Allison Schmitt Returns to U.S. Team with Emotion and Inspiration

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

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By David Rieder.

Katie Ledecky pulled herself across her lane and over the lane line. Wearing a face of pure joy, she threw two arms around the woman who had swum in lane two, Allison Schmitt. This reaction was nothing like Ledecky’s upon winning any of her five career Olympic gold medals or setting a world record.

This was for Schmitt, a three-time Olympian as well as the American record-holder and 2012 Olympic gold medalist in the 200 free. Schmitt had just pulled off perhaps the most unlikely result of her swimming career—runner-up in the 200 free at Nationals.

Just seven months after committing herself to a comeback in the sport, Schmitt had qualified to represent the United States at the Pan Pacific Championships, and in the process, she had swum her fastest time in six years.

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Schmitt and Katie Ledecky after the 200 free final — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Yes, at 1:55.82, Schmitt swam faster than she had since those 2012 Olympics in London. But that’s not why Ledecky and Elizabeth Beisel, Schmitt’s best friend and Olympic teammate watching on deck, and so many others around the country were filled with joy when they saw her results.

It’s because Schmitt came back from the lowest of the low. It’s because four years ago at Nationals in Irvine, Schmitt had to force a smile when she faced the media after missing the A-final in the 200 free. It’s because she overcame her darkest demons and confronted them in public, becoming an inspiration to so many.

And it’s because Schmitt is back, swimming and competing at the elite level, because she truly wants to be.

The journey began one year ago, when Schmitt thought she had said good-bye to the sport forever. After counting down the days to the end of the Rio Olympics, Schmitt entered graduate school at Arizona State University, pursuing a masters degree in social work.

At that point, Schmitt saw a clear mission: To help people dealing with the same demons she was. She fine-tuned her message: “It’s okay to not be okay.” Beginning in the spring of 2015, she had acknowledged her own battle with depression and begun speaking out on the importance of mental health issues, but now that would become her life’s work.

So why swim? Because Schmitt wanted to get back in shape. “And get tan,” she added. “That’s it.” So during the fall, she would swim with the ASU team and her old coach, Bob Bowman, twice a week, maybe three times per week if she felt like it. Then, when she ended up enjoying herself, she found herself coming to the pool more often.

“At first, I was like, ‘I met my quota, two practices a week,’” Schmitt said. “But when the ASU team started asking if I was coming more, I was like, ‘Okay, I don’t have anything to do this afternoon. I’ll come for two hours to swim.’ It turned into that, and I was having so much fun with it.”

On January 1, 2018, the comeback escalated to full-time. Training for just a few months and swimming in just two meets before Nationals, Schmitt quickly recaptured form as one of the country’s elite 200 freestylers. But the comeback was never about that.

Before her 200 free final Thursday evening at U.S. Nationals, she needed a reminder, and she got it from Michael Phelps, the 23-time Olympic gold medalist and a man Schmitt considers an older brother. Phelps sent Schmitt “paragraphs of messages” reminding her that it really didn’t matter one iota if she qualified for Pan Pacs or not.

“I needed to hear that,” she said. “Sometimes you can get caught up in things, and he reminded me that swimming is such a small part of life, and yes, I love it and I’m so excited to be back and competing again, but at the end of the day, it is a sport, and it doesn’t matter if you get first or last—you’re still loved by the same people, and you’re still who you are.”

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

But make no mistake about it: This runner-up finish was a victory, not just for Schmitt but for her many supporters around the country and the world. Swimming a race like that one, it was hard not to cheer and be truly happy for her.

In the sport where she found refuge, the sport that “actually saved me,” the 28-year-old found her stroke again. Standing next to Ledecky on deck for a post-race television interview with NBC, Schmitt said that she could barely keep herself from crying.

Two races later, 200 breast national champion Micah Sumrall stood in the same spot and called Schmitt an inspiration. At the height of her swimming career in 2015, Sumrall (then Micah Lawrence) began “just feeling like my world was coming down on me.”

After a crushing fourth-place finish in the 200 breast at the 2016 Olympic Trials and a brief hiatus from the sport, Sumrall came back because she wanted to—just like Schmitt. And Thursday evening, as Schmitt wore a shirt that read “Mental health is just as important as physical health,” Sumrall won a national title in her signature event in 2:22.08, the fourth-fastest time in the world.

“My voice is being heard, and that’s the biggest thing I can say out of any of this,” Schmitt said. “To know that saying something about mental health, that it’s okay to not be okay, it means the world that I can save one life or if I can save hundreds or millions or whatever it is. I’m happy that if I’m vulnerable and I can speak out about it, then I can help someone else.”

As for the hugs and screams Schmitt and Ledecky shared upon touching the wall and securing her trip to Japan to Pan Pacs? That was two young women ecstatic with the knowledge that they would again team up for an American 4×200 free relay.

“We thought that 2016 (at the Olympics) was our first relay together and our last one,” Schmitt said. “We’ve been through stuff together and we’re about to go through more together.”

13 comments

  1. Bonnie Downes Ellis

    You rock !!!! Watched your 200 tonight!!! Keep having fun. ??

  2. Nancy Harms

    Hooray Allison Schmitt! Have fun!!!! Be proud.

  3. Tony Schorr

    Congratulations Allison!!!??

  4. Susan L. Lansbury

    Love this girl…always my swimming hero???‍♀️?‍♀️

  5. Julia Himmelsbach

    awesome we all hope that she does well and that she going with every breathe and everything and that hopefully she will be in the olympics for 2020

  6. avatar
    Anonymous

    Way to go Allison!

  7. Vicki Marsh

    Awesome race last night!! So happy for you!!! Well deserved ❤️

  8. avatar
    Mandi

    Congratulations on a very good swim and more importantly, in finding happiness!