In many ways, Andrew Gemmell has Katie Ledecky to thank for his return to competitive swimming.
Following the 2016 Olympic Trials – where he failed to repeat his feat of making the Olympic team like he did in
2012 – Gemmell took a long break from the sport.
During his absence, he contemplated calling it a career. He made plans to attend graduate school at Georgetown University and lined up a graduate assistantship with the Georgetown swim team in the fall to get on with the next phase of his life.
Then, five-time Olympic gold medalist Ledecky, home during the Christmas break and training at Nation’s Capital Swim Club – where his dad, Bruce, is the head coach – texted Gemmell to come do a couple workouts with her.
After that first workout, he was back.
“I knew going into 2016 that I had some things lined up I wanted to do after swimming, and I wanted to make sure I did them well,” said Gemmell, who is getting his master’s degree in Applied Economics with future plans in education and labor policy. “When Katie texted me, I realized how much I missed it (swimming). I had to get a little creative with my schedule, but I was able to work out a plan that I’m happy with.
“I would say 2016 was an up and down year for me. Winning Open Water Nationals was great – that was probably the deepest and most competitive field we’ve ever had for a race in the United States. But on the other hand, Swim Trials obviously didn’t go the way I wanted it to go.”
While 2016 may not have gone exactly how he hoped, the last four-plus years have been quite good for Gemmell.
In 2015, he won the silver medal in the 1500 free at the Pan American Games, and the year before that, he won the 10K at 2014 Open Water National Championships followed by gold in the same event at Pan Pacific Championships.
In 2013, Gemmell won the 5K at Open Water Nationals, earning him a spot at FINA Open Water World Championships later that summer.
Of course, this all came on the heels of his Olympic year in 2012, where he won the 1500 free at Olympic Trials but missed the Olympic event finals by one spot (9th) in London.
And despite making that Olympic team – fulfilling a lifelong dream – Gemmell said he now knows he let the enormity and spectacle of the meet cloud his judgment about what was most important and it may have impacted his swimming.
“I don’t want to say I took it for granted, but I don’t think I enjoyed it enough,” he said. “My dad had the opportunity to be a coach in Rio last summer, and that was the one piece of advice I gave him – enjoy it. It’s so easy to get caught up in everything. You’ve spent four years working toward your goals, and you’ve poured incredible amounts of energy into your work.
“Don’t get me wrong – you’re still there to compete and perform at the highest level. But I think it’s good to have a part of yourself that realizes just how cool it is to be a part of USA Swimming at the Olympics and takes that all in.”
Gemmell said he now believes he tried to do too much swimming both open water and pool events in the years between 2012 and 2016.
Not only was it physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting doing both, but he wonders if he spread himself too thin – ultimately impacting his swims this past summer at Olympic Trials, where he finished 21st in the 1500 free, a considerable drop from first place four years earlier.
With that behind him and a renewed excitement for competition, Gemmell said he is enjoying being back in the water, and he hopes to be able to defend his 10K title at this spring’s Open Water Nationals.
In the meantime, he’s taking things little by little, month by month and he continues to traverse new beginnings for the sport he’s loved since he was little.
“It’s (swimming) a different type of fun for me these days (than when he was younger),” he said. “My dad always emphasized the difference between ‘fun’ and ‘enjoy.’ Are the early wake up calls and tough practices always the most fun option? Probably not. But I still enjoy the challenge of trying to improve every day and the pursuit of seeing what I’m capable of.
“I really enjoying competing, and I especially enjoy the dynamic competition that open water provides. I enjoy being around all the good people that are involved with swimming. Before I got started back training, I wanted to make sure I was doing it for the right reasons. But I came to realize I did miss it, and I feel like I have the opportunity to still do it well.”
And what about a potential career in coaching now that he’s getting his feet wet at Georgetown?
While it’s something Gemmell said he’s enjoying so far, before he decided to get back into training and competing, he saw it as a great way for him to stay close to the water.
But as far as it being something long-term and potentially following in the footsteps of his father, the jury is still out on that for Gemmell.
“Coaching at Georgetown has been a lot of fun,” he said. “We've got a great staff and a great group of swimmers who are ready to swim fast at our conference meet. I've always loved being around the sport, and I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to work with them this year so I wanted to give it a shot.
“Right now, I’m looking forward most to Big East Championships coming up in two weeks. I’m excited to see all their hard work pay off here soon with some fast swimming.”