Satisfying Silver for Team USA Women Gives Allison Schmitt Double-Digit Medals in Her Illustrious Career

katie ledecky, katie mclaughlin, paige madden, allison schmitt, 2021 tokyo olympics
Katie Ledecky, Katie McLaughlin, Paige Madden and Allison Schmitt (left to right) earned silver for the United States in the women's 800 free relay -- Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports

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Satisfying Silver for Team USA Women Gives Allison Schmitt Double-Digit Medals in Her Illustrious Career

Before the women’s 800 free relay final had fully played out in exhilarating and completely unexpected fashion, the opening leg swimmers set the tone for their teams. There was China’s Yang Junxuan, swimming seven tenths faster than she had in the individual 200 free final to build her country a lead. Australia’s Ariarne Titmus was a second slower than her day-before best, putting her country in a hole from which it could never recover. And 14-year-old Summer McIntosh raced to a lifetime best on the opening split for Canada.

Fourth, meanwhile, was Allison Schmitt of the United States. She was behind, but that was OK. She did her job. And for the 10th time in her career, that was enough to earn Schmitt Olympic hardware. That accomplishment was historic, but the full story begins back in 2008, when the Canadian one lane over from Schmitt and 17 years her junior was barely one year old.

Jul 27, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Allison Schmitt (USA) after the women's 200m freestyle semifinals during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Allison Schmitt after the 200 free semifinals at the Tokyo Olympics — Photo Courtesy: Robert Hanashiro/USA Today Sports

When she qualified for her first Olympics, Schmitt was a goofy 18-year-old who had trained with an elite group of postgrad men (including Michael Phelps) at the University of Michigan, not far from her Canton, Mich., hometown. She had finished a close second to Katie Hoff, one of the premier American swimmers at that time, in the 200 free at U.S. Olympic Trials. Schmitt was not at her best at the Beijing Olympics, finishing ninth in the 200 free by 0.01 and then swimming almost two seconds off her best time on an 800 free relay leadoff, that still resulted in Schmitt earning her first Olympic medal.

Teaming up with Natalie Coughlin, Caroline Burckle and Hoff, the Americans won bronze in the 800 free relay that day, a disappointing result but still a massive six seconds under the previous world record. Coincidentally, that race would earn Coughlin the ninth Olympic medal of her decorated career, and she would earn two more medals in Beijing and a further medal at the 2012 Olympics. That left Coughlin with 12 total medals at the culmination of her Olympic career, tied with Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres for most all-time among U.S. women.

When the next Olympiad rolled around, Schmitt was 22, a veteran on the U.S. team, and that was her finest moment in competition. Schmitt won five medals at the 2012 London Games – in order, bronze in the 400 free relay, silver in the 400 free, gold in the 200 free, gold in the 800 free relay and then, even though she was not one of the Americans’ representatives in the 100 free, she anchored the 400 medley relay to another gold medal.

In London, Schmitt set a 400 free American record of 4:01.77, a mark that would not last long as Katie Ledecky broke 4:00 and began her reign over the world in that event just a year later. But Schmitt’s gold-medal winning time in the 200 free, 1:53.63, made her the second-fastest performer in history to that point (and the fastest in a textile suit). That time remains the American record, and it was the Olympic record until this week in Tokyo, when Titmus barely surpassed it on her way to Olympic gold.

However, after all that success, the next quad was a struggle for “Schmitty.” A post-Olympic letdown morphed into depression. Her infectious, charismatic attitude began to fade, and her swimming deteriorated as she failed to qualify for either the 2013 or 2015 World Championships. In 2015, the tide began to turn when Schmitt came forward about her struggles with mental health. She resolved to help others deal with their own mental health issues, making plans to go back to school to get her masters degree in social work.

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Allison Schmitt all smiles before a race in May 2021 — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

And around that time, her swimming rebounded. She qualified for her third Olympic team, this time as a relay-only swimmer, by placing fourth in the 200 free and fifth in the 100 free at Olympic Trials. She added two more medals to her collection, a gold in the 800 free relay and a silver in the 400 free relay, giving her eight total for her career.

After Rio, Schmitt was done, definitively. She had no desire to continue. During the entire process of training for, qualifying for and swimming in Rio, Schmitt’s longtime coach, Bob Bowman, had sensed that Schmitt was motivated by fear rather than desire, and qualifying for Rio had been a relief rather than a chance for exuberance. The love of the process of pushing herself to be the best and even her interactions with the water was gone.

But that was it, both Bowman and Schmitt thought. Great career done. Then, after a year away, Schmitt began inching back towards the pool – a practice here and there with Bowman’s group at Arizona State turned into more. She refused to call it a comeback until it was just that, and in the summer of 2018, Schmitt swam faster than she had in years as she finished second to Ledecky in the 200 free at U.S. Nationals in 1:55.82.

In the years following, Schmitt would not swim that quick a time again. Her performance at the 2019 World Championships was not great. The COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the 2020 season, which Schmitt anticipated as her last as a competitor, just like 2016 was supposed to be, and the Tokyo Olympics were pushed back to 2021. So Schmitt went to her fourth Olympic Trials as a 31-year-old, and just like the previous three, she got the job done. In Omaha this year, Schmitt finished second in the 200 free – grabbing the individual event spot by 0.01 over Paige Madden – and sixth in the 100 free.

She joined rarified air: four-time Olympian. She became just the fifth of those among U.S. swimmers, joining Jill Sterkel, Thompson, Torres and Amanda Beard.

Even as Schmitt’s swimming rose and dipped, her leadership skills never faltered, and she was unsurprisingly bestowed the honor of 2021 U.S. Olympic team captain for the second straight Games. She is the only swimmer over age 30 on this squad, a critical veteran presence for a group replete with teenagers and rookies.

In Tokyo, Schmitt swam on the 400 free relay in prelims and earned a bronze medal for those efforts. Her individual swim in the 200 free was not the best, a 1:56.87 that left her 10th overall, but Schmitt’s Olympic Trials form was less than a tenth quicker.

Jul 29, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; USA celebrates their silver in the women's 4x200m freestyle relay final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Katie McLaughlin (left) and Allison Schmitt after the U.S. women took silver in the 800 free relay — Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports

She would have one more race in Tokyo, leading off the U.S. women’s 800 free relay. She would swim with two 24-year-olds, Ledecky and Madden, and a 22-year-old, Katie McLaughlin (and one of the prelims swimmers, Bella Sims, is just 16, barely half Schmitt’s age). All of Schmitt’s teammates have raved about her as a person since the moment they qualified for Tokyo. Ledecky said of Schmitt, “her smile brings people to her.” McLaughlin called Schmitt “an amazing leader” and “such a steady positive energy that is really amazing to be around.” Madden said, “I have looked up to her for a long time.”

With that trio, Schmitt swam – presumably – her final Olympic race. The Americans hoped to be perfect to make sure they secured a medal, and they very nearly were. Schmitt led off in 1:56.34, her quickest time in three years. Madden split 1:55.25, McLaughlin 1:55.38, and Ledecky came home in 1:53.76, racing past favored Australia and nearly catching gold medalist China.

The Americans earned silver, but this was no gold medal lost. They had each performed brilliantly and broken the previous world record in the process. The quartet was beaming, arms wrapped around each other as they stood with NBC’s Michele Tafoya for a post-race interview.

Now for the new numbers on Schmitt: she is just the 13th American woman in any sport to win medals in four different Olympic Games and the third swimmer, joining Thompson and Torres. The 10th Olympic medal of her career moves her to ninth all-time in medals among female Olympians in any sport from any nation and fourth among Americans behind Thompson, Torres and Coughlin, who all have 12. The 800 free relay silver broke a tie with U.S. track star Allyson Felix. Coincidentally, Ledecky earned her ninth career Olympic medal in that same relay, and she is likely to move into a tie with Schmitt at 10 medals should she win a medal in the 800 free as expected.

Of course, in the moment, the historical nature of the moment was secondary. The swimmers were wearing masks in their NBC interview, but their joy radiated through, the tone undoubtedly set by their oldest teammate, the one who bridged the gap between generations of swimming greats and brought the same cheerful attitude to the Olympic pool deck in 2021 that she first brought 13 years earlier.

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