By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Friday, September 7, 2018
After a 9-month sabbatical from competitive swimming, Micah Lawrence Sumrall returned incognito this spring.
Her “comeback” (although she never officially left the sport) came in early March at the TYR Pro Swim Series in Atlanta.
Funny thing is, when she was back on deck and ready for competition, she wasn’t listed as Lawrence in the heat sheets.
This time, she was back under her married name, Sumrall, and she admits it left many of her competitors unaware that it was her and that she was back in the pool ready to challenge for a spot on the U.S. National Team and 2018 Pan Pacific and 2019 World Championship teams.
“I decided to swim with my new name and even had my coach enter me in the meet with times just under the cuts to alleviate some of the pressure I would put on myself,” said Sumrall, who also competed in the Atlanta Classic, the Bulldog Grand Slam and an IMX meet in Savannah, Ga., prior to her biggest return this summer at Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships in July.
“Many of my competitors did not know it was me until after my first race, when they actually saw my face. I have definitely always been more on the private side, and being back in competitions made me very nervous. To swim under another name than my previous one was definitely tied to a sort of protective anonymity.”
Sumrall’s name change happened in January 2017 when she married longtime boyfriend and fiancé Austin Sumrall.
The couple met at Queens University when he was on the men’s college team and she was finishing her degree. Her classes were during the Team Elite’s workouts, so she trained with them a few times a week.
“I didn’t actually know his name until he came up to talk to me while I was sitting on a bench waiting for class,” she said. “I also learned that he was afraid of spiders and his dad worked at Popeye’s that day.
“We dated for 3 and a half years before we got married. He later proposed to me at that bench. Being married to him is the best. He’s extraordinarily patient and caring. He helps a lot when I go to meets to calm me down.”
Prior to her return last year, Sumrall’s last meet of note was the 2016 Olympic Trials. Having competed four years earlier at the London Olympics (finishing 6th in the 200 breaststroke final), coupled with the success she had enjoyed leading up to the meet, she was a heavy favorite to make the team again.
At the two World Championships between 2012 and 2016, she had won bronze (2013) and silver (2015) medals in her favorite event and was poised to take the next step in Rio in 2016.
But she finished a disappointing and surprising fourth at Olympic Trials and missed making the team. She took some time off after that meet then the long break before realizing she still enjoyed swimming and wanted to compete again.
“I strongly considered not going for the Olympics after 2015 World Championships, but I felt pressured to continue from many sources because of my success in Kazan, despite having had many, many, complications at that meet,” said Sumrall, who comes from a swimming family with two older sisters and a younger sister who all swam in college.
“That proved to be an indication of my growing problems with competing. I’m proud of how I did at Trials, it was the best I could do at the time, same as all the other athletes that day.”
After Trials, the Sumralls moved to Atlanta so Austin could attend law school at Georgia State University.
Sumrall said she didn’t plan on swimming again, but she didn’t want to file the paperwork to retire, so she left the door open to return.
When she was looking for a job, one of Austin’s coaches from his old club team got into contact with her and offered her a job running clinics at each of their locations throughout the week.
She had done clinics with USA Swimming previously, but said she never had the opportunity to go back and watch how the kids improved afterwards.
“It was essentially my first foray into coaching, and it sparked an interest in the sport that I didn’t have before,” she said. “I started coaching full-time in January of 2017 with Chattahoochee Gold and I got married, so it was a whirlwind of a month. Coaching and giving back to the younger generations is definitely something I never thought I would do, just because I didn’t think I would ever be able to relate to kids, the information that I knew.
“It was definitely difficult at first, and I’m still working on it, but learning to explain things in a different way was really helpful to my swimming and to my growth as a person. Seeing the excitement and the love that these kids have for the sport made me want to continue coaching and to get back in the water and try again.”
Sumrall said she was fortunate in that Chattahoochee Gold valued both ends – her coaching and return to training – and made it possible for her to do both.
But as someone who has always felt better “flying under the radar rather than being the person in the spotlight,” she said when she originally returned to swimming she was unsure about her goals.
She swam for a while and even competed in a few meets but wasn’t all-in until January of this year. That’s when she started doing doubles and taking weights seriously to prepare for her first meet.
“I don’t think I would be able to swim without coaching,” she said. “Coaching is at once humbling and a great reminder of the passion and culture that surrounds the sport. Plus, it’s really hard to think about your own issues with swimming when you’re trying to help others.”
It was that realization that she still loved swimming that drove Sumrall to return to the National swimming scene. She said her goal going into Phillips 66 Nationals was to get on the National team to alleviate some of the monetary burdens involved with going to the TYR Pro Swim Series meets.
She said prior to the meet she wasn’t even sure if she made one of the summer teams that she would even go, but her husband’s family insisted she get a passport just in case.
“Making the team, winning Nationals, and winning Pan Pacs was a huge surprise to me,” she said. “I never expected to be at this level so quickly, let alone be able to handle the pressure that goes with those kinds of meets!
“After 2015, I hated meets and dreaded going to them, so to be able to enjoy myself at a swim meet is a huge win for me. I’m very thankful my coach, Mark Schilling, could come to Nationals for my 200 breast. He was integral to my success this year because he took the time to make sure I took care of my mental health, and he helped me broaden my horizons with the other strokes, although I don’t think they’ll ever make it to a National level.
And as far as sticking around for the next Olympic Trials in 2020, Sumrall said she isn’t making any commitments right now – but you never know.
After all, she never thought she’d swim again, and now she’s preparing for World Championships next summer.
“I’m going to see how World Championships goes next summer before making any future decisions about swimming,” she said. “But I’m really excited to compete again for Team USA (at Worlds) in Gwangju (South Korea)!”