Andrew Gemmell doesn’t mind his anonymity.
UGA Sports Communications
Andrew Gemmell qualified for the 400 IM, 500 freestyle and 1,650 freestyle at the NCAA men's swimming and diving championships, which are this weekend in Austin, Texas.
In fact, he likes it.
He is a world-class athlete walking the University of Georgia campus.
But Gemmell doesn’t stand out.
He qualified for the 2012 Olympics as a college sophomore. He was part of the U.S. swimming team that won 31 medals, including 16 golds, at the Summer Games in London. He finished ninth among the world’s best swimmers in the 1,500-meter event.
“I don’t really look like an Olympic athlete,” Gemmell said. “I’m 6-foot-nothing and 160 pounds. You don’t get into swimming for the attention.”
He kept a low profile as he prepared for the NCAA men’s swimming championships, which start today in Austin, Texas. The redshirt senior qualified for three events: the 400 individual medley, the 500 freestyle and the 1,650 freestyle.
But he could be receiving even more attention soon. He graduates this spring and will continue training to qualify for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. This time, it’s for his best event: the open-water 10-kilometer race.
“I’ve been more successful in open water my whole career,” Gemmell said. “I enjoy open water a whole heck of a lot. And the event picked me. It’s what I’m best at because it is what my body type lends itself to.”
An alternative to the famous pool-swimming events, open water takes place in large bodies of water and is a grueling test of endurance. Swimmers must deal not only with natural elements such as waves, wildlife and cold temperatures, but must also jostle their way through a crowd of competitors. The event is relatively new to the Olympics, debuting in Beijing in 2008.
“Racing is a whole different ballgame,” Gemmell said. “You’re out in a river or lake. There’s no lanes or separation. Its just 40 people bunched together.”
The 10K race is thought of as the marathon of swimming in contrast to pool sprints. The sprinting events favor tall, lanky swimmers; Gemmell’s short, slight build is perfect for the lengthy swims.
Gemmell grew up in Wilmington, Del. His father, Bruce Gemmell, was a successful collegiate swimmer at the University of Michigan, qualifying for the U.S. Olympic trials in both 1980 and 1984. Now a club swimming coach for Nation’s Capital Swim Club in Washington D.C., he introduced his son to swimming when Andrew was 2 years old. But Gemmell did not commit to swimming until he was about 14.
“I told him, ‘Being good was just a whole bunch of little decisions, but being great is just a single choice,’” the older Gemmmell said. “Then all the little ones take care of themselves.”
That may sound like coach-speak rather than a father talking to his son, but that’s not surprising. Bruce Gemmell had to wear both hats throughout his son’s teenage years as he raised and coached a champion athlete.
“I give him a lot of credit,” Bruce said. “Not a lot of kids would be receptive to that, but Andrew always was.”
Gemmell agreed that the experience has been invaluable.
“Most people have said they’d kill their dad in that situation,” Gemmell said. “But I’ve done it since I was a kid and we’ve fallen into a really great relationship.”
Gemmell eventually found his niche. He has won multiple open-water titles, including the 10K swim at the 2012 open-water national championships and the 5-kilometer race in 2013. He represented the United States at the 2013 world championships in Barcelona, Spain.
But after finishing third and missing out by a single spot in the 10K race in the Olympic trials for the London Games, Gemmell wanted redemption. He got that by winning the 1,500-meter freestyle in the pool at trials, sending him across the pond to England.
“It was super inspirational to see him come back and make the team in the pool,” said Shannon Vreeland, a senior freestyle swimmer and Gemmell’s teammate both at Georgia and on the Olympic team.
Both normally subdued, Gemmell and his father burst with emotion when he qualified. Gemmell rushed to the crowd and high-fived Georgia head coach Jack Bauerle and senior associate coach Harvey Humphries. His father says the picture snapped of that moment is still his favorite today.
“It’s a coach’s dream come true to see a swimmer’s dream come true,” Humphries said.
Gemmell finished in ninth place during the preliminaries at the Olympics, missing the finals by one spot. If he qualifies for the 2016 Olympics, he will be the first male swimmer in U.S. history to swim in both the pool and open-water events in the Olympics.
“If anyone could do it, Andrew Gemmell could,” said Sid Cassidy, a family friend and former FINA open-water swim coach who helped introduce Andrew to open-water meets. “He has the mentality that all successful open-water swimmers have: He can roll with any things that comes his way.”
Though Gemmell has focused on avoiding jellyfish and alligators in open-water meets, he still has excelled in pool swimming. He has qualified for the 1,650 event at NCAAs four of the last five years, finishing fifth last year. Four of his race times are top 10 performances in program history. His coaches and teammates say that it is a testament to his work ethic.
“You’ll never see Andrew cut any corners,” Humphries said. “When I coach Andrew Gemmell, I feel like John Fox coaching Peyton Manning; he is a much smarter man than I.”
An economics major, he likes to read statistics textbooks in his free time and carries a 3.87 grade point average. In the future, he hopes to go to law school.
“If I want to do something, I want to do it right,” said Gemmell, who recently took his LSAT. “It’s not just in swimming, but in life in general.”
That attitude extends to his open-water training as well. As he prepares to graduate, he is still deciding on where he wants to train to fulfill his dream of winning an Olympic medal in open-water swimming. But he is confident that he’ll find the right place.
“Through open water, I’ve always got people I can turn to for advice,” Gemmell said. “From school to swimming to life in general. It’s a neat position to be in.”
Open-water isn’t the flashiest event. Gemmell may never become a household name like Michael Phelps or Ryan Lochte.
But that suits the anonymous Olympian just fine.
The Grady Sports Bureau is part of the sports media program at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.