Emory grad Andrew Wilson’s spot on U.S. Olympic team is ‘mind-blowing’

It was the late summer of 2012. Andrew Wilson was a newly arrived freshman swimmer at Emory. While he had been a standout at his Massachusetts boarding school, his times didn’t really merit a place on Emory’s Division III powerhouse team. But persuaded by feedback from coaches who knew Wilson and by the young man’s own desire to improve, Eagles coach Jon Howell allowed him to join.

And then it was time for Wilson to take to the pool for his first preseason practice.

“I remember the first captain’s practice,” Wilson said this week. “It was not a good showing.”

Wilson was caused to recall that inauspicious moment this week, as that workout was a most unsteady step in a journey that has reached a truly remarkable pinnacle – a spot on the U.S. Olympic swimming team.

“It’s mind-blowing,” said Bruce Wilson, Andrew’s father.

Wilson will swim the 100- and 200-meter breaststrokes at the Tokyo Olympics, having finished second in both events at the U.S. Olympic Trials last week in Omaha, Neb. He is believed to be the first athlete from a Division III school to make a U.S. Olympic swim team. And while swimming giants such as Stanford, Georgia and Florida figure to always take the lead in preparing future U.S. Olympians, the 27-year-old Wilson proudly waves the banner for Emory and Division III, the lower-stakes, non-scholarship realm of college athletics.

“I know that there’s no way that I’d be here right now if it weren’t for that experience,” Wilson told the AJC.

Practice by practice at Emory, Wilson transformed himself from a swimmer who didn’t make the travel team in his first semester to an All-American by the end of his freshman season, a Division III national champion in three individual events by his junior season in 2015 and then a U.S. national champion in the 100 breaststroke that summer.

“The coaching staff was awesome and really helped to take me from where I was coming out of high school to developing me into a more complete swimmer,” Wilson said. “It just happened to be kind of like exactly the right thing at exactly the right time.”

Growing up in Bethesda, Md., the child of two attorneys and brother to two sisters, Wilson swam in-season at prestigious Andover and for his family’s country club in the summer, hardly the training diet for aspiring Olympians. When he visited Emory during his junior year, Howell liked Wilson, but also informed him that he would need to improve his times to have a spot on the team. By his senior year, Wilson still hadn’t made the standards. But Howell had run into coaches who knew Wilson who spoke on his behalf, vouching for his character and potential. With that and the young swimmer’s own recruiting efforts, Wilson got his roster spot.

“One of the things that we really look for in our program is students who are really committed to getting better and curious about exploring what’s possible in the sport, and Andrew definitely fit that profile,” Howell said.

If not for the endorsements, Howell acknowledged, he might not have been so generous.

“Obviously, it turned out to be a good decision,” he said.

‘Try to get a little bit better’

Wilson is full of gratitude for coaches and teammates at Emory and opponents at the Division III level.

“I don’t really think of myself as any different than any other athlete that there was at Emory when I was there,” he said. “I was just going to practice and trying to be as good as I could be. That’s kind of been the way that I’ve approached the sport the whole time – go to practice and try to get a little bit better, and if I’m getting a little bit better every day, then that’s going to add up.”

Howell saw a raw swimmer taking advantage of the opportunities in front of him – consistent training (Wilson also played water polo at Andover), weight-room work, technical instruction and a competitive, team-oriented atmosphere.

At 6-foot, Wilson’s physical tools aren’t extraordinary, although he has a long torso, which is beneficial in swimming.

“More than anything, he works really hard, and he’s really consistent in the effort he puts in,” Howell said.

Wilson recognizes he didn’t have the times or the experience to have succeeded for a Division I team such as Georgia. In a 2017 interview with the AJC, he harbored no regrets about not starting intense training earlier, as many swimmers have a hard time maintaining the grind over the years. This was his right path.

“I’m proud of what I accomplished, for D-III, especially,” Wilson said. “And I’m definitely grateful for everyone who made it possible.”

A mind for swimming

Wilson double-majored in applied mathematics and physics, graduating with highest honors. His mathematics thesis advisor, then-Emory professor Ken Ono, called him one of the two or three best students that he advised in his 10 years at the school.

“He would sit in the front row, he’d get perfect scores on all the math exams, and he wanted more,” said Ono, now at Virginia.

As might befit a mathematician, Wilson is not one to rely solely on feel in the water, but has dove deeply (figuratively speaking) into the sport’s technical elements. Ono developed a mathematical modeling system with Wilson and Howell that identified flaws in his breaststroke form after diving into the pool and coming off turns. Ono said that 15 members of the U.S. team have taken part.

“And it all started with Andrew,” Ono said.

Wilson also has worked closely with Russell Mark, USA Swimming’s national-team high-performance manager, to hone his stroke and his race strategy.

“He just tries to use every resource possible, leave no stone unturned,” Mark said. “He’s taking advantage of a lot of resources.”

Taking his shot at the Olympics

After winning the U.S. national title in 2015 – “that’s when it became really real,” Howell said – Wilson narrowed his sights on the Olympics. He left Emory for a year to train at Texas with legendary coach Eddie Reese. His bid to make the U.S. Olympic team in 2016 fell short, short-circuited by the extraordinary stress of the trials.

After graduating from Emory in 2017, he returned to Texas, planning to train and also pursue his Ph.D. in computational mathematics. But, seeking a better fit, he decided to put school on hold and moved his training to Athens, where he has worked out since 2018 with UGA coaching great Jack Bauerle and his group of professional swimmers.

In Omaha, it was just enough. In two tense finals, where only the top two in each event earned Olympic spots, Wilson secured second in both races by a combined .24 seconds.

Wilson described himself as happy after his clinching swims, but also relieved, redeemed and feeling a weight off his back.

“It is very stressful,” Wilson said of the trials meet. “Even when it goes well, it’s still not necessarily the most fun meet ever because there’s so much on the line. It’s an experience, for sure.”

Medaling in either event will be a tall order, though he also might swim in the medley relay. Six swimmers expected to be in Tokyo have gone faster this year in the 100 breaststroke than Wilson, and nine in the 200.

“Anytime that you have the opportunity to put on a (swim) cap with the American flag on, it is pretty crazy,” he said. “It’s not something that many people get to experience.”

The Olympics will be the end of the line. This week, as he prepared to leave for Hawaii on Sunday to go to training camp with the U.S. team, he also was packing up his Athens apartment for good. (His lease will run out during the Olympics.)

In October, he’ll enroll at Oxford to begin a master’s program in mathematical modeling and scientific computing (he also was accepted to MIT). Wilson’s ambition is to apply his knowledge with a Formula 1 race team. One chapter reaches its glorious, remarkable end with another about to open.

“Obviously, sitting here and looking back, it’s hard to believe that nine years ago, I was worried about embarrassing myself the first day of practice, which I definitely did,” Wilson said. “But I think I’ve honestly just kind of gotten lost in the process of it. I’m sure that when I’m done, after the summer and next year, that’s when I’m going to look back and reflect a little bit more and kind of be like, Man, I can’t believe that happened.”