2021 | Sports

From Bethesda to Tokyo: Swimmer will compete in Olympics

Wilson is one of three swimmers on Team USA from Montgomery County

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Andrew Wilson at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials last month. He finished second in the 100- and 200-meter breaststroke, earning a spot on the team for the Olympic Games in Tokyo this month. (Photo by Mike Lewis/USA Swimming)

Andrew Wilson, who grew up in Bethesda, has gone from persuading his college swim coach for a spot on the team to representing his country at the Olympics.

Wilson will compete in the 100- and 200-meter breaststroke races in Tokyo this month.

Wilson, 27, is one of three swimmers on Team USA from Montgomery County. The other two are Katie Ledecky of Bethesda and Phoebe Bacon of Chevy Chase.

Bacon and Ledecky both attended Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda.

Ledecky, 24, won five gold medals and one silver medal in the 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games. The Tokyo Olympics will be her third.

Ledecky will swim in five races: 200-meter freestyle, 400-meter freestyle, 800-meter freestyle, 1500-meter freestyle and 4×200-meter freestyle relay.

For Bacon, who is 18, Tokyo will be her first Olympics. She qualified for Team USA for the 200-meter backstroke. Bacon swims at Wisconsin University and is a two-time Pan American Games medalist.

Wilson’s first Olympic race is the 100-meter breaststroke on July 24. The semifinals are on July 25 and the finals are on July 26.

The 200-meter breaststroke race will be held on July 27. The semifinals and finals will be on July 28. (The swimming schedule is available on the NBC Olympic website.)

Wilson swam and studied at Emory University and is heralded as the first NCAA Division III swimmer to qualify for the Olympics. The largest collegiate athletic programs in the country usually compete in Division I.

“D3 got me where I am today,” Wilson said in an interview. “So, you know, I’m very proud of where I came from and grateful for all the support. It’s awesome to be able to kind of … carry the torch for D3.”

Andrew Wilson at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials last month. He finished second in the 100- and 200-meter breaststroke, earning a spot on the team for the Olympic Games in Tokyo this month. (Photo by Mike Lewis/USA Swimming)

Wilson has been a swimmer most of his life. But unlike many rookie Olympic swimmers, he said he never focused on swimming competitively until he went to college.

Wilson, who was born in London, grew up in Bethesda after his family moved to the United States when he was 3 1/2 years old. He started swimming as a child at Kenwood Golf and Country Club.

In his youth, Wilson competed in summer league swim races, but never saw himself going professional as a swimmer. He said that he had always saw himself as more of a lacrosse player.

Wilson attended Norwood School in Bethesda until eighth grade, then went to high school at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass.

At Phillips Academy, Wilson alternated between his sports interests: water polo in the fall, swimming in the winter and lacrosse in the spring.

“Throughout high school, I was probably more focused on water polo of any of the two,” he said of swimming and water polo.

After finishing high school, Wilson swam in the summers with the Nation’s Capital Swim Club, but he was nowhere close to the swim career that he has now.

Before starting at Emory in 2012, Wilson had not been recruited. Still, he was determined to make the team. Wilson said he persuaded the swim coach to give him a spot.

“I was, like, probably the worst one on the team when I showed up [at Emory]. … I basically had to argue my way onto the team. I was not very fast at all out of high school,” Wilson said.

After two years of swimming for Emory, Wilson made stark improvements as a swimmer. He didn’t have sights on the Olympics yet, but he said that he was swimming faster, building muscle and seeing his race times drop enough to start competing nationally.

In the fall of 2015, Wilson took a year off from college and began training with Longhorn Aquatics at the University of Texas in Austin. At the 2015 Phillips 66 national championships, he won the 100-meter breaststroke with a time of 59.65 seconds.

Wilson continued to train at Austin in 2016, now with a goal of competing in the Rio Olympics, but he did not make the team. He placed fifth in the 100-meter breaststroke and fourth in the 200-meter breaststroke.

At the Olympic trials, the top two swimmers in each event make the team. The top six finishers for the 100- and 200-meter freestyle races earn spots on the Olympic relay unit.

After graduating from Emory in 2017 with a degree in applied mathematics and physics, Wilson began training with the Athens Bulldogs Swim Club at the University of Georgia. Wilson went all in on his decision to have a professional swim career.

Wilson made it to the Olympic trials again this year.

Last month, at the Olympic swimming trials in Omaha, Neb., Wilson finished second in the 100-meter breaststroke race with a time of 58.74 seconds. In the 200-meter breaststroke race, he also finished second, with a time of 2:08.32. He qualified for the team in both events.

Last year, Wilson was on a path toward the Olympic trials when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Wilson, like many people, underestimated how significant the coronavirus would be. Training started to slow down, but he decided to leave training in Georgia and go back home to Maryland when the 2020 Olympic Games were postponed.

“I was out of the water for a couple weeks, but then I started training in a family friend’s basement. That was … a 17-yard pool and in their basement. Luckily, I had water, but it was definitely an interesting situation and not, like, a normal one,” he said.

During the pandemic, Wilson said, he was terrified of contracting the virus. As he focused on making the Olympic team, getting COVID-19 could have meant losing his chance at going to Tokyo or ending his career.

“As an athlete, and especially a swimmer … our lungs and aerobic capacity is just so important. … I think there was always this sense of, like, at any point, your season or career could just end if you made one stupid decision,” Wilson said.

When his training in Georgia started up again, Wilson said, his team interacted only with each other. They practiced in outdoor pools, sometimes having to cross county lines to find them. Wilson said they tried to be as socially distanced as possible, starting at opposite ends of the pool.

When Wilson arrives in Tokyo, he and other athletes will be under strict COVID-19 rules, with lots of testing. They’ll wear masks and will be limited to going to practice and their hotel rooms.

“I’m not worried about [COVID-19] at the Games. I’m sure they’re gonna do a great job and they’re gonna be testing so much, so it’s gonna be fine. But, yeah, it’s going to be strict over the next couple of weeks,” he said.

After the Olympics, Wilson will head to Oxford University in England to study for a master’s in math modeling and scientific computing. He hopes that when he is done with swimming, he can find a career in Formula One racing with aerodynamic modeling.

For now, Wilson is at Team USA’s training camp, preparing physically and mentally for the Games and finding time to bond with other team members.

“I always just have to remind myself how lucky I am to be able to do this, you know, to do this sport that I love and continue doing it now and support myself that way,” Wilson said. “I think that the most important thing about being fast is enjoying what you’re doing.

“The coach at Emory always used to say that a happy swimmer is a fast swimmer.”