By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
Andrew Gemmell had a big week. He went to Australia to swim the open water Pan Pacific Championships, and ended up in Hawaii when conditions forced the event to be moved. The University of Georgia alum won the gold at Pan Pacs, and he’s back training with his father – and Katie Ledecky – as he explained last night for this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. Got frequent flier miles?
Andrew: I am really happy to be home. I just got back to DC, landed probably two hours ago. Happy to be home with my family.
2. What a big change – obviously everyone went through it – but how did you adapt?
Andrew: I think things in sports doesn’t always go the way you expect it to go – there is something that is going to come up that you have to adjust to – this was just (laughs) an extreme example of that. I wanted to win Pan Pacs, and I won Pac Pacs. It took a little extra time, traveling, but I managed to get to that goal.
3. How did the race come together logistically with such a big move?
Andrew: You really just have to go with it. We were lucky to get most of the competitors to go from Pan Pacs to Hawaii. The race field was filled out with some junior swimmers, which worked out well. From there, you swim the best race you can. You take everything you are given, and you do your best.
4. So I am hoping you caught Georgia-Clemson, at least online?
Andrew: I caught the game, don’t worry about that! That was a lot of fun to watch. Being in school there, I know a lot of the guys throughout the athletic department. To see them come out and have a performance like that was fun to watch. I was rooming with Jordan Wilimovsky, and he could tell you how fired up I was – it got me ready for the race.
5. So you saw it pre-race?
Andrew: I did. And that was a good start to the weekend. It’s always good to see the team you care about – the people, the school – do well.
6. And you are a UGA alum now, correct?
Andrew: Yes, I graduated in the spring with my economics degree. It felt good to graduate. It’s always good to see hard work pay off. I put a lot of effort into my schooling. I am proud of my degree. I have some good ties with the economics department.
7. We were chatting online about grad school, are you still considering that?
Andrew: I took the LSATs this past February, and did pretty well. I was happy with how I did. I am looking at that as an option after 2016. My plan right now is to swim through Rio. I am still not sure what path to take for graduate school – it is law school as of now, but there are some other graduate options I will study and consider.
8. Sometimes the transition to pro is as taxing as it is freeing, but you seem pretty content with this – how’s that going?
Andrew: I am having as much fun as I have ever had in the sport. I surrounded myself with some good people. I swim with my Dad, and training with Katie is an amazing experience in so many ways. I have some goals I have set, and it is a blast to go after reaching them.
9. Katie told me she likes training with you – how’s she as a training partner?
Andrew: She’s incredible. I think that’s what this sport is all about – seeing what you are capable of, and you never know until you try it. To see her day in and day out push past what people think is possible – and how she has fun doing it – really brings a great attitude to the pool.
10. And you are swimming for your father, Bruce Gemmell, again – what’s that like?
Andrew: My Dad is about preaching to his athletes to do what it takes to be better. At Katie’s level, it’s about world records. Everyone has a goal. And we are working hard in a fun, great atmosphere.
11. You trained at Georgia and on national teams, including the 2012 Olympics, under great coaches – how has all that shaped your view of how amazing your father is as a coach now that you are older and more experienced?
Andrew: He’s always been a fantastic coach. I have seen more than anyone else what he puts into the sport, what he learns, what he does to get better, and what he is giving his swimmers to give them the best opportunity to succeed. As I have gotten older, he has given me more autonomy. As a 16-year-old, he was like, “Swim X, Y and Z” and I would do that. Now, I have more control over what I do. He respects that. There is more give and take now.
12. You make the Olympics in the pool and then win gold last weekend at Pan Pacs – where do you “belong” now in the water?
Andrew: Open water is where I have been the most successful. I think that’s where my true potential lies, on the international level. With the Trials for open water in 2011 – where I got third – it forced me to change gears and go to the pool, which worked out well. Now, where we are at with the Olympics two years away, I am really enjoying open water again.
13. What did making the Olympic team do for you?
Andrew: I think it was very validating. Obviously, you dream as a little kid growing up, of being an Olympian. To finally reach that is awesome. It gave me confidence to know that when I put my mind to something, I am capable of anything – and you never know that until you put your mind to it. I came up just short in 2011, and I didn’t want to feel that way again; that was the lesson from (open water) trials. To put in another year of work and make the team for London was rewarding.
14. So you came back and used that as motivation for what has recently transpired?
Andrew: I came back and had two years of school first. That allowed me to train with a great group, in a great program with tremendous people and resources, and get better. One of the great things about this sport is pushing yourself to the limits. That’s where you have to go to be at or near the pinnacle. You put yourself around great people and in a position to be successful, and then you give it all you can to appreciate those gifts and make the most of it.
15. Your most recent trip was with open water Olympian Alex Meyer – what’s it like to see him build such a good, long career in open water?
Andrew: Alex and I have been doing open water for a while now – we’re sort of (laughs) the old guys in the sport, along with Sean (Ryan). You know, I’ve been on the open water National team since 2009, and those years add up faster than you think. I was talking about it yesterday in Hawaii with Alex, and it is so important for us to set a good example in the sport and take it in the right direction.
16. You mentioned training with Katie – what’s it been like seeing her career arc?
Andrew: I spent some time with her when she made the London team when she was 15 years old – that Trials was sort of her break out. We both swam in the small distance group that Jon Urbanchek was running for us on the Olympic team. I knew back then she was going to be something special. You could tell right from the start. And then when my Dad took the job down here, I was able to spend some time training with her, and I am lucky to have someone like her to train with. She’s such a thinker – it’s not like her (laughs) going to Stanford is some kind of accident! Education is important to her and you see that throughout her family.
17. Will you still try to qualify again in the pool or focus exclusively on open water?
Andrew: I still enjoy the pool events. You can do both. Ous Mellouli is a good example, winning bronze in the mile in London, and then gold in the 10K. And I think if you look at the top of open water swimmers, most of those guys are or were sub-15-minute milers. You have to have that speed at the end, so there’s no reason for me not to do both.
18. You mentioned what the Olympics did for you, what does gold at Pan Pacs do for you moving forward?
Andrew: You know, I wasn’t really sure where I was at physically with such a long summer, with Nationals, after school and everything, and open water….there was some doubt in there. But I knew I had done the best I could to be ready for this. So I swam the best I could, and it turns out I was ready to do a good swim. I think it tells me something I knew already or at least suspected: I am good at dealing with whatever life gives me. I am good rolling with it, controlling myself – which ultimately, is the only thing you can control.
19. Do you still remember Rome, where it all started? Who was with you on that trip?
Andrew: Ironically, Rome was also delayed – three days I think – because a big storm blew through and destroyed a finish-line structure. I was not even in college yet. Fran Crippen was on that trip, and he was the only one of us – there were seven, four guys and three girls – who had ever made an International team, the rest of us I think we were all rookies. Fran did such a great job of leading the entire team. We took our cues from him – how to act, how to be a great representative for the country. That’s something I took away from that trip and will remember forever. Fran and I finished gold and silver, and I think that’s the only time that has happened for us (U.S. men) in open water World Championships.
20. So with Australia, London, China, Italy, all under your belt, the focus is on Rio?
Andrew: It is. I think I have been able to be pretty consistent over the last five or six years. A lot of it is due to hard work, but probably some of it is due to staying healthy. All I can do is keep trying my best, and getting better. I’ll take a week off right now, and then get back to the drawing board and see how I can get better. You know, this journey as a U.S. swimmer is special for a lot of reasons, but the big thing is the great people. Someone told me long ago – and I don’t remember who it was so I can’t give credit where it is due – is that the best part about swimming is the people. It’s literally what you miss the most when you are not swimming. As I have grown older, I realize that could not be more true. The people in this sport are the best people in the world. I count myself lucky to meet so many great people and have so many important, meaningful relationship in this sport. That, more than anything else, is what makes me a lucky guy.