Emory’s Andrew Wilson makes most unlikely climb to swimming’s top

Soon-to-be Emory graduate Andrew Wilson won the 100-meter breaststroke Sundy at the Arena Swim Pro Series meet at Georgia Tech’s McCauley Aquatic Center. (AJC photo by Ken Sugiura)
Soon-to-be Emory graduate Andrew Wilson won the 100-meter breaststroke Sundy at the Arena Swim Pro Series meet at Georgia Tech’s McCauley Aquatic Center. (AJC photo by Ken Sugiura)

Sunday afternoon, Andrew Wilson celebrated his impending graduation from Emory at a ceremony of honors graduates. He left the gathering directly for Georgia Tech’s McAuley Aquatic Center, outracing some of the world’s best in the 100-meter breaststroke at the Arena Pro Swim Series meet that concluded Sunday. He graduates from Emory Monday morning.

“It was good, it was nice,” Wilson said of the ceremony. “But I’ve sort of been all over the place this weekend. Some moments, it’s felt like I’m here for a meet, some moments, it felt like I’m here for graduation. I’ve just been trying to balance as best I can.”

In the considerable history of international-level swimmers that the state of Georgia can claim, Wilson’s ranks as perhaps the most unlikely. As a high-school swimmer from Maryland, Wilson had to talk Emory coach Jon Howell into taking him onto his Division III team. He went from there to nearly making the U.S. Olympic team last summer, and now has the 2020 Olympics in sight.

“I didn’t really think about it too much, but towards the end of this year, especially the last night of (the Division III NCAA Championship meet), it’s pretty crazy looking back on it, just what’s happened in my life and how much it’s changed in the past five years,” Wilson said. “But I’ve loved it.”

Monday, he was to receive his diploma from Emory with degrees in applied math and physics and a GPA of 3.85. He graduated summa cum laude and turned in a thesis titled “Primality Testing and Integer Factorization Using Elliptic Curves.” It included new tests that determine whether particular large numbers are prime.

This summer, he’ll pursue a national championship in the 100 and 200 breaststrokes and a spot in the world championships in Budapest, Hungary. After that, he’ll enroll at Texas as a Ph.D. candidate in computational mathematics while training with the Texas Aquatics swim club.

While swimmers and other athletes often train for the Olympics as undergraduates, doing so while studying as a Ph. D. is a little more unusual. Increasing numbers of American world-class swimmers draw enough of an income that that is what they do full-time. Wilson admitted he’s not sure what awaits as far as time demands.

“But the department there knows that I’m swimming professionally full-time and so they’ve been willing to work with me,” he said.

It is, as Wilson said, a crazy evolution. Wilson attended a boarding school in Massachusetts and swam during the high-school season and then back home in a summer league at his family’s country club. He was accepted to Emory and was planning to attend there, swimming or not. He said he was “very, very close” to not being invited to join the team.

But Howell, Emory’s coach, knew the club coach of Wilson’s sister, who had never actually coached Wilson but had seen him swim. He encouraged Howell to take him on. He was still a long way from chlorinated glory.

Four years ago, as an Emory freshman, Wilson was a non-descript Division III swimmer, and he has the times to prove it. In February 2013, in the very same pool where he won Sunday, Wilson swam for Emory in a dual meet against Tech. In the 100-yard breaststroke, he finished in seventh place, behind all four Tech swimmers and two Emory teammates, in 59.57 seconds. That time would have been good for 12th place at the GHSA large-school classification state meet this past February.

Sunday, back at Tech, he outraced a field of Olympians and college All-Americans to the wall.

How did it happen? Year by year, he chipped seconds off his time. He finished fourth in the 100 breaststroke at the Division III NCAA meet as a freshman and then second as a sophomore, winning both the 200 and 400 individual medley. As a junior, in 2015, he broke the Division III record for the 100 and 200 breaststrokes and the 200 IM. After winning the USA Swimming national championship that summer, he made the decision to leave Emory for a year to train in Austin, Texas, to prepare for the U.S. Olympic Trials.

At the trials last summer, needing to finish second to make the Olympic team, he was fifth in the 100 breaststroke and fourth in the 200. According to a Washington Post story written before the trials, it was believed he would have been the first Division III swimmer ever to make the U.S. Olympic team. Olympic silver medalist Chase Kalisz, a four-time winner at this weekend’s meet, called Wilson’s ascent “incredible.” Wilson was less astounded.

“I don’t think that I did anything differently than most people are doing,” Wilson said. “I think I worked hard, I listened to my coaches. I think I do what I can to get better, but in the end, I think I got lucky.”

By that, Wilson meant having training partners who have pushed him and coaches “who have gone above and beyond for me,” he said.

Wilson’s times on Sunday – 1:00.45 in the morning prelims was faster than his post-ceremony time of 1:01.07 in the finals – were nothing special at an international level. The prelim time tied for 32nd fastest in the world for 2017 this year. However, Wilson is in the throes of heavy-duty training for nationals, which begin June 27 in Indianapolis. His 100 breaststroke personal best is 59.51.Perhaps more germane, his 1:00.45 was the third fastest among Americans for 2017, just .15 of a second off the top time. He will be fully rested by late June, eager to make the U.S. team and perform well at the world meet in Budapest, Hungary in July.

Wilson has no regrets about not committing to swimming earlier, as he can’t say with certainty that any other decision would have gotten him to this point. And he leaves Emory with two careers lifting off.

“I know a lot of people who go so hard through high school,” he said. “Sometimes, it’s just a little tough for them to keep going. But I’m so fresh. I mean, I’m five years into intense training at this point, which is like, nothing in the swimming world. So I still have a lot of enthusiasm and energy for it.”

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