By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
Andrew Gemmell had an incredible run-up to the Olympics, with NCAAs at Georgia, but also his attempt in 2011 to qualify for the open water Olympic team, which he narrowly missed. Originally trained as a 400 IMer under his father as a club swimmer, Gemmel remade himself yet again, winning the mile at trials and finishing ninth in London. The 2009 USA Swimming Open Water swimmer of the year still has a lot of miles left in his career. The future is bright for this honor student, as he runs us through the past years, and into the future, in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. Nothing wrong with finishing top 10 in the world at the Olympics in London, right?
Andrew: It would’ve been nicer to be top eight. That was a little bit of a bummer in London. Getting third for open water trials the year before was such a huge disappointment for me, but it was also a huge motivator. I felt really lucky to have a chance at the Olympic team a year later instead of having to wait four years like most people do. So coming into that swim (at Trials), I just wanted to be on the team, do whatever it took.
2. You were what, still a teenager and relatively new to open water then, weren’t you?
Andrew: I think I had been 20 for a couple of months. Open water is one of those disciplines where it is so unpredictable, and that is part of the challenge you have to embrace. In pool swimming, there are very few huge upsets or come-from-nowhere kinds of things. It’s more realistic to even expect that in open water. It was a huge learning process for me, going through that whole sequence of events. I thought I was capable of the open water team, and then going through that disappointment and processing it, then turning it into motivation led me to be more successful in the pool.
3. How has your improvement been so consistent through the last quad until now?
Andrew: It’s something that I have been lucky enough to not hit a plateau. It’s just about every year trying to work harder than the year before; every year trying to do something better in the pool, better eating or better dryland – just thinking things through and listening to my coaches to keep pushing myself to be better.
4. I had you pegged as a 400 IMer when you signed with Georgia – was that inaccurate?
Andrew: I probably was seen as a 400 IMer coming into college, then I moved to open water, and then returned back to the mile. It’s always about asking myself, “What can I do better? What can I improve upon?” And then work to execute that plan from those lessons.
5. You really enjoyed swimming for your father, didn’t you – and he helped you with that awesome IM base you brought with you, correct?
Andrew: My Dad would tell anyone who asked him in high school that I was (laughs) an 800 IMer – except that isn’t an event. So if they could get that in the Olympics anytime soon, that would (laughs) be nice! Seriously though, I look back and I loved swimming with my Dad. He and I were always on the same page, the same wave length, and that led to some success. I wouldn’t trade that time with him for anything.
6. Switching gears a bit: We’ve talked about you majoring in economics, have you been stunned by how much math is involved as you get deeper into it?
Andrew: I am in the process of finishing that up – I sort of put off the math, so now I am tackling all the math now, with Calculus III, so that I can get ready for grad school.
7. Why is school so important to you?
Andrew: I think it’s so important to me just because of the way I was raised, and that goes back to both of my parents. They always emphasized the value of education. I grew up reading a ton. I always enjoyed reading. I take pride in anything I do. I am a student-athlete here, and that starts with being a student first. I want the work in the classroom to be something I can be proud of. When something is important to you, you make time, and make the effort, to get it done, and do it well.
8. So back to the math – which is the key to understanding so many areas of the world, from finance to science – has that helped you as a critical thinker and problem solver?
Andrew: Yes, I am starting to get that point. I am also in a proofs class, so you can see that crossover into other disciplines. You start thinking in mathematical ways, and things make more sense. In the most basic term, look at supply and demand – that’s derivatives. For me, conceptually, that makes it easier than just throwing up graphs on the board and not knowing where the numbers come from. Knowing the math behind it makes all the concepts easier.
9. You are from Delaware – any celebration by you for Joe Flacco and the Ravens?
Andrew: I actually never got super attached to any football team. Most of the people in my area are Philadelphia sports fans. But yes, he played at the University of Delaware – I don’t think he’s from Delaware originally – but it’s nice to see the state get some recognition.
10. You picked Georgia over a lot of schools – how has that worked out?
Andrew: Making a decision on college is among the more important choices you make to that point in your life, and one of the harder decisions. You are looking ahead to the next four years, and so many things factor into it. I could not be happier with how things ended up here. I love the school, the people here, the team, training with (Coach) Harvey Humphries – I just couldn’t be more thrilled.
11. You seem to have a good group of friends, an interesting mix of people, don’t you?
Andrew: I’ve got a group of great friends down here that I like hanging out with. We don’t do anything special, just spend a lot of quality time together. I really enjoy my time away from the pool, though I love swimming and everything it has given me. And I still enjoy swimming. But yes, time with my friends is something very important to me.
12. You were critical of your swim in London, but a lot of people would say top 10 in the world is pretty amazing – is that just your drive to be better?
Andrew: No one is going to be harder on themselves than I am. And no one will be happier for me than I am when I accomplish something. I take a lot of pride in everything I do, but I also enjoy it. It’s so much fun doing what we do. That’s where the real excitement comes from me, pushing myself to see what I can do. I don’t try to put much thought into what anyone else says.
13. How has the city of Athens been in terms of a college experience?
Andrew: Athens is in the south, It’s this beautiful college town. Because of the college town, it’s more metropolitan, so it’s got its own unique vibe. I came down here my freshman year and my best friends were from South Africa, Virginia, and Georgia – and everyone brought a little bit of their own culture and history with them. Everyone is different. There was no adaptation issue at all for me, I love this.
14. How did you end up majoring in Economics?
Andrew: I’ve always enjoyed studying it. I took it back in high school and enjoyed it then. I thought I would enjoy it in college so I stuck with it. That’s more rare than I realized; a lot of people came into college with no idea what to do. I enjoy the way of thinking it requires. Also, in many ways, it’s a relatively new field of study in that it’s ever-evolving; half of the econ books had to be tossed out and rewritten after 2008 and 2009, so there is tremendous room for growth in the field. That’s exciting for me, to be able to take part in something that’s relatively flexible in its structure.
15. Your open water experience at 2009 World Championships – what did that do for you, winning a silver medal?
Andrew: That was 2009, and I was fifth in the 5k, and then it was the 10k in which I won silver. Being flexible is so key for open water. The finishing structure got destroyed in a big storm before the race. So we were supposed to have the 5k, then a day off, and then the 10k. But since the structure was destroyed, they had the 5k and 10k in back-to-back days. With me being relatively young – probably even considered exceptionally young at that point – that was probably right up my alley. I had a little easier time recovering than maybe the guys in their late 20s. That swim, I think I expected it from myself. I have always liked doing open water, and had a pretty good talent for it. I swam a perfect race, and did everything I wanted to do exactly right, which is pretty rare.
16. Do you remember who you finished second to?
Andrew: Thomas Lurz! I remember the last 500 meters being right on his feet, and with 200 meters to go I tried to go around him, there was (laughs) no way! So I went right back on his feet and he dragged me up to second place. I finished two seconds behind him, but it might as well have been 15 – he’s so good in that race.
17. You also had someone pretty special on the podium and on that trip with you, correct?
Andrew: Yes, Fran Crippen. It was so cool being with Fran – Fran got third in that race, and I am not sure, but it might be the first time we (the U.S.) had two people on the medal stand at the open water World Championships. Fran was, and is, such a huge part of open water culture in the US. That was my first open water trip. Fran had been doing it for a couple more years than me. He was such a tremendous help through the whole experience, from guiding me through it and helping me out, to how I should conduct myself and who the other competitors are. I learned so much from it, and respect him so much for what he did. You have to remember your teammates are also your competitors in open water, but he was just awesome. I could not have been luckier than to have Fran to guide me and shape my understanding of the sport. He’s such a leader.
18. I thought your swim in London to finish ninth was awesome – how did it go in your mind?
Andrew: Well, thank you, first of all. I try to learn from every swim I have. Some you learn more than others. The atmosphere is like nothing else I had ever experienced before. Everyone always tells you that going into the meet, in meetings during camp, but you just don’t – and can’t – realize it until you actually get there. I have been at Worlds, and been at Pan Pacs, but the Olympics are eight levels higher than that. So I just try to remember what it’s like to be on that stage, even the emotions and everything involved. It’s also a long meet as well. You have to be careful with how you approach that, and you have to think about it. I was, I think, in London for 16 days before I swam, and that was a new experience. By Day 8, I was really ready to go. Hey, our team swam phenomenally in London. Almost every single swim was lights out. I did my best, but I learned from it, so I can and will do better next time.
19. Speaking of lights out, as a distance person yourself, how impressed and surprised were you by Katie Ledecky?
Andrew: I wasn’t really surprised because she was so phenomenal during camp; it was like nothing I had ever seen anyone do in practice before. She was just so aggressive with everything she did in practice. When she took it out in 4:04 or whatever, we were like, “Well, that’s just how she swims.” It was so impressive. Let me tell you something to illustrate what level she was on and her training: I remember one day in France at camp, Jon Urbanchek was having us (do a) 500 to just stretch out, and I said, “Hey, put me at something else, I can’t go the same time as Katie, she’ll beat the heck (laughs) out of me and I’ll feel bad about it.” Pretty amazing swimmer and person. She just got up and went. And more than that, the way she’s handled everything with such grace and class really shows who she is as a person – which is just incredible. Even training around her is so motivating and so much fun.
20. The run from 2011 until NCAAs this year – it’s pretty incredible to run through the last 19 months or so of your life, isn’t it?
Andrew: You know, it’s crazy thinking of where I was at the start of 2012. I got a chance to sit down and talk to my Dad over Christmas. We were packing everything up, and took a break to sit down and talk. He said that he noticed I hadn’t had the chance to sit down and decompress from London. I came back early to get in school on time – my first day of classes at Georgia was the same day as the (closing) ceremonies in London, but there’s no way I would miss classes. But I never got a chance to stop and reset – it was go, go, go the whole year, from school to training and to Colorado Springs and Trials and then Tennessee, and so on. Then France and London, and back to school. But you know, I am so fortunate to even be in that position. I wouldn’t trade any of those experiences for anything in the world. Everything has its own meaning to me. There are so many things from that past year or so that I will take as memories into the rest of my life. All of us (on the Olympic team) signed a flag, and each of us got to keep one. My Mom got that framed me for me – the coolest Christmas present I have ever gotten. That’s what this past year or two, and all those incredible people mean to me. They are framed as memories, and I am so grateful to have those for the rest of my life.