Standing atop the starting blocks of the outermost lane, Cal freshman Andrew Seliskar glances to his right. His mind briefly allows him to succumb to pressure and anxiety before gathering his thoughts again.
Watching Andrew race is magical. His technique is pristine. His speed is boundless. His competitive drive is mind-numbing. But the story is in the preparation. His prerace regimen is almost as extraordinary as his talent. For most people, the race begins in the warm-up pool where a swimmer continues the routine of endless laps. For Andrew, the race begins hours earlier.
“Once I hit the van or the bus, my mind gets into preparation mode. I put on my headphones and kind of zone out,” Andrew says. “I try to visualize my race and just focus on that. I’ll listen to music all the way until I hit the water so that my mind and body are connected.”
Andrew visualizes his perfect race one last time, reaffirming confidence in his ability to put together a strong swim. Noticing the trio of swimmers in the water currently ahead of the Bears, Andrew extends his arms over the starting block, eagerly anticipating teammate senior Trent Williams’ final surge to the wall. His opening windup and step forward on the block to propel him is not only the start of his leg in the 800-yard freestyle relay, but also the start of his first NCAA Championship.
Andrew enters the water, in a trailing fourth place, as the third leg for Cal and splits a 1:32.42, briefly flirting with second place for the Bears. His split was the fastest on Cal’s relay and among the fastest in the entire field. The quartet’s fourth-place finish managed to crush the previous school record by more than four seconds — probably Andrew’s first of many school records to come.
Without music, swimmers would be lost. As distracting as it can be, music keeps swimmers focused and ready. It helps them constantly stay alert and on edge throughout a grueling schedule. Andrew’s teammate and fellow freshman Carson Sand describes music as a way to “relax and pump himself up” all the time.
“What I choose to listen to before a race changes depending on what I’m feeling like. Before the race, I’ll usually listen to some hard rock. But, after the race, I always look for something acoustic,” Andrew says.
Since meeting at Cal, Andrew and Sand have always talked about music, a common theme for the team. Andrew describes the Bears as very vocal and singing almost anything that comes to mind.
As Cal’s associate head coach, Yuri Suguiyama contributes to the music appreciation among the team as well. He brings more than just his coaching capabilities — he coached distance-freestyle phenom Katie Ledecky through the 2012 Summer Olympics before coming to Cal. Suguiyama promotes interest in music by continuously playing a wide variety of music genres throughout workouts.
“We’ve got some music aficionados on the team. That mid-’90s rock genre is perfect and that’s typically what we play around the pool,” says Cal head coach Dave Durden. “Guys in the water are kicking and jamming to the music. Sometimes though, it’s just general music trivia. They’re quizzing each other on the band or the song.”
The mutual interests of Andrew and Sand in different genres have grown into making and playing music together in their free time. Together, Andrew and Sand formed a band, Sather Lane — a name they admit that they were pronouncing incorrectly for the early months. With Andrew on guitar and Sand on a drum set, they try to reach their classic and punk rock inspiration. Given their current instrument assemblage, Andrew and Sand are producing more acoustic sounds.
Sather Lane isn’t Andrew’s first excursion into band music. While with his club team, Nation’s Capital Swim Club, Andrew joined Georgia Tech’s Ben Southern, Bucknell’s Brian Phillips, Virginia Tech’s Nathan Pawlowicz and Purdue senior Stephen Seliskar, his older brother, to form a rock band, Seahorse Yesterday, to casually jam together. Band practices in the garage were just to chill and be as loud as possible.
“For one or two summers, it was a big thing for us to have fun,” Andrew says. “We played punk rock or anything loud for anyone we knew.”
In case you thought you were busy, you’re not. In addition to music, Andrew and Sand manage to find time in their packed schedules to play chess together. While Sand has been playing chess for awhile, Andrew recently developed an interest in the game.
“Second semester of senior year, after committing to Cal, I needed something to do. There were a lot of really good chess players. There were nationally ranked and international chessmasters,” Andrew says. “I started playing a little and learned some strategies. I wouldn’t say I’m very good, but I think I can beat most normal people.”
Andrew clearly suffered from a classic case of senioritis. Even when determining his next hobby, Andrew tends to overachieve and find more ways to channel his competitive nature. While his classmates and peers may have chosen to expand on other social activities, Andrew picked a game known for its complex strategies, which may have been fostered by the STEM focus of his high school.
Andrew graduated last spring from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ) in Alexandria, Virginia, consistently one of the top high schools in the nation. The magnet school requires an application process that begins with an intensive admissions test in eighth grade. Top scorers on the exam submit additional materials in order to be considered for enrollment. In Andrew’s year at TJ, less than 15 percent of applicants were accepted into the school.
“Andrew is very smart. You don’t get through TJ with the extracurricular schedule he has without being very bright,” says Andrew’s high school coach Ian Handerhan in an email. “I don’t think Andrew ever looked at any of these things; swim practice, schoolwork, music, etc. … as a chore. He enjoyed the process as much as he enjoyed the outcomes.”
Maximizing efforts for both academics and athletics takes its toll on Andrew physically and mentally. With a time-consuming schedule, Andrew’s hobbies are his gateway to sanity. It’s his way of forcing relaxation even for a brief moment to give his mind a break.
Trying to balance elite swimming training with rigorous academics is something Andrew has been dealing with for years. Andrew is currently pursuing mechanical engineering. In addition to being a full-time student, he amasses just under the NCAA’s limit of 20 hours in 15 workouts over six days, 10 of which are in the pool. During the peak of season, Andrew averages 60,000 yards of swimming, close to three hours in the weight room and at least an hour of dryland workout per week.
“As I got more competitive in swimming and got more advanced in academics, I turned to guitar more to sever me from my other stresses and relax me,” Andrew says.
Like any other freshmen, Andrew needed time to adjust to college, especially a school that’s on the opposite coast from home. Unlike most freshmen, Andrew has high expectations laid out for him due to his talent and versatility.
“(Andrew) was the first one after senior Trent Williams to speak up at the swimmers’ meeting at Pac-12s,” Durden says. “It’s incredible to see someone so young but with so much experience and leadership.”
Strumming a few chords together or playing a game of chess helps Andrew take his mind off his rigorous and intense lifestyle. Andrew relies on his nonswimming extracurricular activities, which he likens to procrastination, as his way to hang out with fellow freshman teammates.
“We have a phrase here for the team,” Durden says. “We want to do simple better so that tomorrow is better than today.”
Chris Zheng covers men’s swim. Contact him at [email protected].