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Canton Olympian Allison Schmitt battles against depression

Childs Walker
Baltimore Sun
Allison Schmitt, second from left, celebrates with teammates after winning the 4x200 meter freestyle relay at the Pan Am Games on Thursday.

Allison Schmitt did not want to cry. And she especially hated letting her tears flow on a pool deck where she was surrounded by Olympic teammates and other elite swimmers from around the country.

Michael Phelps, whom she regards like an older brother, urged her to spill whatever feelings were tormenting her. Coaches Bob Bowman and Keenan Robinson also stood beside her, ready to listen.

So for more than an hour, as a meet in Austin, Texas, unfolded in the background, Schmitt told them the truth.

Despite a cheerful exterior, she had felt deeply sad a lot of the time, going back to the months after the 2012 Olympics in London, where she won three gold medals. Hard as she tried, she could not pull herself out of this emotional ditch. She slept away whole days rather than confront the outside world.

"There were times I didn't like being around myself, so I figured why would other people want to be around me?" says the 25-year-old Schmitt, a native of Canton, Mich., who has trained with Phelps and Bowman at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club since before the 2008 Olympics.

"She said she just felt so down, and Allison is a person who's never down," Bowman recalls. "I didn't realize how disengaged from everything she'd become."

The Austin meet was six months ago, and Schmitt says she's come a long way since then, attending regular therapy sessions and learning to cope with emotions she never knew she harbored. Back in the pool, Schmitt is competing this week in the Pan Am Games in Toronto.

But she might not be talking about all of this if not for a tragedy that hit close to home. In early May, Schmitt's 17-year-old cousin, April Bocian of Grove City, Pa., committed suicide. She was a high school junior with a promising future as a basketball player, and no one had suspected anything was wrong.

As Schmitt mourned, it hit her that she might be able to help others step off similarly dark paths. If she spoke out about her struggles and need for help, others might take an Olympic champion's cue.

"She felt she was trapped," Schmitt says of her cousin. "And I realized that if I could save one life by telling people that's not the case, I would love to do that."

She gave her first public interview on the subject in late May and is prepared to tell her story again and again as the 2016 Olympics approach.

The terrible trick of it, Schmitt says, is that elite athletes are taught to rely only on themselves as they endure pain that might cripple an average person. No one would jump in the pool to pull her through the last 50 meters of a grueling race. So why would she suddenly think to reach for help just because the pain was happening in her mind?

Depression is experienced by more than 16 percent of U.S. adults at some point in their lives. Schmitt is not the first high-level athlete to go public with mental health struggles. Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Zack Greinke, who started Tuesday night's MLB All-Star Game for the National League, Australian swimming star Ian Thorpe and tennis star Jennifer Capriati are among those who went before.

Yet such troubles remain stigmatized for many. Even after she'd opened up to Phelps, Bowman and Robinson, Schmitt was reluctant to confront her problems fully. She never wanted to admit she was going to a therapist. She'd just say she had to step out for a meeting.

"I always wanted to give help," Schmitt says. "I never wanted to ask for it."

"You see that dynamic among any group of high-performing people, whether we're talking about athletes, surgeons or fighter pilots," says Doug Gardner, a California-based sports psychology consultant who has worked with Olympians and the NFL Players Association. "Athletes in individual sports, especially, hold onto responsibility for their problems to an unfair degree. You see them internalize all this stuff until they reach a breaking point."

Different feeling

As far as the outside world was concerned, Schmitt achieved a remarkable apex in the summer of 2012, when she won five Olympic medals. It was the kind of performance from which a person could draw bliss for the rest of her life. Or so it seemed to the fans who frequently approached Schmitt in the weeks and months after London.

But her internal experience was more complicated.

Allison Schmitt: "I always wanted to give help. I never wanted to ask for it."

Schmitt felt ensconced in a bubble during the Olympics, her every want and need met by those around her. When she returned home to Canton, for a celebratory parade, she hoped to resume being plain old Schmitty.

It didn't work that way. People who'd known her forever swarmed her and at the same time, seemed oddly intimidated by her. She appreciated the support and relished seeing the smiles on kids' faces as they touched her medals. But it was hard not to feel like an alien.

She remembers one scene at her mother's office, where she became so overwhelmed by well wishers that she broke into tears and fled.

"So many people wanted a piece of me," she says.

The discomfort didn't go away when she returned to the University of Georgia to finish college. She couldn't even go to the bus stop without attracting a crowd.

She could always dig up a goofy smile on demand, and her 6-foot-1 frame made it impossible for her to hide. So she understood why others viewed her as such a lovable figure.

"Allison never wants to let anyone down," Bowman says.

Bowman realized something was seriously wrong last summer, when Schmitt failed to qualify for the World Championship team. She had trained reasonably hard in the months leading to Phillips 66 National Championships. But when she jumped in the pool, she swam like a ghost of herself.

"It wasn't physical," Bowman says. "I remember I turned to one of my coaches and said, 'What the hell is going on here?'"

Not every swimmer needs to be happy to perform optimally. But for Schmitt, the correlation is clear. As she has embraced treatment and gained control of her emotions, her results have improved.

'Bigger than my fears'

Bowman says he's more forgiving of her bad days at practice, though he still believes she's an athlete who needs to be pushed hard. She agrees, saying criticism of her swimming never lay at the root of her sadness.

With encouragement from coaches and teammates, Schmitt has come to think of therapy sessions like any other doctor appointments. Working on her mental health is no more embarrassing than rehabilitating a sore knee.

Now, she urges any young person who feels stuck in a cycle of sadness to tell a parent, coach or teacher.

Schmitt was nervous about describing her experience to the wider world. But she's received letters from people who say they were encouraged by her example. Other swimmers have approached her to say they lived through similar struggles.

Bowman says he couldn't be prouder.

"It did kind of scare me," Schmitt says of telling her story. "But the goals I have, they're bigger than my fears."