The 1500 will be among the many exciting races with loaded fields at Olympic Trials in Omaha. Want experience? Connor Jaeger. Rising star? Jordan Wilimovsky. And don’t forget a slew of others, led by 2012 Olympian Andrew Gemmell, and a host of other distance pool swimmers and open water standouts. Gemmell, as an Olympian four years ago, returned to Open Water Nationals two weeks ago, and won the 10K in one of the best fields the race here has ever had. After one of two tracking devices fell off his body, he was at first DQd, before being awarded the first place he earned. He explains the busy week, and how it fit into his training, in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. What a trip — was the goal a title or bust?
Andrew: The whole reason for me to go down was to get the experience and race and have fun competing. We had a super talented field there. I don’t think I am out of bounds by saying it was the most competitive open water race we’ve had in the U.S. by quite a bit. I think it was Chip (Peterson) who told me we had 6 of the top 11 from this past year’s 10K, plus a couple of others who had medaled or won at Worlds.
2. So despite not knowing whether your win would stand, you felt good after the race, and did you find out you won before you returned to the OTC?
Andrew: I did. It was such a great opportunity. My goal was to race, to compete. I was able to do that. It just ended up I had (laughs) a couple of interesting stories that came away from it. I knew that USA Swimming wanted to make it an international field because it’s part of their plan to develop the sport here. So (USA Swimming Open Water Program Director) Bryce (Elser), the staff, and all the incredible volunteers and officials put a lot of effort and time to smartly develop the field. They know as well as anyone what it takes to get us to the next level in open water, and they put a lot of time into making this is a special field and meet. And yes, I was still there, thankfully, when they announced the appeal was successful. I thought about leaving that night, but with drug testing and everything, I decided to wait. I was informed Friday night that I was declared the champion, so that worked out well.
3. Open water is just such a cool community — really positive, healthy competition — is that how it looks from the inside as well?
Andrew: It’s always fun. And each race and each national championship comes with its own stories and adventures along the way. It was nice to come back and race, and race well. The U.S. had already selected its team for open water (Jordan Wilimovsky and Sean Ryan, who will also race the 1500 at Trials), so this wasn’t for that. Last year, I was disappointed to miss making the team in open water. So it was nice to come back and really race well and compete well. From that standpoint, I was excited to see the work that we’ve been putting in paying off.
4. What a bold move to interrupt your training to do that, but on the other hand, what a cool way to break up the training, work on the aerobic base in one fell swoop, right?
Andrew: You know, I did want to switch gears and focus on the pool because we have that selection coming up, in less than 10 weeks, so I did want to focus on that this year, but I also wanted to throw my hat in there (for open water) and see what I could do. After last year, with having to focus on the pool, I didn’t know if open water would be in my life or fit in with my training. I didn’t feel great before the race, but I wanted to go down and do it.
5. And knowing it was such a great field, wasn’t it cool to be part of that and see the incredible growth and rise in stature of the sport in the U.S.?
Andrew: I think that’s part of why I wanted to do it. I knew we would have a great crowd there, a super competitive race — that’s what I have always enjoyed. Sort of why I wanted to get down there, because opportunities like that don’t come along very often.
6. Your Dad, who coaches you and Katie Ledecky, among others, at Nations Capital Swim Club (NCAP) — must have been ecstatic for you?
Andrew: We had actually been at camp at the Olympic Training Center (training camp at altitude, in Colorado Springs). So I flew down, and we had another coach who met me there, and raced Friday morning and then headed back to the training center the next day — it was really a quick trip. But I know he was happy for me. He’s really done a great job coaching the club team.
7. It just seemed like such a low key deal — training the previous day, hop on a plane, fly down, win and come back — was it like that?
Andrew: I just (laughs) wanted a chance to race but it was important I not distract my NCAP teammates or interfere with what everyone was doing. I talked to Dad. I had looked into flying down a little earlier the week of it, but I didn’t want to spend the extra money to change the ticket. And so that ended up working out fine.
8. You and your Dad are so different, but I know from dinner talking to you there have been moments where you and your Dad are so similar it’s unbelievable — is that something you hear at all?
Andrew: There have been times where I have been sitting with my mom in the living room in Delaware, sitting there talking to her, and she’ll say from my mannerisms and sarcasm, that it’s almost like it’s my father sitting there who she is talking to. He’ll say he has (laughs) a better sense of humor, but it’s been pretty fun to be around him again as the situation unfolded and this opportunity at NCAP came about for him — just such a wonderful thing for him at this point in his career.
9. A career that never was going to be — or so it seemed. Swimming for Urbie at UM, getting an engineering degree — who could have predicted this?
Andrew: It’s been incredible to see the success he has had. I know him better than anyone else so I knew how much work he put into it. He started off as engineer, sort of found and earned his way back into the coaching world. So we sort of grew in the sport together, and for us to have a level of success, it’s great. He definitely has earned it by how hard and smart he has worked.
10. You train with Katie Ledecky and your Dad coaches her — how do you articulate her talent level and what she’s doing?
Andrew: I don’t think anyone could have predicted how successful she has been — she is a once-in-a-generation talent. There are so many hurdles you have to overcome, so many things you have to sacrifice and make happen, have the right people supporting you, the right kind of family, make the right decisions time after time — people don’t get to see that. So being around her on a day-to-day basis, seeing all that she puts into it and more than that the kind of person she is, it’s just so impressive. And people are seeing how much fun she is having — new ways to have fun in the sport. And she’s a fun person to be around; I feel fortunate she lets me be a part of her training.
11. I talk to her and it always comes back to making the world a better place, her latest work with at-risk groups or charitable work that is so close to her heart — almost never about swimming, but what she can do to be a better PERSON — is that an accurate read?
Andrew: I think you hit the nail on the head. She brings her passion to whatever she is doing. So in the pool, it’s to train with people who enjoy the sport like she does. That’s just a very simple and pure aspect to it; that she enjoys this every single day. It’s a lot of fun to be around people who have that contagious, positive energy.
12. So part of her attitude toward life spills over into the pool, so to speak?
Andrew: I think with the other interests she has shared with you, that shows she’s a very well balanced person and that’s a big part of her success. It can become real easy to get so wrapped up in it — and I don’t want to come across as speaking for her here, this is just my impression — that the balance helps her keep her perspective, which leads to her enjoyment in the sport only increasing. It’s not overbearing on her — the way success can be for a lot of people. Because of the decisions she has made, and the people she has around her, it’s about having fun and working toward goals, which she really enjoys.
13. I worked out at the OTC the last 10 years I lived in Colorado Springs and moving to Texas, at least initially, the altitude change was so significant — do you take that away from your training trips there and did you feel it in Florida going there to race from the OTC?
Andrew: You can definitely tell the difference in the air. You can breathe a little bit better. Dad is a big fan of the altitude, but more than that, I think we’re all a big fan of how well we are treated here, with the amenities of the pool, the dryland, the gym, the cafeteria, the dorm, and having all these tremendous resources in one concentrated area. It allows you to focus like a laser on your training. So the altitude and all those plusses in one package is great. When you come down (from the altitude), you can feel it a little bit. But I think the focused training and all the resources we are so fortunate to have use of is the bigger part of it.
14. So then you turn around from Open Water Nationals and go to the Arena Pro Swim Series at Mesa, how was that?
Andrew: It was definitely a quick turnaround from Open Water to Mesa — there were a couple of us who did both. You have to turn around and focus and get back to what you are working on. We’re getting down to that last part before trials, kind of crunch time, so you want to keep working on making all aspects better.
15. But also a great preparatory challenge for Trials, the quick trip to open water, different climate and atmosphere, back to Colorado Springs, and then down to Mesa, and now back to NCAP – adjusting your body to logistical stresses, right?
Andrew: I think, hopefully (laughs), everything we do is geared toward being beneficial for Trials. Everything is tailored to that. My whole career has been learning how to deal with different obstacles and opportunities that come up during the Quad, week to week, and year to year, at any given week. So those ups and downs are something important I have learned to handle in my career.
16. I think we’ve been talking since 2009, and throughout your time at Georgia — how can it have been that long, and how much did me talking about grad school bug you?
Andrew: I thought that (laughs) was good. Hard to believe it’s been two years since I graduated from Georgia — 2015 — and I have been accepted into Georgetown for this fall for graduate school. I will pursue a masters in Applied Economics at Georgetown starting this fall. I am so excited to get started.
17. Wow! Georgetown is great. That is amazing. I know we talked the Calculus sequence and real analysis, plus calculus based probability for graduate economics — you must be thrilled going to a caliber of school like Georgetown?
Andrew: As you remember, I always knew I wanted to pursue education after my undergraduate degree. I enjoyed studying economics as an undergrad. So this is a natural path for me to take. Georgetown’s program is incredible — tenured professors teach your first fall semester of classes — micro, macro, econometrics, and data analysis — and then in the spring and summer terms they bring in leaders from industry for courses like health and environmental economics. These are people from the economics industry in the Washington D.C. area — which means they are leaders in the field worldwide. So we’ll have people at the forefront of industry teaching these kind of classes, and having the base be in DC, they have access to some of the great minds of the world. The other good news (laughs) is I can keep all my “G” gear from Georgia, and just tell anyone who asks now it’s for Georgetown, because I love my Georgia gear!
18. We talked earlier about the quick turnaround from Open Water Nationals to Mesa, what did you take from the latter in terms of swimming?
Andrew: If Open Water Nationals was a big positive, I (laughs) came away from Mesa thinking there are still a whole lot of things we can work on. I was a little rusty at Mesa, and maybe part of that was travel, or maybe not. But Mesa was a continuation of the same evaluation in the process of working toward Trials, as was Training Camp at the OTC, as was Open Water Nationals. This whole thing has been one big block of evaluation of where I am, and while there are a lot of positives, there are a lot of things I still need to work on.
19. So the intense block was good for your mindset?
Andrew: I think it is. You need to get up and race. You need that to shake off the cobwebs from training. The 10K was a good opportunity for that. Mesa was a good opportunity for that. You get to race against our country’s best and the world’s best, so it’s a different but important aspect of your training. You can’t go straight through training that long, you need those good, well thought out kind of opportunities to race and see where you are, what you are doing well and still need to work on, plus just the change in scenery for your mental outlook.
20. What has being an Olympian in 2012 through today taught you about yourself?
Andrew: That I can learn from everything I do, and that is very important. The adversity teaches you more than the medals if you process it right and use it to make yourself a better swimmer, and person. I am fortunate enough to have surrounded myself with great people from club through high school, and then college at the University of Georgia, and now at NCAP. You also need to know that you will need all kinds of help, so when you have tremendous resources offered to you, you definitely utilize those on your journey. I have also been blessed with great teammates, good people who I like to be around. I think since graduating college, the big thing for me has been learning to enjoy the journey more. I also realized just how much I love the sport of swimming, and how much fun it is, and the feeling I get, from giving it my all.