Andrew Bree didn’t know much about Knoxville, Tennessee before he arrived over a decade ago at the prestigious university around which the town is built.
He was especially unaware of the distinctive colours of the sports department which he had signed up to join.
“Soon enough, I’m walking around campus in the orange kit, the Catholic boy from Northern Ireland. ‘What are my mates going to think?’ It was funny,” he recalled last week from his family home in Co Down.
If you’re tuning into the Olympics coverage on RTÉ television, you’ll have no doubt guessed that the two-time Olympic swimmer settled in quickly to college life with his big personality but he also remains to this day a passionate fan of the football team, the University of Tennessee Volunteers, alma mater of Peyton Manning and home to a stadium which hosts almost 110,000 fans every other autumn Saturday.
“I went to all the games, all the way up to a corporate box when my friend’s dad paid $1m to run out with the players down to being topless in the student section. It’s a swimmers tradition since the 1960s,” he explains helpfully.
If he wasn’t a confident young man before his life as a student athlete at one of America’s oldest such institutions west of the Appalachian Divide, topless at a College football game probably sealed the deal and what better way to prepare yourself for studio lights and TV cameras?
“I just try to be myself and not over-think the whole thing. My friend told me to pretend you’re chatting with friends and that will make the whole thing natural.
“The other thing is if my accent changed even slightly, my mates would kill me. I’ve been in America 10 years but I love my accent.”
He has fought hard to retain that accent. College life in Tennessee never made a difference. Nor have the last few years he has spent in Los Angeles following a professional, high-performance schedule that sadly bore no fruit in London this summer, a setback which has been softened by his opportunity in the media.
“I was doing some training in the Santa Monica mountains, running with weights and I felt a strain in my calf. That got aggravated and it ended up disrupting my breast stroke kick for about six weeks.
“When I got my muscle memory back around the first time I got back competing in May, the first thing my coach said to me was that my kick had no power. My technique was perfect but I just had nothing. I was coming up and there was a dead spot in my movement.
“It dawned on me in March that I might not make it but swimming a 2:16 in May confirmed it.
“And then almost immediately, RTÉ got in touch. Originally I wasn’t even going to watch the Olympics, I just wanted to back away and take some time to think. But I’m glad it has worked out this way. I love swimming, I really do. I know most people only watch it once every four years so I want to represent the sport as well as possible.”
Four years ago, he almost missed out on competing in Beijing too but that time it was because of a more worrying reason. He failed a drugs test but was exonerated after a stressful couple of months when the result was attributed to an over-the-counter Vicks Inhaler decongestant he bought in the US.
Still though, like all Irish swimmers, he is kept under close watch. Something which he accepts completely but a situation which he wishes was replicated in other nations which sadly lag behind in this area.
“Different governing bodies have different relationships with their drug-testing departments. I’m getting knocks on the door at 5am from people at the Irish Sports Council and that’s without posting a fast time the whole year. They were bombarding me just in case. Another Irish swimmer went to Atlanta to visit his girlfriend and he updated his location forms. When he got down there, there was someone waiting at the apartment for him. That’s only Ireland. I wouldn’t like to see it if I broke a world record or something. I’d have someone on my arm the whole time,” he laughs.
“But it’s understandable. For such a small country, we have had more than our fair share of mishaps. I guess they’re just being careful of the Irish athletes and that’s fine. I’m just sceptical about certain other countries. As much as we all want to believe none of this goes on, unfortunately it does.”
He’s philosophical about the disparities, however. “I sleep well at night. I’m in the sport for the pure passion. That’s all that matters.”
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