By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Thursday, August 31, 2017
Michael Alexandrov may have just retired from competitive swimming this summer, but the former U.S. National Team member and team captain said it was a multi-season-long process getting there.
“I'm not exactly sure the onset of the feeling, but over the past couple of years, as my times began to regress, with an increase in training and even a better diet, the inevitable aging body did not produce the same times as before,” he said.
Alexandrov – who emigrated from Bulgaria with his parents when he was 9 – said despite slower times in the water the past couple of years, he actually felt better and better each season and year.
His training and attitude toward competitive swimming was better than ever, but as he found out, time doesn’t lie no matter what he may have thought was happening or what he was feeling.
“The clock wasn't reading what I thought I was producing, relatively speaking, so, did it feel like the ‘right time’ to retire? I don't think there is ever a perfectly 'right' time,” he said. “You never know if sometimes you may have more left in you or if you don't. It's quite a gamble.
“Everyone’s circumstances are very different, and so are our bodies. As I consistently saw my times regressing, even by a little, I knew that the scale of fiscal responsibility and goals outside of competitive endeavors in swimming were getting tipped in the direction that I anticipated would come one day. It just took me a couple years to really figure it out.”
To make his swimming swan song special and commemorative, Alexandrov competed in his final meet at the Arena Pro Swim in Santa Clara in June.
Not coincidentally, this was the same event where he had his first international competition in 2002 – four years before he became a U.S. citizen.
A member of the 2004 and 2008 Bulgarian Olympic teams, Alexandrov took the final step in his citizenship when he switched his sport citizenship to the United States after the 2008 Beijing Games.
While he never had the distinct, unique “honor” of representing his adopted country at the Olympics (he came close at 2012 Olympic Trials, finishing 6th in the 100 breaststroke), Alexandrov, who did swim for the United States at two FINA Short Course World Championships and the 2013 World University Games, never regretted his decision to change his citizenship.
He always recognized the difference between birth country and home.
“I am glad I did (become a U.S. citizen) – now and always will be,” he said. “Swimming for Bulgaria gave me an invaluable experience with the sport and also with my father, Plamen. I remember my first competition representing Bulgaria, in 2002 at the European Junior Championships in Linz, Austria. It was an amazing experience for many different reasons.
“I always watched Team USA, however. I saw the comradery, the unity, the fun, the organization and leadership from team members and the coaching staff. I always looked up to Team USA. No other team had that spirit. I lived in the United States, trained here, grew up and went to school here. It naturally became my home after a certain time.”
Before coming to the states, he and his mother didn’t speak any English, but just as he did when it came to swimming lessons, Alexandrov ate up everything he could to become a proficient, native English speaker.
He waited until he knew the language and was ready technically and was mentally able to focus to train, to join a team. He joined the Champaign County Aquachiefs after working for several years with his dad.
“I always remember my dad telling me, 'when you're ready, we'll put you on a team.' I trusted my dad, he was my hero, a Bulgarian swimming legend and I trusted that he knew what was best for me,” he said.
After high school, Alexandrov enrolled at Northwestern University and swam for the Wildcats. Along with future Olympic gold medalist Matt Grevers, Alexandrov led his teammates to a Big Ten title his senior year.
And while the decision to change country citizenship may have been difficult on some level for him, at the core of his swimming and his life, he knew his best future opportunities were as an American.
But he still and always will hold his time learning under his father’s coaching in Bulgaria and the states as special and formative in making him the swimmer and person he is today.
“Some of the most precious memories I have with my dad are going to competitions together and learning from and with him,” he said. “I would never, ever be able to have come close to the athlete I was if it wasn't for swimming for Bulgaria and having my father as my coach from 2002-2008.
“I grew up sharing intimate moments as we learned how to separate father/son from coach/athlete. Plamen was by trade trained as a physical therapist, and he also was my physical therapist throughout my career. It is absolutely amazing how he was able to balance those three combinations to me, his son. I was the most fortunate athlete there ever was. Not one thing, event or person will ever be able to convince me that anyone was more fortunate than me.”
With his competitive swimming life behind him, Alexandrov is working on several projects right now – making the most of those many years of being “forced to multi-task.”
With his B.S. degree in human biology and MBA in human resource management, he’s involved in those fields right now working in the booming fitness industry in Southern California.
“With the addition of more education and certifications, I always worked part-time in addition to my full-time training,” he said. “In my experience, I’ve seen high-level athletes have a tough time finding their niche after competitive swimming, so it has always been a priority for me to continue my education and continue growing outside the sport.”
And as far as the possibility of returning in three years for a shot at a third Olympic Games, Alexandrov says not likely unless it’s as a spectator.
His energy, resources and time will be used in a different manner.
“Looking back at my career, I have come to realize time and time again that it is all about the journey,” he said. “Daily persistence, patience, perseverance, and faith have led to my resilience as an athlete and person. I barely remember the times on the scoreboard. I do, but what I remember most is how I got there each respective month, season, year, etc.
“I hope that in this day and age, the 'on-demand culture' doesn't lead athletes into a confused state of how to reach their best. I hope young, growing swimmers do not lose an appreciation for hard work, the long and grueling process of making their craft, the setbacks, the injuries, the failures, the lack of sleep, and obstacles are all a part of the journey.”