KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Going back to school and training with Arizona State’s swimmers occasionally reminds four-time Olympic gold medalist Allison Schmitt of her relatively advanced age by her sport’s standards.
“I almost feel like a mom sometimes,” the 29-year-old Schmitt said during a recent TYR Pro Swim Series event at Knoxville, Tennessee. “I’m like, ‘What does that mean?’ They have to tell me what things mean, the new slang words.”
Schmitt is a graduate student at Arizona State and had an internship last year counseling students. She’s taking a break from her studies while attempting to qualify for a fourth Olympics appearance, which would put her in select company.
The only American women who have qualified to swim in at least four separate Summer Games are Amanda Beard (1996-2008), Jill Sterkel (1976-88), Jenny Thompson (1992-2004) and Dara Torres (1984-92, 2000, 2008). Torres holds the record with five. Sterkel technically only swam in three separate Olympics because the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Summer Games.
Schmitt, who turns 30 on June 7, didn’t initially plan on one more Olympic bid.
After competing on the 4×200 relay team that won gold and the 4×100 freestyle relay team that earned silver at Rio in 2016, the eight-time Olympic medalist decided she was done.
Even as her friend Michael Phelps posted an Instagram photo of them making hand gestures that formed “2020,” Schmitt indicated there was no way she’d come back. She now says that Instagram post “kind of planted the seed” that caused her to start training a few times a week with Arizona State’s team.
“That twice a week turned into three times, four times, five times until eventually where we are now,” Schmitt said. “It kind of just gradually happened. Once I got back in, I was kind of like, ‘I do love this.’ “
Schmitt has been working her way back as she aims for a spot in Tokyo.
She finished 14th in the world championships last summer in the 200 freestyle, an event in which she won the Olympic gold medal at London in 2012 and still owns the American record. Coach Bob Bowman says Schmitt “had some sort of physical issue” that hindered her that day.
She bounced back by winning the 200 freestyle in the U.S. national championships in 1 minute, 56.97 seconds. Schmitt finished first in Knoxville last weekend with a time of 1:56.01.
“I don’t think there’s any reason she can’t continue to improve and have a reasonable chance of doing her best times,” Bowman said.
Schmitt says she’s taking a different approach in her latest push for an Olympic bid. She remembers counting down moments leading up to the 2016 Games and thinking this was the last time she would do this or the last time she’d do that.
“I had a lot of fun during that time, but now I’m able to grasp more being in the moment and not really thinking down the line of, ‘OK, this is the last one. What’s going to happen after this?’ “ Schmitt said.
She has one more internship left before earning her master’s degree and preparing for a career in the mental health field. Schmitt, who detailed in 2015 her own battle with depression, said she decided on this path after a 17-year-old cousin committed suicide five years ago.
“Even though in the moment we feel like we’re the only ones going through it, that it’s hard for us and everyone else is living this happy rainbows-and-butterflies happy life, but we all go through hard times,” Schmitt said. “(I want to be) connecting with somebody at that level to help them through those tough patches and get coping skills that they can get through those times.’’
Bowman, who has coached Schmitt since 2006, says she is much more grounded during this Olympic bid.
“She sees that swimming is a big part of her life, but it’s not who she is,” Bowman said. “She has her own identity outside of that. She has her own life outside of it. She’s now made a path for what’s going to happen after swimming. That was the only way I’d really agree to her continuing to swim, if she had a clear-cut sort of exit strategy. She does now, which she did not have in ’16 and really didn’t have in ’12.”
Schmitt says she hasn’t decided her specialty yet in the mental health field.
“I’ve been lucky enough to have swimming as my job, which I’ve loved,” Schmitt said. “To be able to wake up and have a passion and do your job with passion and love is what we’re all striving to find. Hopefully, I can find that in my career after swimming as well.”