Allison Schmitt Builds Lasting Legacy as Olympic Champion, Mental Health Advocate

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Allison Schmitt smiles after winning the 200 free. Photo Courtesy: Connor Trimble

Allison Schmitt still has big goals and plenty to prove.

• The U.S. star and Olympic gold medalist is proving that talking about mental health helps others not feel alone.

• She is proving that strong bodies are beautiful bodies.

• She is proving that at 30, age is just a number.

• And she is trying to prove to herself that she can still reach her goals in the sport and make a fourth Olympic team.

“Any time you get to represent the U.S. is a complete honor,” said Schmitt, the 2012 Olympic champion in the 200 free. “I don’t know if I can ever really put that into words—how special it is to represent our country. It is such an incredible feeling to represent those closest to you and a flag of your country.

“It would be a complete honor to represent the U.S. at the highest level of our sport again.”

Of course, it is still a long road ahead due to the COVID-19 pandemic pushing the Olympics to 2021.

But Schmitt, like swimmers around the world, are fighting through it and trying to make the best of it, no matter how difficult the pandemic has been at times.

“I can’t say it was easy—a lot of down times and a lot of tears. I am super grateful to have the support that I have had through those closest to me. I wouldn’t have made it through this thing in one piece without them,” said Schmitt, an eight-time Olympic medalist who competed for the U.S. in 2008, 2012 and 2016.“I think that everyone is going through it in their own way, not just athletes. Working from home, school from home, losing a job. Everyone is going through something. We just have to be kind to each other.”

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Allison Schmitt. Photo Courtesy: Connor Trimble

HELPING HERSELF AND OTHERS

The pandemic has caused big life changes for many people, many of whom have been essentially cooped up at home for months. That takes a huge toll, especially mentally.

Allison Schmitt has been very public with her own mental health struggles, and has been working as a counselor at Arizona State, where she currently trains with Bob Bowman, to help others struggling with mental health issues.

“The biggest thing is for people to understand it is OK to reach out and ask for help. It is not the easiest thing,” she said. “It is a cycle with ups and downs. I feel like it just keeps going around and around.”

Schmitt said the most difficult part of her own fight was simply admitting that she needed help, something not so simple.

“It is annoying to me to feel depressed about things, but you have to be empathetic to yourself. It is OK to have those down times and OK to reach out. You feel like you don’t want to be a bother to someone else,” she said. “I have been shown how much people care for me, even when I feel like I am losing hope or don’t know what is next.”

Being outspoken about her own journey has impacted many, which is the reason Schmitt decided to open up publicly in the first place.

“It is definitely the goal, helping others. That is a passion and why I speak out about it,” she said. “I understand how easy it is to get into your own head and feel like you are going through it alone. But I have realized that people care.“That came to me after seeing how many people were at my cousin’s funeral—some people who didn’t even know her well. People from all over came, and to see how many people’s lives she had impacted, it is definitely a reason to speak out to let others know they aren’t alone—even when our brains try to trick us to think we are alone.”

Swimming World November 2020 Cover - Allison Schmitt - with Michael and Nicole Phelps 2015

Nicole Phelps, Michael Phelps and Allison Schmitt. Photo Courtesy: Annie Grevers

Schmitt also wanted to show the world that world-class athletes are still human and have the same struggles that others face on a daily basis.“People look at athletes or celebrities as super human, and I think that people speaking out about the normalcy of their lives and relating it to themselves makes everyone more human and hopefully inspires people that they can do it,” she said. “We are all in this together.”

It is a simple, but meaningful mantra—something she learned as a young swimmer when Michael Phelps took Schmitt under his wing, something she is trying to do now for others in the sport.

“I have been through a lot within the sport and outside the sport. I hope speaking out has humanized me,” Schmitt said. “Ever since I started training with Bob’s (Bowman) group in high school in 2006, at 16, Michael took me under his wing right away. Throughout the years that we have swum together, he was always the big brother to me, showing me the way.“He showed that he believed in me—the greatest Olympian of all time believed in me! I never looked at him like that, but just as a relatable person. That really helped me get through those times and get to the highest level.“It’s all about being there for the younger swimmers to help them or show them the ropes. As a swimmer, I don’t feel like I am 30 years old. There are times when I have to recover more than I would at 20 years old. But at the end of the day, I love racing and am just as able to race. I am probably even stronger than I was then.”

WORLD-CLASS OPPORTUNITY

When Allison Schmitt emerged onto the national scene as a teenager from Canton, Mich., very few swimmers attempted to continue their professional careers into their 30s. For more than a decade, though, swimmers have shown they can still be world-class performers at an older age: Dara Torres staged a successful comeback in her 40s, veterans Phelps and Ryan Lochte have also swum well, as have sprinters such as Nathan Adrian, Anthony Ervin and Cullen Jones.Schmitt is doing the same, and she’s happy that the opportunity is still there.

“It is incredible—I mean, 50 years ago there weren’t sponsors or opportunities for females who do sports in college or beyond college. To be able to have those opportunities, I am grateful for all of those who helped pave that path. It is huge and hopefully will help inspire some girls to know their peak isn’t at 15-16, 20-21, but it can be at different times.

“I hope that I am able to inspire someone to continue on with their passions and not be dictated by what society deems right or wrong or appropriate. Having the opportunity to race at 30 years old is a different perspective. I am lucky my body has held up, but sport does not last forever. However, the lessons learned in sport do,” she said. “That is what will stick with me forever.”

One of those lessons is being comfortable in your own skin, and helping other athletes realize a strong body is a beautiful body. That hasn’t always been what society at large has believed, and Schmitt wants to continue to change the mindset of people, especially young, female athletes.

“A lot of society deems being pretty as being petite and not strong with muscles that aren’t cut. But strong is beautiful,” Schmitt said. “Even though we are deemed to be less strong than men, we are still able to stand our own and be strong. That is turning out to be a powerful movement, especially in the era of social media—having girls see athletes have success and how our bodies are.“We are not all the same. It is not a mold. We are all made our own way—understanding that you are beautiful in your own way.”

IMPORTANCE OF TEAM

Another one of those lessons has been learning about the strength of a team, especially in the face of COVID-19.

“I was pretty lucky that I got to stay in the water for the most part. I got to swim at a country club down the street from me. At the same time, I did a lot of biking. I have gone hundreds of miles on my beach cruiser,” Allison Schmitt said.“Even with the pool open, it definitely was not easy. Swimming is an individual sport, but it is so much of a team sport. You rely on your teammates to get you through tough days. It is just not the same doing a workout alone.

“I am grateful to be back at the ASU pool and have everyone there. I am still going through the ups and downs of it. When you have your pool taken away, it is almost like you feel defeated. During the pandemic, I have reached out to people on the national team or ASU swimmers to see how they are doing. But being able to reach out and have those friendships is big.

“It is just rolling with the punches. I am grateful that the Olympics were postponed and not canceled. Just because the date has changed doesn’t mean my goals have changed. It has been a whirlwind emotionally and mentally because of the unknowns.”

THE HUMAN FACTOR

Allison Schmitt was part of a national championship team at the University of Georgia in 2013 and joined, the Cali Condors of the International Swimming League, helping the Condors win the ISL championship.

Allison Schmitt (photo: Mike Lewis)

Allison Schmitt. Photo Courtesy: MIKE LEWIS / ISL

“I am super excited to race and have that opportunity,” she said before heading to Budapest for the ISL season. “I am excited to race the best in the world. The Condors roster is super fun with a big SEC family. I am thankful that Jason (Lezak) called me up for a spot,” she said.“My focus is definitely on the Olympics, but I am ecstatic to race”—especially with a new team with former teammates, some former opponents and some new, but familiar faces.

“The swimming family is so big, yet so small,” Schmitt said. “We are a tight family with that camaraderie to be humans with each other.”

It is human to need others, for which Schmitt has helped advocate, and it is human to strive for goals even when they don’t seem achievable.

Goals of helping people have kept Schmitt involved in mental health advocacy. Goals of being a strong role model have kept her looking out for younger swimmers. And goals not yet achieved in the pool have kept her striving to do her best in practice and remain on the world’s biggest stage.

“Obviously, I am not just swimming to swim. There are goals I still want to accomplish. Whether those happen or not, I am happy to be back and continuing swimming,” Allison Schmitt said. “The reward at the end is fulfilling and exciting, but the journey is so much fun. I know there are a lot of doubters out there, but at the end of the day, that doesn’t matter. I believe in myself and that is all that really matters.”

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