STANFORD, Calif. – This year threw up a new set of challenges for Allison Schmitt, who has overcome so much in more than a decade of swimming at the elite level.
Schmitt had her first real job.
The four-time Olympic gold medalist interned as a counselor with Arizona State University, where she is pursuing a master’s degree in social work.
“I think that I had a few days where I took that counseling emotional energy and it would just drain me for the rest of the day,” said Schmitt, who also won two silver medals and two bronze medals in three Olympic Games.
She said that was tough not only for her, but for coach Bob Bowman as well.
“He’s like, ‘Come on, just go,’ but there’s nothing left,” Schmitt said. “We learned from that and it made me stronger.”
This year is still a learning experience for the 29-year-old American record holder.
After an uncharacteristically subpar performance in the 200-meter freestyle at the recent world championships, Schmitt rebounded to win the event Thursday at the Phillips 66 National Championships, which is part of the Team USA Champions Series, presented by Xfinity.
She qualified third in the heats, then stormed to victory with a time of 1:56.97, followed by Paige Madden (1:57.84) and Brooke Forde (1:57.98).
“It definitely shows me where I am for this summer and what we have to work on for the next year,” said Schmitt, whose American record is 1:53.61 from 2012. “This is a big year coming up and excited for it and to see I can go 1:56.”
At worlds, Schmitt was seventh in her semifinal with a time of 1:58.27. Katie Ledecky, the 2016 Olympic champion in the event, withdrew from the 200 at worlds due to illness.
Bowman said that for Schmitt to “come back and be substantially better really sets us up well for what comes on next year, so I’m happy with that.”
Last year, Schmitt was second behind Ledecky at the national championships after taking what she called a “sabbatical” for one year.
Her love and passion for swimming brought her back and she enjoys training with the team at Arizona State.
“Ever since I decided I was getting back in the pool, my eyes were set on 2020,” said Schmitt, who was also sixth in the 100 free on Wednesday night. “It’s definitely still a day-by-day process. It has its ups and downs, but as a whole it’s been a good journey.”
“Schmitty,” as she’s known on the pool deck, is in a good position to make the 4x200-meter freestyle team for the U.S. if she doesn’t make it in the individual event.
However, she said, “I’m OK with not even making the team. Obviously, my goals are much higher than that, but at the end of the day, I can’t control what anyone else in that pool does and I fully control what I do, so I’m going to go out there and do the best that I can.”
Bowman said that one advantage for Schmitt now is that she “has her ‘what’s happening next’ in line.”
“She knows what she’s going to do,” Bowman said. “She’s going to have her graduate degree. She’s going to be able to go into counseling if she likes. Whereas I think, before, there just wasn’t anything there.”
Schmitt has been a vocal spokesperson on mental health after struggling with depression following her gold medal in the 200 free at the Olympic Games London 2012.
“A counseling session is walking the journey with the person you’re with,” said Schmitt, who has a saying, “It’s OK to not be OK."
Schmitt said students have no idea they’re talking to an Olympic champion when they meet with her and she doesn’t share her experiences with them.
“I’m just Allison to everyone,” she said. “The most rewarding part of the internship is to see those people who have made that first step to walk into that office.”
She needs one more internship to earn her degree, but it will have to wait until after the Tokyo 2020 Games.
While Bowman said the counseling work has helped Schmitt express herself better when it comes to discussing her training, he said she needs to conserve her energy for the run-up to the Olympics.
“It’s funny to see her and Michael [Phelps] say, ‘Wow, I had to go all day long and do this office work and do this stuff,” Bowman said, “and I’m like, ‘Welcome to the world. You thought the swimming was hard and it is, but it’s a different kind of stress.’”