fly. Sweet Jesus.
Obviously, Andrew will set many more NAG records in the years ahead, in the 15/16 and 17/18 "age groups". (Hell, his 46.9 in the 100 fly is already faster than the 15/16 record in that event...) However, those are really age groups on paper, not in practice. In competition, you turn 15 and it means you compete against all ages, or in the case of Junior Nationals, every other fast 18 & under out there.
So, at the dawn of this rather significant swimmer's birthday for Mr. Andrew, it seemed a fitting time to take a look at the mass destruction he spread across damn near every event. As a 14-year-old, Michael Andrew now holds every National Age Group record, with the exception of the 200 breaststroke and the three distance freestyles. He's the fastest age grouper of all-time in ten of the fourteen events. Take a look at this mind-boggling roll call:
50 Free - 19.76; 100 Free - 43.90; 200 Free - 1:38.31; 100 Back - 47.83; 200 Back - 1:43.15; 100 Breast - 53.88; 100 Fly - 46.95; 200 Fly - 1:46.29; 200 IM - 1:45.29; 400 IM - 3:52.08.
Most of those records annihilated the previous marks. No 14-year-old swimmer had ever broken 56 in 100 breast before; Andrew went 53. No 14-year-old had ever broken 1:48 in the 200 IM; Andrew goes 1:45 low. Olympian Ricky Berens held the 200 fly NAG record for over a decade. His time was 1:48.24. Andrew dusted that one by almost two full seconds.
These times for a 14-year-old are almost impossible to fathom. Michael Phelps never came close to yards times like this at that age, and Phelps was breaking world records and swimming in Olympic finals soon after he turned 15. They're so hard to fathom, in fact, that his success has prompted some nasty defamation. I've heard the unfortunate chorus on more than a few occasions: He must be doping. Or, more precisely, given his age: Someone must be doping him.
Now, just to be totally clear: I am not making any accusations of the sort. Nor am I spreading any rumors. These aren't rumors or whispers, these are the cynical knee-jerk responses of those who can't get their heads around things so far beyond our sense of the possible. That's what happens when you reset the record books. Not everyone is going to believe you. That's sport these days.
Ten months ago Michael Andrew turned pro by signing an endorsement deal with a "performance nutrition" company called P2 Life, and thus tossed aside any future prospects of swimming in college. Last June I posted a story entitled The Boy in the Bubble. I was critical of this decision; I called it "wildly inappropriate and premature." Despite Andrew's stunning success in the year since, I still feel that way.
But to quote a dead man much smarter than I: "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro."
Take a look at Michael Andrew's best times as a 14-year-old. It doesn't get much weirder than that.
Shattering age group records is plenty impressive, and no one in history has ever been a better age group swimmer than Michael Andrew. But 'turning pro', by definition, means joining the big leagues. It means being among the best on earth. Not being the best on earth, for your age.
While the media out in Mesa breathlessly chase the exhaust of yesterday's Michael, maybe it's time to look in the other direction. The one named Andrew just turned 15. Which happens to be the same age Phelps set his first world record. At age 14, Michael Andrew was in another universe, light years faster than any other kid his age, ever. But age group swimming is really just a warm-up. Now NAG records no longer impress.
To keep pace with the greatest of the great, it's time to start wondering if world records are on the horizon.