Swimming star Andrei Minakov ready to take Russia 'to the next level' at Tokyo 2020

He won six Youth Olympics gold medals and two world silvers, but teenager Minakov is focused on even higher honours in 2021.
By Andrew Binner

Six was the magic number for swimming prodigy Andrei Minakov at the 2018 Youth Olympic Games.

Exactly two years ago today, the Russian collected his sixth and final YOG gold medal in Buenos Aires.

Despite being just 16 at the time, Minakov swam the 100m butterfly in 51.12 seconds to break Russia’s national record in the event. A new star had been born.

A year later he waded into the senior ranks with equal confidence, sealing two silver medals and a bronze at the 2019 World Championships in Gwangju, Korea.

Raised in two countries

Growing up in St. Petersburg, Minakov was encouraged by his parents to play many sports before he found the water.

“My family didn’t originally plan for me to go into swimming,” he told Olympic Channel.

“I tried tennis and skiing, but skiing was expensive and far away. Our friend advised us to try swimming and my mum said, ‘Sure, why not?’

The young star found immediate success in the pool, and by the time he was 12 he was spending every summer honing his craft in America’s Golden State.

“I started training in California a little and my coaches from Russia and the US decided on my programme together," he said.

“I feel at home in both Russia and in the US.”

Dominating in Buenos Aires

Heading into the 2018 Youth Olympic Games, winning six gold medals certainly was not Minakov’s chief objective.

His mindset was simple to give a good account of himself against the world’s best junior swimming talent.

“We (only) set our minds on the fight,” he told Olympic Channel.

“We fought until the end and tried to achieve our best time.”

His strategy was rewarded with individual gold medals in the 100m freestyle, and the 50m and 100m butterfly.

Three more relay golds followed in the 4x100 free, the 4x100 medley and the 4x100 mixed freestyle, while he also won silver as part of the 4x100 mixed medley.

Future is bright for Russian swimming

But Minakov wasn’t the only Russian to make swimming headlines in the Argentinean capital.

With Kliment Kolesnikov equaling Minakov’s medal haul of six golds and a silver, the future of Russian swimming appears to be in very good hands.

“Me and Kliment have the same amount of medals, six golds and a silver,” he continued.

“We got on well, like one big family… We didn’t feel like rivals. We could be happy for each other.”

But Minakov was a man on a bigger mission, and didn’t feel the need to bask in his glory.

“I want to forget these Youth Olympics now and want to live for future wins and my next goals,” he told Olympic Channel after the YOGs.

It was another sensible mindset that paid dividends.

Causing a stir in Gwangju

The 2019 world champs headlines were dominated by Caeleb Dressel and his six gold medals.

Having broken Michael Phelps’ 100m butterfly world record in the heats, it came as no surprise when the American cruised to the fly title the following evening.

But there was a surprise in the lane next Dressel, where 17-year-old Minakov pipped his friend and London 2012 gold medallist Chad le Clos to silver in another new Russian national record of 50.83 seconds.

More success came in the relays, where Minakov’s first job was to swim in the heats for the 4x100 freestyle team that eventually won silver.

He then helped Russia land bronze in the final of the 4x100 medley team alongside Evgeny Rylov, Kirill Prigoda and Vladimir Morozov with a new national record of 3:28.81. Kolesnikov played his part in this bronze medal too having participated in the heats.

Andrei Minakov (left, silver), gold medallist Caeleb Dressel (centre, gold) and Chad le Clos (bronze) celebrate on the 100m Butterfly podium at the 2019 World Champs in Gwangju, South Korea. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Andrei Minakov commits to Stanford

With Minakov’s standing in world swimming soaring, it wasn’t long before he had offers to further his swimming and studies from several colleges in the United States.

In November 2019 he verbally committed to join the likes of Canadian star Taylor Ruck at Stanford in the fall of 2020.

However due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the swimming prodigy has chosen to study remotely from Russia and training with the Russian national team. He still aims to compete for Stanford's ‘The Cardinal’ team in the fall of 2021.

Perhaps his decision to be based in the United Sates was influenced by trying to emulate Olympic legend Michael Phelps, who Minakov looks up to as a butterfly specialist.

“To me, reaching Michael Phelps’ level is like flying to the moon.” - Andrei Minakov to Olympic Channel.

“He won 23 Olympic gold medals and I only have six YOG medals. He is the world record holder and I have a long way to reach him. He’s a great swimmer.

“I need to work a lot on myself. To improve my starts, turns, techniques.”

Lofty Tokyo 2020 ambitions

With another extra year to prepare and mature before the Tokyo 2020 Olympics due to coronavirus, Minakov will undoubtedly be looking to medal in the 100m butterfly.

However, it is also set to be one of the most hotly-contested events in the pool with several Olympic medallists and world-record holders also keen to assert their dominance.

Dressel will undoubtedly be the favourite for gold, while Le Clos will only be 29 at the Games and feels hungrier than ever to win another Olympic gold medal.

Hungarian Kristof Milak, who broke the 200m world record at the 2019 world champs and was pipped into second place by Minakov in the 100m fly at the Youth Olympics, will also be quietly confident of his chances.

Add to the mix Singapore’s Joseph Schooling, who won gold in the event at Rio 2016 and is finding his way back to full form, and it is clear that butterfly medals in Japan will be anything but a formality.

“I think that during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics we can raise Russia to the next level,” Minakov who will be 19 at next year’s games, continued.

“At the senior Olympics the pressure will increase. The first goal is to qualify and then maybe to reach the podium. You just have to live for the moment.”

Minakov is the kind of swimmer that revels on the big stage. With a clean bill of health and an extra year of experience behind him, 2021 could be a very good year for Russian swimming.