Allison Schmitt: Confronting depression led to more wins in pool
One last gold medal was worth the wait for Allison Schmitt. But it was the embrace that followed that meant even more for the 26-year-old swimmer from Canton, as she left behind her teammates and scrambled up the bleachers inside Rio’s Olympic Aquatics Stadium, determined to reach her teary-eyed parents.
The victory lap could wait, and so would the photos with the rest of the dominant U.S. women’s freestyle relay team. Schmitt wanted this moment with her family, more than anything, after all they’d been through the past few years.
“I wouldn’t have had it any other way,” Schmitt said of the hugs she shared with her mother, Gail, and her father, Ralph.
They’d seen so many races and cheered so many wins over the years, they’d all lost count. And this was the third Olympic trip for the Schmitts, as Allison, the middle child in a bustling bunch of five in her family, became one of the most decorated swimmers in U.S. history. With two more medals won in Rio this August — gold and silver as part of relay teams — she now has eight for her career, fourth-most by an American woman.
But it was the aftermath of her breakout performance at the 2012 London Olympics that fueled this most recent drive, as the always-cheery “Schmitty” found herself battling severe depression as she finished college and began her professional career.
It reached a breaking point nearly two years ago, when Schmitt, whose post-Olympic blues had turned into something much darker, opened up to her coaches and training partner Michael Phelps, a close friend for nearly a decade. She began seeing a psychologist, but the confusing emotional swings persisted, and it wasn’t until the funeral for her 17-year-old cousin, April Bocian, a talented athlete and kindred spirit who’d committed suicide in 2015, that Schmitt finally told her parents just how tormented she’d been feeling.
“I was scared,” said Ralph Schmitt, a retired financial analyst. “I mean, here’s my niece and what happened to her, and I thought, ‘Oh, my God.’ ”
But his daughter did more than ask for help after that. Schmitt also went public with her story of depression, determined to let others know, “that it’s OK not to be OK.”
“But important thing,” she said, “is you need to talk to someone about it.”
And that’s what Schmitt has done over the last year, speaking out about her personal struggles while championing mental-health advocacy — even as she trained for and competed in what likely were her last Olympics.
“It has opened up our eyes a lot, and it’s a never-ending thing now,” Ralph Schmitt said of his daughter’s fight, “but I think she’s in a good spot right now.”
Schmitt, who’ll be one of the celebrities in this year’s Thanksgiving Parade in Detroit, took time off after Rio to travel to South America, Thailand and Australia with her friend and teammate, Elizabeth Beisel. She also visited the White House with the rest of the U.S. Olympic roster. Schmitt plans to enroll in graduate school this winter to pursue a master’s degree in psychology and continue her work to destigmatize mental illness.
“I don’t want to compare my story to anybody else’s story, and I don’t want anybody else’s story to be compared to mine,” Schmitt said. “Every person is unique. But I can speak out about mine and hope that helps other people to speak out about theirs.
“And I don’t want people to feel sorry for me. I don’t want people to feel sorry for my cousin. It happened, and it happens, and the only thing we can do is recognize the troubles people have gone through and learn from them.”
Occupation: Olympic swimmer
Education: Bachelor’s degree, University of Georgia
Why honored: Four-time Olympic gold medalist has become champion for mental-health advocacy