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What Theresa Andrews has now is far more precious than gold


There's a style, sensitivity and substance to Theresa Andrews that sets her apart in any arena of activity. She's intelligent, articulate and caring and worthy of emulation. The two gold medals earned in the Olympics of 1984 attest to an extraordinary measure of swimming ability, and she displays exceptional manner and humility in the wake of worldwide acclaim.

What Andrews is doing "with the rest of her life" is tantamount to heeding a call to a vocation. It shouldn't be surprising that her objective no longer is directed to the tiled-wall finish line at the other end of the pool, but rather an effort to try to make a difference in the lives of others.

If this isn't part of the Olympic creed, then it should be. Our bravest and finest athletes answer the crack of the starter's gun. A measure of fame awaits the cherished few, of which Andrews was counted among the exclusive honor roll of winners. Then the tall, slender young woman lifted herself out of the water, ascended to the highest level of the awards platform and heard the national anthem in conjunction with the presentation of the gold medallion and what would be, for her, the preservation of a keepsake moment.

"What was in my thoughts?" she asked rhetorically. "It's a memory that will never leave me. I kept thinking, well here I am, just a 'summerly swimmer,' and I've come all this way. I never felt that would happen because I figured things like this only occur to special people. I was merely a 'summerly swimmer.' That's all, a 'summerly swimmer.' "

That's typical of Andrews. And what she's doing now is more important than hearing the cheers, waving flags or having her name included in the all-time elite list of Olympic winners. She is on the staff at the University of Virginia Children's Center, where she deals with youngsters suffering from cancer and blood disorders. No two days are the same. She sees the rich and poor, the prominent and the unknown, all caught up in the same crisis -- a child battling the odds against cancer and fighting, with every breath, to live.

"You can't take hope away," she says. "And I'm convinced there are some remarkable guardian angels out there. I watch children and their families dealing with tough times. They become heroes to me."

Played back in moments of reflection are a montage of faces, the anguish, the pain, the smiles, the varied personalities. Each one is different. And the parents, too, so eager to provide every chance that a child lives to see another day and somehow fulfills the potential God endowed. Not every race with cancer results in victory. Hardly. "But you can't take hope away," she comes back to saying.

Andrews, now 33, is a year older than brother Danny, who was struck by an automobile in 1982 near Annapolis while riding a bike and suffered paralysis from a spinal injury. But it didn't deter him. It was his attitude of concentrating on the things he could do, rather than the limitations, that conveyed an inspiring message to Theresa. At the Olympics, there was Danny looking on from a wheelchair as his sister won the 100-meter backstroke and again as she contributed to the U.S. championship 400-meter relay team.

It became a precious moment for both of them. A sister swimming for her brother and, instead of adding to the pressure, feeling a strength, yet a relaxation, that motivated her beyond all expectations. Danny went on to graduate from the University of North Carolina, then went to law school and is now an assistant district attorney in Queen Anne's County. He has been married for four years and is the father of a 2-month-old daughter.

The Andrews family is the kind storybooks are written about, with chapters on each of them. Father Frank, a native of Newport, R.I., and mother Maxine, from Quincy, Ill., live in this huge house not far from the banks of the Severn River. They have raised 12 children, all with college educations. Frank was a 1942 graduate of the Naval Academy, went to the Pacific in World War II and became a captain.

There's a respect and honor among them, pulled together by this love for one another that has been so deeply ingrained. A remarkable testimonial in itself. "The Andrews family of Annapolis" are not your ordinary next-door neighbors. Theresa's becoming an Olympic champion was a time for elation, yet the emotional scale was balanced over what had happened to Danny.

The Andrewses always felt as if they were in it together. The captain and his crew put forth the total effort. Theresa attended high school at St. Mary's in Annapolis and spent her final two years at Archbishop Keough in Baltimore, so she could train under the influence and direction of coach Murray Stephens and compete for the North Baltimore Aquatic Club.

"I lived with five different families in the Baltimore area, and they treated me as if I was one of their own, not just some girl occupying a room," she recalls. "That was important because I was so family-oriented. Catholic education gave me a lot of values that were beneficial. You learn in that kind of a system that nothing is given to you and the rewards, if you're to get them, must be earned."

Andrews graduated from the University of Florida with a bachelor's degree in therapeutic recreation and then received a master's degree in social work at Ohio State. For three years she was on the staff of the National Rehabilitation Center in &r; Washington, specializing in helping adults with spinal injuries.

The value of athletics isn't to be trivialized; it's an enduring part of her outlook.

"The Olympics allow you to strive to learn what you can do with your talent, to own up to mistakes when you make them and to give help to others and not expect anything back," she says. "I tell that to kids and to heads of corporations. But, you know,

everything you do that's good has a way of somehow returning and adding productively to the good things in your own life."

To hear Andrews, this woman gifted with eloquent expression and intellect, speak before an audience is a moving experience. About the Olympics, she says, "It's more than having your picture on a Wheaties box or being on the Dream Team and walking away with compensation. There are probably 9,000 athletes who won't get a medal, but their drive is the same, emotionally, physically and spiritually. I don't see any losers there."

In her own case history, it was six hours a day, six days a week for six years of training in a pool. She "retired" at 21 and didn't feel she missed anything that couldn't be made up. Traveling the world to compete was beneficial in understanding other cultures and the entire human network.

Theresa Andrews has never lost the feeling of what it was like to touch the wall first in the Olympics. What she's doing now doesn't bring a gold medal, but there is a far greater reward. Nothing compares to comforting a sick child and helping, of course, to entice a smile.

Pub Date: 7/21/96

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