By Mike Watkins//Correspondent | Thursday, July 5, 2018
Allison Schmitt’s first practices last year after an extended break weren’t done with the intention of making a swimming comeback.
The multiple Olympic gold medalist returned to the water more than a year after her final swims at the 2016 Olympics because she wanted to lose weight – not to add more titles and hardware to her already impressive resume.
However, once she started getting fit and tan, she realized she still liked swimming and wasn’t as done with it as she thought she was.
“I thought, ‘you know what, I like swimming,’ and I definitely still have the competitive edge in me,” she said. “After being out of the sport and then having the opportunity to come back, I’ve had a completely different, refreshed mindset about it.
“I have nothing left to prove and am swimming for myself and enjoying the entire process. I’m very fortunate to be able to come back to the sport and compete on my own terms.”
Following the Rio Games – where she won gold and silver relay medals – Schmitt took time off but never officially retired. Despite not competing, she still had the responsibilities of a professional swimmer, particularly continuing to be drug-tested.
She traveled for a few months with no thoughts or responsibilities of training to worry about. She and Olympic teammate and friend Elizabeth Beisel documented some of their travels and adventures with the hashtag #SchmeiselWorldTour.
They started with a clinic in West Virginia, went to a few places in Thailand, then the Australian Gold Coast before heading back to Washington D.C. to host the U.S. Olympics Awards Show. She then started graduate school at Arizona State in January 2017.
Slowly but surely, thoughts and suggestions of returning to swimming crept back into her daily life.
One day, she was challenged to an off-the-block 100 freestyle by Michael and Nicole (Phelps) and Grant (Hackett). She swam pretty fast and jokingly said “I still got it,” but still had no intention to compete again.
She came to a few practices a few times a week, but then some of her teammates started asking if she’d be back for practice the next day.
“I felt loved that they loved swimming with me as much as I loved swimming with them,” she said. “Since I was having fun and had the time between classes to go to singles, three practices a week turned into six practices a week.”
Then, Michael (Phelps) jokingly Instagramed she was coming back, that was when she realized the tremendous influence and reach of social media when NBC Olympics picked up his message.
Suddenly, everyone thought she was making a comeback, which she said she had no intention of doing. After three weeks of constant questions, she refused to engage the topic.
Then one night, she was doing homework at the kitchen table when Nicole (Phelps) mentioned the comeback.
“She thought it was a good idea, but for every reason she stated, I had a rebuttal,” Schmitt said. “That night, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The next day, I went into Bob’s (Bowman) office to talk about the possibility of swimming full time with school and public speaking.
“I told him that if he didn’t think I had a shot, I would walk out with no regrets. I think you know what happened from there. I started full time training in January.”
One thing Schmitt, known to friends, family and fans as Schmitty, did to fill the time during her swimming absence was speak openly and freely about her personal struggle with depression – which she started experiencing symptoms of shortly after coming home from the 2012 Olympics.
In her mind, she was supposed to be celebrating and relaxing with friends and family over her Olympic success – five medals including three gold and world and Olympic records in London – but felt disassociated from it all.
“I started to feel disconnected from everyone; people were saying they wished they were me and how lucky I was to have gold medals,” she said. “It was like I had reached the happily ever after at the end of the movie but couldn’t enjoy it because I had no plans for the sequel.”
She said she buried her thoughts and feelings, which led to isolation.
“Depressed? No, not me. I couldn’t be. I had just had the most successful summer of my swimming career,” Schmitt said. “I came home to the best support system that I could have asked for – my family, friends, community and school. Everyone seemed to be on my side and I was extremely grateful…grateful, but not happy.
“And I didn’t know why. I couldn’t answer the question ‘what’s wrong’ because I honestly did not know. I didn’t know how to voice my feelings. I managed to put on a happy mask when I saw my friends, family and fans. I could paint a smile on my face for a ‘candid’ social media post. I knew what I was supposed to feel and say which made it easy to mask my true inner feelings.”
Schmitt added that as much as she tried to hide her feelings from herself and others, she wasn’t convincing herself.
She tried reading positive-thinking books, listened to motivational self-talks and “sleeping it off,” but nothing worked.
After nearly two years of showing a brave face, she couldn’t take it anymore.
“I hated – and hate is not a term I ever use lightly – the way I was thinking and the way I was acting,” she said. “I hated being with myself, so I did not believe that other people would want to be around me.
“My help arrived at a swim meet – a place I shared with friends, Olympic teammates and fans who looked up to me. The pool was the only place I truly felt safe.”
After a race where it was apparent that she didn’t give it her full effort, Michael extended his hand and offered something she desperately needed – help.
“After multiple ‘Are you okays?’ and ‘Is there anything I can help you with?’ from others at the meet, this one caught me off guard,” Schmitt said. “His words hit me hard. ‘Schmitty, I can tell there’s something up. I’ve been through everything you can imagine. I’m here for you, and I will help you if you want me to or I can find someone to help you.’”
She immediately broke down in tears, saying, “I do. I do need help.” She said she couldn’t believe that those words came out of her mouth, and she couldn’t believe she was crying in front of everyone.
For the next two hours, she sat on that pool deck and talked, not really knowing what she was saying, as Michael, Bob and (Coach) Keenan (Robinson) sat there consoling her.
“I felt embarrassed, shocked and angry that I had let my guard down,” she admitted. “Three days later, I was driving to my first appointment to see a psychologist. A psychologist!? I thought, ‘Am I crazy? Is this going to be like the movies? Are people going to laugh at me? Am I going to be judged?’ I was mortified and filled with shame and fear.”
Now, almost two years later, Schmitt said she couldn't be more grateful for the help she received.
“I’m grateful for my life, both the bad times and the good. I’m grateful for the people who have stood by my side through my struggles and hardships, and I’m grateful that I had friends who were brave enough to say something to me,” she said.
And she’s particularly grateful for swimming – something she said saved her life on multiple occasions and in multiple ways.
As an athlete who has been diagnosed with depression, she was constantly asked why she continued to swim. What many did not understand, she said, is that swimming was not the cause.
When she was outside of the pool, she felt as though her life was spiraling out of control, and she believed she was no longer in control of her emotions, her life and her relationships and didn’t know where to turn.
“Stepping up on the blocks again made me feel like I was on the right path,” said Schmitt, who is continuing to work toward her master’s degree in social work at ASU while she trains for the 2020 Olympics. She also continues to be a mental health advocate and speak publicly about her experiences.
“I’ve always loved swimming, but I didn’t end the way I wanted to. I still feel excited for new goals I have in the sport which has helped rejuvenate my love of swimming again.”