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Niyo: Allison Schmitt's 'extended journey' another Olympic challenge

John Niyo
The Detroit News

One thing Allison Schmitt has learned through the years, both since her teenage years as an Olympic athlete and more recently as a mental-health advocate, is the importance of accepting help wherever you can find it.

Even if it’s standing in line in the parking lot of a grocery store, which is where Schmitt found herself near her Phoenix-area home earlier this spring, standing awkwardly with others in six-foot increments while waiting to do her shopping. Also in line was a woman she knew from teaching swim lessons at a local country club, and soon after the two started chatting about quarantine life, Schmitt had an offer she couldn’t refuse.

Allison Schmitt

“She told me the pool was open at the club,” laughed Schmitt, the eight-time Olympic medalist from Canton, “and she offered me her time slot.”

Schmitt graciously accepted. And that pool priority has allowed her to keep some semblance of a training routine since the COVID-19 pandemic threw her preparation for a fourth Olympic bid into disarray, along with the rest of coach Bob Bowman’s elite training group based at Arizona State, where Michael Phelps’ longtime coach also heads up the Sun Devils’ collegiate program.

Now she’s able to jump in for a 50-minute lap swim a few days a week. And while it is nothing like the mileage she’d normally be logging with two-a-day sessions under Bowman’s watchful eye, it’s enough to keep in shape “so that we’re not starting from scratch,” she says, whenever restrictions are lifted at the ASU pool complex and USA Swimming-sanctioned competitions resume.

For Schmitt, who came out of semi-retirement two years ago to chase a fourth Olympic bid, the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics — now scheduled for next summer instead — left her unsure of just what to feel.

“I had a bunch of different emotions,” Schmitt said. “It wasn’t easy, even though it was kind of accepted. I don’t really know how to describe it. But our brains are programmed for a certain timeline, and you know how it’s supposed to play out. And now that’s not happening.”

What's more, no one's sure what'll happen next. Schmitt was supposed to be in Colorado Springs right now for an altitude training camp ahead of the June U.S. Olympic swimming trials. But the trials are rescheduled for next June, and next season's Grand Prix events won't start until November or December.

'My goals have not changed' 

Schmitt, who’ll turn 30 next month, already had put off the final year of her postgraduate work at Arizona State, where Schmitt is pursuing her master’s degree in social work and still has a few classes left to take in conjunction with a counseling internship. Doing all that while trying to train and compete was too much of a load to handle, physically and emotionally.

But another year to wait presents a new challenge, particularly for an athlete like Schmitt, who no longer is receiving stipends from USA Swimming or the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee. Her only remaining sponsor these days is the United Dairy Industry of Michigan, as a spokesperson for its “Milk Means More” campaign. So, can she really afford to keep going for another year?

“I feel like that’s the never-ending question,” Schmitt said. “I would like to know the answer to that, too.”

Allison Schmitt has won eight Olympic medals, including four golds.

Still, she says she’s not having any second thoughts about this Olympic bid, with Schmitt vying to become only the fourth American woman to swim in four Summer Games, joining Hall of Famers Dara Torres, Amanda Beard and Jenny Thompson.

“I guess I haven’t had any doubts of me not swimming again,” she said. “Just because the date has changed, my goals have not changed. And that’s always been my mindset. Yeah, it’s sad and it’s frustrating when you have a plan and it gets changed like this. But as an athlete, you learn how to adapt in situations, whether it’s in training or in competition. And right now, we’re adapting in the unknown, which is a whole other learning process.

“So it’s been tough, but I’m trying to look at the positive of another year of working on things. And I’m lucky that it’s postponed and not canceled.”

Not yet, anyway, though Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee, admitted in a BBC interview last week that “summer 2021 is the last option” and serious public-health concerns and logistical problems remain in the way of staging the Tokyo Olympics next summer.

“My life, and everyone else’s life, is on pause right now,” Schmitt said. “Seeing how things play out over the next few months will determine a lot more. But as of now, I plan on fully committing to swimming for the next year.

“Obviously, it’s about the journey and what you learn along the way. So I guess you could say this is like an extended journey now. But I do believe everything happens for a reason, and there can be good to come out of everything, if you look at it that way.”

That’s an outlook she has worked hard to cultivate ever since the run-up to the 2016 Rio Olympics, when Schmitt first went public with her own battles with serious depression. It was her cousin April Bocian’s suicide at age 17 that prompted Schmitt to speak up and become an advocate, realizing her voice might save others. It’s the reason behind her postgraduate work now, too, with plans to pursue a career in counseling and work specifically with athletes.

But it’s also a recognition of just how tough this time can be now for those grappling with mental-health issues. Particularly for someone like Schmitt, a people person who craves face-to-face interaction.

“It’s been a learning experience for me, definitely,” Schmitt said. “I mean, I talk to anyone and everyone. And with the quarantine, that has definitely been tough. The lack of communication has been hard.”

She credits a "support system" of family and friends, including Phelps, a close friend going back to their training days in Ann Arbor more than a decade ago. Schmitt used to live with Phelps and his wife, Nicole, and she's a doting "aunt" to their three young boys — Boomer, Beckett and 8-month-old Maverick. But Phelps also has become a prominent mental-health advocate, and last week he opened up about the ways this pandemic had compounded problems, telling ESPN, "This is the most overwhelmed I've ever felt in my life."

Good days, bad days

It hasn't been easy training away from teammates, either for “Schmitty,” the co-captain of the U.S. swim team in Rio who always thrives on the camaraderie.

Allison Schmitt throws out the first pitch before a Tigers game in 1986.

“Even when you go home for Thanksgiving or Christmas and you have a training session by yourself, that’s always been one of the toughest things for me,” said Schmitt, one of five siblings whose parents, Ralph and Gail, still live in Michigan. “But what I’ve realized during this quarantine is how I can use the self-motivation and the inner passion — it’s been kind of a fun experiment for me, to find that.

“Of course, there’s days when I’m unmotivated, and it’s hard to get in and finish the whole practice. But it can be rewarding when you just do something these days. So I just focus on that.”

She also has focused on finding time to do things like riding her bike, something she hasn’t done “since I was a little kid.” She’ll turn the rides in to 20- and 30-mile workouts around Phoenix now, though she admits it’s hardly what any of her peers would call cycling.

“I do it on a beach cruiser so it’s kind of slow,” he laughed. “But I enjoy it.”

And her advice to others during the pandemic when it comes to mental health is along those same lines.

“Take the time to connect with yourself,” she says, stressing the need to sit in one’s thoughts long enough to understand the roots of those feelings, whether they’re good, bad or indifferent.

Staying active is key, too. And while Schmitt admits she has binge-watched “All American” on Netflix and devoured Michael Jordan’s 10-episode, “The Last Dance,” she has also done lots of cooking and baking and even tried her hand at painting recently.

“I’d be lying if I said I haven’t been very emotional throughout all this,” she said. “And there’s definitely been hard days. Some days you wake up ready to go, and some days you’re just like, ‘I don’t want to do anything.’ But being kind to yourself in those situations is important, too. And you need to understand that everyone is going through all these emotions, and it’s OK.”