Niyo: Olympic champ dives into depression advocacy

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Colorado Springs, Colo. — There was Allison Schmitt, in all her goofy Olympic glory, dancing on the pool deck moments before winning a gold medal at the 2012 London Games, singing a Rihanna tune into a hairbrush with her Team USA roommate Elizabeth Beisel.

And yet there she was a year later, quietly sobbing in the closet of her room at the University of Georgia, hiding from friends while wondering where all the happiness in her life had gone.

“I couldn’t understand any of it,” said Schmitt, a six-time Olympic medalist from Canton. “I didn’t know why I was crying, I didn’t know why I was upset.”

She just knew something was wrong — and getting worse. And it wasn’t until the suicide death of her 17-year-old cousin, April Bocian, a fun-loving, talented athlete in her own right from Grove City, Pennsylvania, that Schmitt finally opened up to her family about the depths of her own depression. Not long after the funeral, and the revelations that left her parents back home in Michigan shaken, it was a message from April’s mother, Amy, that resonated.

“My aunt said to me, ‘You’re the first person April saved,’ and I do believe that,” said Schmitt, now 26, wiping away tears during a lengthy interview last month at the U.S. Olympic training center in Colorado Springs, where she and a group that included longtime coach Bob Bowman and close friend Michael Phelps were finishing up a six-week altitude camp in preparation for this month’s Olympic Trials. “Even though she’s not here to tell her story, we can do the best we can to help her tell it.”

And the best way Schmitt can do that, she decided, after two years of silent agony and months of therapy, is by talking about her own battle with depression, raising awareness as a mental-health advocate in the hopes that she can save someone else.

“In Allison’s story, the thing that I find so amazing is the courage for her to tell it,” said Emily Brunemann, an elite swimmer and former NCAA champion at Michigan, where she’s doing graduate research and working at the school’s Depression Center. “That’s what’s going to impact other kids, and especially younger swimmers. Because there is a huge stigma that comes with mental health in sport. I’m so excited with what’s going to come from this.”

Darkness after brilliance

Oddly enough, where it all started for Schmitt was with the elation of those 2012 Olympics, as the 22-year-old’s breakout performance — three gold medals, one silver, one bronze — took everyone by surprise. She led a dominant U.S. women’s team, anchoring all three relays in addition to winning gold and silver in her two individual events, setting Olympic and American records.

Schmitt, a former state champ at Canton High and the third of Ralph and Gail Schmitt’s five children, returned to a huge celebration in her hometown. And to plenty of buzz back at Georgia, where she’d redshirted her senior year in 2012 to train with Bowman and Phelps at their home club in Baltimore. But that’s also where the trouble began, as Schmitt, who always kept her teammates loose with her carefree attitude, suddenly felt uncomfortable in her own skin.

“I knew it didn’t really feel right from the beginning, and I knew there was something wrong, but I figured it was part attitude and part not having goals,” said Schmitt, who first joined Bowman and Phelps as a high school senior when both were based in Ann Arbor from 2004-08. “I wasn’t really expecting people to shut down around me and look at me in awe rather than talk to me like a normal person — that was probably the hardest part.

“I was told, over and over, how I should feel. ... But with that gratitude, I didn’t feel the happiness that everybody told me I should be feeling.”

Rather than addressing it, she instead started isolating herself. When her friends went out, she’d stay home, fabricating excuses. Phone calls went unanswered — texts make it easier to hide emotions. And though she’d keep smiling — social media also has a way of varnishing the truth — she’d find herself losing her temper over the slightest inconvenience. One day, it was the wrong flavor sport drink in her water bottle that set her off. The next, who knows?

Schmitt hoped a return to Baltimore after she graduated would help, but it didn’t. The endorsement deal she signed with Adidas was a relief, but also another burden. A trip home for Christmas was “miserable.” And as her performances in the pool suffered — she failed to make the U.S. team for the 2013 World Championships — so did her moods.

The post-Olympic blues are not unusual for athletes, who often struggle in the vacuum that follows the buildup as the regimented schedule gives way to uncertainty.

“Everything in their lives is geared toward that, and whether they’re successful or not, afterward with that goal not there, it’s fairly easy to kind of get lost in your own mind,” said Peter Haberl, the U.S. Olympic Committee’s senior sports psychologist. “It becomes a bit of an emotional roller coaster.”

Phelps triggered turning point

Schmitt finally found the emergency break in January 2015 at a meet in Austin, Texas, after listlessly swimming her program. It was Phelps, who’d just returned from a 45-day stint in rehab following a drunken-driving arrest and USA Swimming suspension, who broke the ice.

“He said, ‘Hey, I know that there’s something going on. If you need help, I’m here for you. I know someone that can help you,’ ” recalled Schmitt, who was joined there by Bowman and strength coach Keenan Robinson. “I immediately started crying and was like, ‘I do need help, I do.’ And the next two hours I just sat on the pool deck. I don’t know what I said. It was just like word vomit. I don’t even know if they talked back to me. They just listened to me.”

Allison Schmitt

Two days later, she was in the office of a psychologist in Baltimore for the first time. And after initially resisting — hiding behind a clipboard full of questions she wouldn’t answer — she gradually opened up. After a few months, she decided she felt “normal enough” to quit, even though deep down she knew that was a mistake.

“I always thought suicide was a very selfish thing — never really understood it,” she said.

But then she read the heart-wrenching story of Madison Holleran, a freshman track athlete at Penn who’d committed suicide months earlier.

“And that scared me,” Schmitt said. “I thought, ‘Her life sounds so much like mine.’ She was one of five siblings, she was athletic, she was in college, she had great friends, great family — everything.”

After Robinson noted she’d “liked” the story on Facebook, and asked if she was OK, Schmitt burst into tears. She lasted only seven laps in practice that day before leaving and heading back to the psychologist.

“I was terrified,” she said. “I was scared that I would do something. Even though I knew that I would never want to put anyone in that situation, I was scared of that.”

Soon after came the jarring news about her cousin, a top basketball recruit with interest from major Division I programs, including Michigan State. Allison and April last were together the summer before on a family trip to the Outer Banks in North Carolina, the two of them memorably spending an hour on paddleboards trying to find Schmitt’s GoPro she’d dropped in the ocean.

They didn’t see each other often, “but Allison and April had this bond,” said Schmitt’s father, Ralph. “They were both athletes, and I think April looked up to Allison a lot. They enjoyed each other.”

‘Floodgates just opened’

In the days immediately following April’s death, Ralph, a retired financial analyst with Ford and Xerox, was reading up on studies about suicide and young athletes, seeing as he’d raised a handful of them. The Schmitt twins — Kari and Sara — both played hockey at Ohio State. Their brother, Derek, swam at Pittsburgh and now is on Bowman’s new coaching staff at Arizona State. So after picking Allison up at the airport in Pittsburgh, Ralph turned to her and asked if she’d ever had any dark thoughts.

“And the floodgates just opened,” Ralph said.

Sure, the family had sensed things weren’t quite right, but “we never thought that she was fighting depression,” her father said. “We were unaware. We missed the warning signs.”

They sat and talked for nearly a half-hour in the car before driving to the funeral home with the rest of the family. By the time they’d arrived, Schmitt already had texted her agent about wanting to go public with her struggles, something she’d been thinking about.

Schmitt, who majored in psychology and plans to pursue a graduate degree in the field, knows the statistics. One in six adults will suffer from depression at some point in life, and suicide is the second-leading cause of death among those ages 15-24, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. But particularly among elite-level athletes, many of whom struggle to separate their performances from their personal identity, the subject is taboo.

“It’s the elephant in the room, and I just want to destigmatize that,” said Schmitt, who won the Perseverance Award at USA Swimming’s annual banquet last year. “I mean, when you’re in that moment, you think you’re the only one going through that, that you’re the only one feeling like that, and in reality that’s not true.”

It’s a reality she’s embracing now that her story is out, through media reports and public-speaking engagements, youth clinics and social media.

“When I get messages, emails, people coming up to me, it’s kind of a relief to me that I’m making an impact,” Schmitt said. “If there’s 600 people in there and I’m giving a speech, if I can impact one person … it’s worth it.”

Her advice to others is straightforward.

“Find somebody you can trust, whether it’s your parents, your coaches, your friends, whoever,” she said. “You need to talk to someone about it.”

Gearing up for Rio

That she could talk to Phelps — her daily training partner for years — only made sense, after all he has been through. The most decorated Olympic athlete in history finally sought help for his own substance-abuse problems about the same time Schmitt was drowning in her depression.

“I’m always very honest with Allison,” said Phelps, winner of a record 22 Olympic medals, including 18 gold. “I think our relationship over the years has been amazing. And I wouldn’t be here where I am today without having her. I try to help her as much as I can through anything she’s going through. I’ve seen a lot of tears. But I’ve seen a lot of smiles. A lot of smiles. A lot more smiles than tears.

“Allison’s like my little sister, and I love her to death. We’re both in this together.”

And now that he has emerged a changed man — a new father, engaged to be married, recommitted to swimming one last Olympics in Rio — Schmitt’s happy to be along for the ride again. She’s actually living with Phelps and his fiancée, Nicole Johnson, in Phoenix, helping plan meals and doting on their 6-week-old boy, Boomer.

“I’ve seen him go through a lot,” Schmitt said. “And I know if he’s telling me I can do it, I can do it. He’s been there for me. We both have moments, we both have days where we start to feel like we’re sliding back down there. But it’s easy for me to recognize in him, and easy for him to recognize in me, even though I try to hide it.”

Likewise, there’s no hiding her excitement with Olympic trials looming, and Rio beckoning. Her training has improved greatly in the last year, and Schmitt, who’ll swim three freestyle events (100, 200 and 400), says she feels stronger now than ever. Her times are dropping into line, too, as she showed at her last trials tune-up in early June, beating fellow London Olympic star Missy Franklin to win the 100 and 200 free in Austin.

And yet, as her Olympic cycle comes full-circle — it’s too soon to say if Rio will be her last run — Schmitt views her story arc a bit differently.

“Because I can see that swimming is not the end of the world,” Schmitt said. “There is much more than getting a record, winning a medal, making a team. Those are still my goals, but if I don’t accomplish any of it, at the end of the day, I’m still the same person. …

“I’ve learned a lot more from disappointments than I have from any success I’ve had. And I’m going in with a completely different attitude. I know what I want to do. But I’m enjoying the process, and I’m enjoying where I am right now. I’m happy.” @JohnNiyo

U.S. Olympic Trials

Sunday-July 3, CenturyLink Center, Omaha, Neb.

TV: NBC —8-9 p.m. Sunday-June 24, 7-8 p.m. July 3. NBCSN — 8-9 p.m. July 2

Top local qualifiers

Men: Ann Arbor — Justin Glanda, Zach Hayden, Connor Jaeger, Michael Klueh, Sean Ryan, Kyle Whitaker. University of Michigan — Luke Papendick

Women: Canton — Allison Schmitt. Davison — Courtney Weaver. University of Michigan —Emily Kopas, G Ryan, Clara Smiddy