Five-ring Circus

Olympics Jerk Watch: The “Unconventional” Swimmer Who Won’t Get the Vaccine and Won’t Wear a Mask

Andrew in goggles and swim cap from the chest up, grimacing
Michael Andrew at Tokyo Aquatics Centre on Saturday, in Tokyo. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images.

Name: Michael Andrew

Home country: USA

Known for: Refusing the vaccine before the Olympics, refusing to mask at the Olympics, not medaling at the Olympics (Update, Aug. 2, 2021: A day after this article was published, Andrew won gold as a member of the USA’s men’s 4x100-meter medley relay team.)

Why he might be a jerk: Of the 613 American Olympians who went to Tokyo this year, approximately 100 were unvaccinated at the start of the Games, according to NBC News. The most prominent of those holdouts is swimmer Michael Andrew, a 22-year-old from Kansas who came into Tokyo heavily touted in the 200-meter individual medley and the 100-meter breaststroke, and will leave Tokyo having failed to medal in either. (Andrew finished fifth in the 200 IM, and fourth in the breaststroke.) The Venn diagram of “prominent vaccine holdouts” and “big jerks,” at this point in the pandemic, largely consists of two overlapping circles, if you ask me. But let’s refrain from judging Michael Andrew for now—don’t worry, we can all judge him together at the end of this column!—while we dig a little deeper into his decision.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Speaking to the media in early July, Andrew said that he wouldn’t be taking the vaccine because he “didn’t want to put anything in my body that I didn’t know how I would potentially react to,” and that he didn’t want to risk having to miss any training days due to any possible vaccination side effects. While not the most compelling reason for not getting the shot, it was at least a reason; when paired with the fact that Andrew had contracted COVID-19 in late December and thus might expect himself to have some natural immunity, you could almost mistake it for a rational albeit misguided choice made by someone who might not actually be a jerk.

Advertisement

Further developments suggested otherwise. In a mid-July interview with Fox Business Network host Stuart Varney, Andrew announced that “I’ve not taken the vaccine, and I won’t,” that “as an American, I’m representing my country in multiple ways and the freedoms we have to make a decision like that,” and that while he hadn’t expected “the hype and the excitement around the Michael Andrew name” to “revolve around vaccines,” it was nevertheless “something I’m willing to stand for.” You know who goes on Fox Business to boast about their freedom to remain unvaccinated while also referring to themselves in the third person? A jerk, that’s whom!

Advertisement

On Friday, according to Christine Brennan of USA Today, Andrew compounded his obstinacy by also refusing to wear a mask in the mixed zone—the part of the Olympic setup where athletes are allowed to interact with reporters. What was his excuse for violating the masking protocols? “For me it’s pretty hard to breathe in after kind of sacrificing my body in the water, so I feel like my health is a little more tied to being able to breathe than protecting what’s coming out of my mouth,” Andrew said by way of explanation. That’s a very dumb and jerky excuse. Masking isn’t solely about the health of the wearer; it’s also about protecting other people around you. Also, unless your mask is made out of concrete, it’s not going to stop you from breathing. This was a real jerky moment from Michael Andrew.

Advertisement
Advertisement

In a January interview with YouTuber Brett Hawke, Andrew revealed that his family had long taken pride in flouting conventional wisdom. “We’re kind of, I wouldn’t say a conspiracy theory–type family, but we’re definitely on the side where we look for what other methods are there,” said Andrew. “The same with the way we train. Just because everyone’s heading in one direction, why do we have to follow that direction?” This is the sort of logic that leads to dangerous car crashes. Sometimes it’s appropriate to go with the flow of traffic!

Advertisement

A June Washington Post story characterized Andrew’s family as “tightknit and deeply religious,” and quoted his mother, Tina Andrew, as saying that her son “​​doesn’t mind doing whatever it takes, whatever protocols they want, short of having to take the vaccine. He will do everything that is required, but he won’t take the vaccine.” Several years earlier, according to that same Post story, Tina Andrew justified the family’s decision to have Michael Andrew turn pro at 14 and thus miss out on potential collegiate swimming opportunities by telling ESPN that “Michael doesn’t need to be inundated with sex and drugs and ideas from liberal professors.” It’s not clear from the story where religion plays into these attitudes, or whether the Andrew clan adheres to a lost scroll about the moral sins of effective immune responses and liberal university professors. The only logical explanation, in other words, is that he comes from a family of jerks!

Advertisement

Speaking of Andrew’s training regimen: if you guessed that it’s very, very different from the way that every other Olympic swimmer trains, you’d be correct. Since childhood, under the supervision of his father, Andrew has followed an unusual training program called Ultra-Short Race-Pace Training, which basically has him swimming at an all-out pace for short distances, rather than the standard method, which is to go at a slower pace for longer distances. While there’s nothing inherently jerky about developing your own training methods, there is something a little bit jerky about adopting a weird training method and then turning around and peddling a bunch of instructional DVDs about your weird training method.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Finally, according to the Post, the Andrew family spent much of Michael’s teenage years driving around in a big RV, escorting the young swimmer from meet to meet. Way to clog up our nation’s interstate highways, you jerks!

Advertisement

Why he might not be a jerk: While I disagree with Andrew’s decision to not get the vaccine, I can at least sympathize with the desire to not want to do anything that might mess up your training routine immediately preceding the most important swim meet of your life. It is possible that getting the vaccine when his deepest held beliefs were all telling him not to might have put him in a bad headspace that might have prevented him from qualifying for Tokyo. Elite athletes are different from the rest of us, with different priorities and prerogatives, and there’s a world in which we can choose to trust that Michael Andrew knows what is best for Michael Andrew in the very narrow context of what Michael Andrew needs to do in order to swim his fastest. Finally on this front, in the grand scheme of the pandemic, I guess it ultimately doesn’t actually matter if Michael Andrew, specifically, got the vaccine or not—he’s just one guy, after all.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

It’s not Michael Andrew’s fault that his family seems like a real handful, and I suppose it isn’t actually his fault that he seems to be manifesting many of the values and positions that his parents seem to hold. Andrew grew up in a cloistered, sheltered environment—he was home-schooled, his parents were deeply involved in every aspect of his life, and he doesn’t seem to have had much of a life outside of swimming really fast for short distances all the time—and it’s fair to acknowledge that he is a product of that environment. Also, there’s a world in which we can choose to see the Andrew family zooming around the country in an RV as a fun, Partridge Family–type phenomenon. They probably had a bunch of singalongs during their years on the road. What’s more wholesome than a singalong?

Advertisement
Advertisement

For what it’s worth, the Olympics aside, Ultra-Short Race-Pace Training does seem to have worked for Michael Andrew, or at least seems not to have prevented him from becoming an extremely fast and decorated young swimmer.

Also, he seems like a fairly positive guy? At least he doesn’t present as an in-your-face alpha jerk who is actively belittling everyone else’s choice to get the vaccine. Finally, maybe the real jerks are the people who chose to give the U.S. swimmers those concrete masks through which it is impossible to breathe.

I really don’t have anything more to say in Michael Andrew’s favor. One might argue that it wouldn’t be fair to hold him up as a symbol of vaccine resistance—if he hadn’t already chosen to hold himself up as a symbol of vaccine resistance. You opened yourself up to this, buddy! We’re in the middle of a pandemic, and if you’re not going to get vaccinated, then you should at least be scrupulous about masking when you are around other people, and especially when you are around other people at an Olympic Games held in a nation where less than 30 percent of its citizens are vaccinated!

Advertisement

Jerk score: I’ll give Michael Andrew 2.5 out of 3 on style, because it would have been jerkier to go on Justice with Judge Jeanine and boast about not getting the vaccine. 2 out of 3 on technical merit, because at least those instructional DVDs are fairly reasonably priced. 2.5 out of 3 on execution, because it would have been a little bit jerkier for him to run around in the mixed zone pulling down other people’s masks. And 1 out of 1 in the category of “Has his mother publicly impugned the liberal professoriate within the past decade?” 8 out of 10 for Michael Andrew. Next!

Advertisement