In the pool with Wilson: Reflecting on the journey to Olympic gold

by Michael Mariam

Dec. 3, 2021 | Sports

Of the nearly 2,300 swimmers who qualified for the 2021 U.S. Olympic Team Trials, only 53 secured a spot on the team headed to Tokyo. It was already a historic accomplishment when Emory alum Andrew Wilson (17C) made that cut, becoming him the first Division III swimmer in history to qualify for the Olympics. But the history-making continued when Wilson became part of the relay team that won Olympic gold. 

Wilson’s path to the Olympics began at Emory in 2012 when he started swimming on the Division III team under head coach Jon Howell. While at Emory, Wilson was named the NCAA Division III Men’s Swimmer of the Year twice, set three Division III records and was a national champion in five events at the 2017 NCAA Division III Championships. Wilson was also a part of four University Athletic Association (UAA) Swimming & Diving Championships not to mention winning two UAA Swimmer of the Year awards as well.

In Tokyo, Wilson swam in the individual 100- and 200-meter breaststroke competitions and contributed to the country’s 4×100-meter men’s medley relay team. Wilson finished in sixth place in the men’s 100-meter breaststroke finals and narrowly missed the men’s 200-meter breaststroke finals.

Although Wilson felt great about his individual races bringing a gold medal back home was sweeter, even if he didn’t swim in the finals race. Wilson swam in the 4×100-meter men’s medley relay preliminaries, but Team USA selected Michael Andrew to race in the breaststroke portion of the final race instead of Wilson. In the finals race, Team USA broke the World record, and the team earned gold. 

Following his return to the U.S., Wilson’s celebrations included a return to the communities that played a role in his success. On Aug. 24, Emory Athletics welcomed Wilson back to campus and honored him with a reception for Emory athletes, coaches and administrators.

Wilson spoke with attendees and brought his gold medal to the Woodruff Physical Education Center for everyone to hold and put around their necks. He expressed his gratitude to the Emory community for helping shape him into the gold medal winner he is today.

“I felt so much support from the Emory community, and it’s not unnoticed,” Wilson said. “I really appreciated [the support] and [Emory’s] always felt like a home for me. I’ve always been able to reach out to Jon [Howell] when I’ve gone through tough times in my swim career or just life in general, and I just really love this place. I think it’s a really special place and helped make me who I am now.”

The Wheel sat down with Wilson following his on-campus celebration for a conversation about his experience in the Tokyo Olympic Games.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Michael Mariam, The Emory Wheel: Can you talk about what it was like in the U.S. Olympic Team Trials qualifying and the leadup once you qualified and then got on the flight to Japan? 

Andrew Wilson: Going in, I was a lot more confident, probably than I was in 2016. I knew what it was going to take to get there, and I knew they were going to be really close races. Just kind of the way that American breaststroke has been over the last five, six years, I knew it was going to be close. I wanted to have the best race I could and see what happened, and I ended up beating them out. Once that was over, I was obviously a lot more relaxed for the 200 breaststroke because I was already going. And that made it a lot easier to do my job in the 200 and get there for that as well. Then after trials, we went home for a week, so I was back in Athens, Georgia training. Then we left for training camp in Hawaii and were there for a couple of weeks. From there, we went to Tokyo.

TEW: When you arrived in Tokyo and had your first Olympic race, what were you feeling as you put the goggles over your eyes? Were you nervous, more excited?

AW: I mean both. Obviously, it’s a crazy stage, but I was excited to have that opportunity finally. It was something that I thought about for a while. The fact that there were no fans made it maybe a little bit easier in that first race because you’re nervous and emotionally all over the place. Walking out and it being a little bit calmer, it kind of reminds you like “Now wait a minute, this is just another race. It’s the same pool, I know how to do this.”

TEW: You set your teammates up to win the Gold medal in the Olympic medley relay. What was it like knowing that you were one of the swimmers who put them in that position? 

AW: That’s one of the things that makes the U.S. do so well at these meets, the fact that we can keep everyone fresh. For us, we just wanted to make sure that we did enough to get the guys into the final and have a decent lane so that they could do their job in the final and swim as fast as they could. It’s always an honor to be on U.S. relays, and I think preliminary relays are definitely important because some other countries have to run the same people. When you start adding swims over the course of a long meet, it just adds up.

TEW: Can you talk more about life inside the Olympic bubble? What were the protocols and the COVID testing like? 

AW: We couldn’t leave the Olympic village. It was daily testing when we were in the village. We would do the saliva tests first thing in the morning, and then drop them off on the way to breakfast. So that was pretty easy, honestly, and also obviously mask requirements everywhere. 

TEW: What was it like being in a dining hall with people from all over the world?

AW: The dining hall was a lot of fun. It’s just really cool to see all the different athletes and these people who are so specialized for one super-specific thing; but then it’s so many different things. You see a female gymnast who’s 4-foot-8 and just tiny, and then a male thrower who’s 6-foot-7 and 300 pounds. So you’re just like, “How are we all the same thing? This is just crazy.” The dining hall was honestly a lot of fun and the people-watching in there was crazy.

TEW:  You’re obviously around the world’s top athletes for a few weeks, not just in your sport. Were you ever starstruck, or were you able to learn some stuff from them in terms of the way they train and handle themselves?

AW: We didn’t really see anything for training outside of the people at the pool. But, I don’t know that I was necessarily starstruck. It was more like, you’re in the dining hall and you look over and you’re like, “Oh, that’s Novak Djokovic, that’s kind of cool.” It was just stuff like that where it was really funny to see these people who are these mega superstars and multimillionaires, and then they’re reduced to trying to pick the best piece of chicken the same way you are. So that was probably one of the funnier things about the village.

TEW: What did you and your teammates do when you all weren’t swimming? Were you able to attend other events or do anything else?

AW: Because of COVID protocols, we couldn’t go to anything else. Most of it was hanging out in our room or in each other’s rooms just doing whatever. We had a little projector that we bought, so we were streaming some of the other events and watching those in our room. Not anything crazy honestly, just hanging and enjoying each other’s company.

TEW: Do you have a favorite story from the Olympics?

AW: My favorite part of these trips is always the training camps beforehand. There’s a lot of people who I’m good friends with from trips in the past, but maybe they train out in California and the only time I see them is at swim meets. You’ll say hi to them and catch up a little bit, but you don’t really get to hang out that much. But at the training camps, there’s so much time that you’re just spending with each other sitting around playing cards or watching some sports. Training camps are when you actually really get to know people.

TEW: So now just transitioning a little bit to your post-Olympics life. How did you celebrate? What’s it like walking around with a gold medal?

AW: I traveled around to see some people in August. Just seeing people that I haven’t seen in a while because of COVID or just because the schedule for swimming is so crazy, so a lot of the time you have to say no to a lot of things. But yeah, it was just enjoying some time off. I’m kind of letting it all sink in.

TEW: And you mentioned you took a lot of time to travel to other people, and you came back to Emory. Can you talk about that experience and what that meant to you?

AW: Yeah, I knew from the start that I was going to want to stop by Emory to see the coaches. You know, obviously Emory helped me get to where I am today. So you know, of course I’m going to want to stop by and see people.

TEW: What are your future goals and plans? Do you see yourself continuing swimming in any capacity?

AW: I’m going back to school and going to grad school at the University of Oxford. It’s the immediate plan, and I’m moving there in a couple days. In terms of swimming, right now I’m planning on swimming for [Oxford]. But I’m definitely done with major internationals. I’m just going to enjoy swimming and stay in shape but not take it as seriously. I’m definitely a student first at this point.

TEW: Do you have any advice for Emory athletes that now look up to you as motivation?

AW: Trust your coaches and teammates, and work hard and see where you can go. I don’t think that I did anything different than what most of the athletes at Emory are doing. [Emory athletes] show up to practice, they work hard and they see what they can do. I don’t know that I necessarily have a secret or anything. Keep working and trying to get better, a little bit better every day. And that was what I tried to do.