Niyo: Canton's Allison Schmitt getting back in the swim of things

John Niyo
The Detroit News
After semi-retiring from competitive swimming in 2016, Canton’s Allison Schmitt is back in the pool and gearing up to qualify for her fourth Olympics.

She dropped hints, sent signals and left clues. And even if Allison Schmitt was in denial about the decision she’d already made in her own mind, her longtime swimming coach, Bob Bowman, says he had a pretty good idea where this was headed.

Schmitt hadn’t bothered to sign her retirement papers with USA Swimming or the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which meant the three-time Olympian and eight-time Olympic medalist from Canton still was subjected to random drug testing. Schmitt claims she put up with those periodic intrusions because at age 26, she was no longer eligible to stay on her parents’ medical insurance policy, and the U.S. Olympic Committee’s plan beat the alternatives.

But then came the offhand request one day in 2017, when Schmitt asked Bowman, the head coach at Arizona State, if he’d mind her dropping by practice a few times a week to swim some laps with the team. She needed to work on her tan, she said, and the Sun Devils’ outdoor pool deck — her brother Derek also is an assistant coach there — seemed like a better option than her Orangetheory Fitness classes or “just laying out in the sun by myself.”

“At that point, I figured, ‘OK, there’s more to it,’” Bowman says now, laughing, as he talks about the gregarious swimmer he first began coaching more than a decade ago when he was at the University of Michigan and she was still in high school. “I immediately thought, ‘Oh, boy, here it goes.’”

But on it went for a while, with Schmitt insisting whenever anyone would ask — friends, family, coaches — that she wasn’t seriously considering a return to competitive swimming. After all, when Schmitt finished her final race at the 2016 Rio Olympics, swimming the leadoff leg for the gold medal-winning U.S. women’s 4x200-meter relay team, she was convinced she was done.

Schmitt had gone through so much to get to that point, fighting through severe depression and a truly dark period in her life following the 2012 London Olympics before eventually finding a new calling as a mental-health advocate on her way to Rio. And once that odyssey was complete, the feeling of relief was almost overwhelming. Schmitt and her close friend and U.S. teammate, Elizabeth Beisel, took a much-needed vacation to Thailand and Australia. They rode a water buffalo, learned to surf, and when they returned, Schmitt was ready to dive into graduate school at Arizona State, pursuing her master’s degree in social work and a career in counseling.

More: Niyo: Olympic champ Allison Schmitt dives into depression advocacy

“I mean, I definitely thought I was done after ’16,” Schmitt recalled last week, speaking by phone from Singapore, where the U.S. national team — including Schmitt, who clearly isn’t done — was finishing up a training camp ahead of next week’s FINA World Championships in South Korea. “I guess I just thought it was time to move on.”

'I want to swim again'

Semi-retirement certainly had its perks. There was no strict schedule to adhere to, no four-year commitment framing her day-to-day life.

“If I wanted to go on a weekend trip, I could go on a weekend trip,” she said.

Still, something was missing. Schmitt, also an eight-time NCAA champion at Georgia, had never gone to school without swimming. And once she jumped back in the pool at Arizona State — Bowman needed to get an NCAA waiver to allow it — she says she rediscovered the love for the sport that’d waned in the run-up to Rio.

“It was refreshing,” she said.

And before long, three practices a week turned into five. And then seven. And nine. And eventually, her pal Michael Phelps, the fully-retired Olympic icon, posted a photo of the two on the ASU pool deck, posing with hand gestures spelling out “2020.” Schmitt recoiled at the publicity that followed — she still hadn’t committed to a return at that point — but after a long talk at home with Phelps and his wife, Nicole, it was time to have that conversation with Bowman.

Phelps’ former coach had been through this before with his star pupil, of course. After coming to grips with his own depression and substance abuse, Phelps came out of retirement to cement his legacy in Rio, winning six more medals at his fifth Olympics before calling it quits one last time. And while Bowman knew what Schmitt was thinking, he also knew she needed to say it herself, the way Phelps ultimately did in 2014.

“I went to Bob's office,” Schmitt recalled, “and I said, ‘Hey, I think I want to swim again. But if you think this is a crazy idea I’ll walk out of here and we can pretend I never said this.’”

Bowman’s answer was quite the opposite, however.

“I felt like her mind was already made up, and I felt like it was a good idea,” Bowman said, citing both Schmitt's talent and her temperament. “What I liked about it was she had a plan for what’s next and she was actually working on it. She was going to school, she was training, and whether the swimming went somewhere or not, it didn’t matter. Because she was already taking her next step for what was going to happen after swimming. I thought it made perfect sense.”

So they set a few ground rules as Schmitt began dryland training to build back her strength and gradually started ramping up the intensity of the pool workouts.

'The right reasons'

Six months later, Schmitt was back competing at a meet in Mesa, Arizona, where she wasn’t sure what to expect. (“I was like, 'Wait, do I know anyone on deck anymore?'” she laughed.) But once there, she clocked a respectable time in her best event — she's still the American and Olympic record-holder in the 200 freestyle — and enjoyed every minute of it. Then last July, Schmitt arrived at U.S. nationals in Irvine, Calif., posted a 1:55.82 time in the final — second only to Katie Ledecky, the world’s most dominant swimmer — and felt her confidence soar.

“I think she needed to see that,” Bowman said. “I would’ve been disappointed had she not gone 1:55, because she had trained so well. But I don’t think she ever saw herself doing that again.”

Now that she has, who knows where this comeback might lead. That U.S. nationals result, combined with a fourth-place finish at the Pan-Pacific Championships last August, earned Schmitt a spot on this U.S. team for these world championships. She was voted a captain by her teammates — “They call me Grandma sometimes, but Grandma can compete with them,” Schmitt jokes — and she’ll swim the 200 free and perhaps on a relay in South Korea before returning home for U.S. nationals in August.

At that point, the official countdown for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics will be underway, and while Schmitt insists she’s taking things one day at a time, she admits "that’s the goal." She’d be one of just a handful of American women to qualify for a fourth Olympics in swimming, joining the likes of Dara Torres and Jenny Thompson.

But unlike four years ago, there’s no fear of falling short tugging at her emotions this time around.

“She’s doing it for the right reasons,” Bowman said. “And I don’t think there’s really any real expectation for the outcome. She loves the process and she wants to do it and what comes will come. ... But I think she’s just in a very healthy place with it all.”

She does, too, and the mantra Schmitt keeps coming back to amid the 6,000-meter practice sessions is one that sums up her career: The days are long, but the years are short.

“I’m not gonna say it’s been easy the whole time," said Schmitt, who decided to put off the final internship and capstone project required to complete her master's degree until next fall. "There’s definitely been ups and down. And there have been times where I’m like, ‘What am I doing?’ But at the same time, I’m having fun and really grateful that I’m able to continue sport at 29 and be enjoying it and doing well.

"And I don’t have anything to prove. So I’m able to see the bigger picture and enjoy the process and the journey."

And yes, she'll work on that tan while she's at it.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo