Sierra Schmidt’s New Approach to Swimming Has Led to One of the Best Years of Her Career

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Sierra Schmidt has changed her outlook on swimming, and it has led to vast improvements in the pool. Photo Courtesy: Connor Trimble

Sierra Schmidt has been one of the top distance freestylers in the United States the last few years.

In 2015, she won a gold medal in the 800 free for Team USA at the World Junior Championships and the Pan American Games. In 2016, she was a finalist at the Olympic Trials. Schmidt was the bronze medalist at the 2017 World University Games in the 400 freestyle and had a lot of momentum in her favor before she got to the University of Michigan in the fall of 2017.

But she did not have an idyllic first two seasons at Michigan.

Schmidt was an honorable mention All-American in the 500 her freshman and sophomore seasons at NCAAs. She was swimming personal bests, but she had been stuck at a 4:38 since she was 16. Things started looking up though when she placed sixth last year as a sophomore in the 1650 with a 15:50, beating her best time by four seconds. She was set to swim the 400 free at the World University Games again in the summer, but she admits she put so much pressure on herself to perform that she didn’t swim up to her own expectations.

She came away from Naples with another bronze in the 400 free, but the 4:11 she swam was well off her best time of 4:07 from 2017.

After she got back from WUGs, Schmidt made a breakthrough in her training and mental preparation that helped changed her mindset going into US Nationals in early August, nearly a month after the Games.

“I was going in without any pressure saying, ‘I’m going to do what I can do,’ and see where that kind of takes me,” Schmidt told Swimming World at her training trip in south Florida. “I think that was a big step in terms of mindset because I usually put a lot of pressure on myself. That was definitely the big difference.”

At Nationals, Schmidt had the meet of her life. On the first night, she finished runner-up in the 800 free with a new best time for the first time in four years. In the 400 free, she finished third, four seconds faster than her time from WUGs a month prior. To close the meet, she dropped two seconds in the 1500 from her best time that she swam in 2015 to finish third.

Three top three finishes and two new best times.

“It was definitely a really confidence building summer,” Schmidt said. “There was a lot of ups and downs throughout the season but being able to finish and take home medals and also represent Michigan in that way was really rewarding and I think it set me up for this season moving forward into the Olympic year.”

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Sierra Schmidt at US Nationals. Photo Courtesy: Connor Trimble

The experience at the World University Games played a big role in that mental transition.

“When I went into WUGs, I said I want to do this and I want to do that. I put a lot of pressure on myself to do things when the way I went into Nationals, and the way I’ve been going into meets since then, is just to see what happens and not worry about the outcome and just swim and stay in the moment and not worry about what happens at the end of the line.”

Since U.S. Nationals, Sierra Schmidt has been on a roll, including lowering her personal best time in the 1650 SCY at the Minnesota Invitational in December to break 15:50 for the first time. She was just three tenths shy of her best in the 500 and she is in a good spot heading towards Big Tens and NCAAs this semester.

Schmidt has been one of the consistent distance freestylers in the United States the last five years, making the A-Final in either the 400 or 800 free at every US Nationals since 2015. Staying at or near the top in distance freestyle is hard. It’s hard on the body and the mind to train so many yards every single day. So how is Schmidt able to stay so consistent as she gets older?

“I think it’s the team aspect. I don’t have to question myself and be like, ‘they’re not going to be happy with that race,’ or ‘I should have done better.’ It’s been a long road of them having to prove to me they are happy as long as I give it my best,” Sierra Schmidt said.

“And that has been such a huge thing to learn from them and I think that has helped me become more consistent and become more confident in myself and just learn to enjoy the sport more rather than viewing it as a bunch of races. To take the time to have fun with people so I think that has kept me from sinking.”

Being a part of a Michigan team that is consistently winning is a huge bonus. The Wolverines have won three of the last four Big Ten women’s team titles and finished in the top four at NCAAs the last two seasons, an unprecedented run.

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Michigan cheering for Sierra Schmidt in the 1500 at US Nationals. Photo Courtesy: Connor Trimble

“It’s such a privilege to be surrounded by such talented athletes and not only that but really resilient people. I feel like this team has proven to others and to ourselves time and time again that we always go through obstacles — every team has — but this team has proven every single year I’ve been here that we can get through those obstacles and we can improve,” she said.

“I think that says a lot about the culture and the people that if one of us falls down, the whole team helps them back up. I think that is what makes Michigan really special.

“Whether you are the top kid or the middle tier, wherever your position is, you are valued all the same. Every single person brings a different aspect to the team and I think that’s what has made it so special and such a privilege just to be a part of it. Additionally to all of our success in the pool, it is just nice to be surrounded by these people every day.”

Sierra Schmidt brings a lot to the table at the University of Michigan, where she is taking on the role as one of the top distance swimmers on the team, taking the reigns from G Ryan and Rose Bi before her.

Now in her junior season, Schmidt is all of a sudden a leader in the distance group that contains freshmen Kaitlynn Sims and Octavia Lau. But Schmidt admits she is still learning how to be a leader from Sims, even though she is two years younger. The pair put up 4:38’s in the 500 at the Minnesota Invite, and both swam personal bests in the 1650 to sit second and third in Division I at the halfway point of the season.

“Our biggest thing is we want to succeed together,” Schmidt said. “That is what the distance swimmers before me taught me and that is what I am passing on to Kaitlynn. In order to win a team championship and do the things we want to do as a team we have to move as a team. And it is nice knowing there is a person next to you who wants you to do well who is swimming next to you saying, ‘I want you to come catch me. I want you to challenge me.’ That helps both of us in training and in racing. We can really depend on each other to push each other to the heights we want to achieve.”

Sims has helped Schmidt look towards the positive side in workouts because she struggles with staying positive when practices get difficult. The two have their own inside jokes and songs that they sing to each other during practice that help lighten things up. And it has helped Schmidt be more consistent with her own training, something that has started to improve since she got to Michigan. Before in her career, she would have a really good day at training but then have a week of really bad practices. As she has gotten older, she has learned how to roll with the punches during hard sets.

“I’m always looking to improve and always looking for ways that I can get a better picture of what the sport is. I think that helps me continue to do the things that I can do.”

“Just this year (Kaitlynn) has taught me how to be a better teammate and be a better leader so I am so grateful for her and I really can’t wait for the next two years.”

Another thing that Sierra Schmidt brings to the table at Michigan is her video editing skills. Schmidt is a film, television and media major for the Wolverines, and she helps put together a hype video right before the team leaves for Big Ten’s. During meets when she is not swimming, she is using her camera to capture snippets in the pool for her to edit.

“I really like being able to stitch together stories and also just making things that people enjoy. Seeing everyone laugh and enjoy the videos really makes me happy.”

She has dreams of becoming an editor, and she is using the resources at the University of Michigan to follow that dream.

“I love being able to complete a vision that people have. I work at our student news station called News Feed and that has also been really fun to have a group of people outside of the swim team and seeing how they challenge themselves in school and in the industry. I just really like how I get a chance to meet other people through film and learn their stories and stitch them together in a certain way in my head.”

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Photo Courtesy: Dan D’Addona

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With the addition of the 1500 to the Olympic Games event schedule, Schmidt said she will still do the distance triple at the Olympic Trials “just to see what happens” rather than pick two to focus on, which a lot of elite distance swimmers have started to do.

“I’ve gone through Trials once so it would be nice to improve on what I did last Trials and like I said, just going out there and throwing my cards on the table and seeing where it lands me. Just enjoying the journey and the process.”

Enjoying the process has been what led to Sierra Schmidt’s recent success.

1 comment

  1. avatar
    Swim22

    Nice article about Sierra. She is a wonderful person with a lot of positive qualities beyond swimming. Her perseverance is commendable. Overall just a great kid.