Before the start of the 2008 NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships, 17-year-old Allison Schmitt sat by herself. It was her first collegiate championship representing Georgia and she was the presumptive favorite in the 200- and 500-yard freestyle events.
Georgia head coach Jack Bauerle approached her, figuring he would offer a piece of wisdom or a wisecrack to loosen up the first-year swimmer. He affectionately referred to her as “Schmitty,”a nickname that spread like wildfire throughout the Georgia swim team during her first year. When he walked up to her, she was still sitting alone, giggling. Confused, Bauerle asked her what was going on.
“I’m just thinking about how fun this is,” Schmitt replied.
No matter the stage, no matter the circumstance, Schmitt always brought an infectious optimism to the air around her. She’s come a long way since her freshman year at Georgia and has already etched her name among the world’s swimming greats.
Schmitt is a three-time Olympian, winning a total of eight medals, including four golds. Her success on the international level makes her the fourth most accomplished United States female swimmer ever.
With the approaching 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, still scheduled as planned for July 24-Aug. 9 despite concerns of COVID-19, Schmitt has her sights set on a fourth Olympics. Even still, she hasn’t comprehended what she could accomplish.
“I’m very grateful to be 29-years old and still be competing. I mean, I’ll turn 30 right before Olympic Trials. When I was younger growing up, I didn’t think swimming in college was an opportunity,” Schmitt said. “When Jack (Bauerle) got in contact with me, that opened a whole new world for me. I’m forever grateful for all of the doors that were opened and all of the opportunities this sport has given me.”
The 2020 Olympics wasn’t always on the table for Schmitt. As she hopped out of the pool after winning gold in the 4x200-meter freestyle relay at the 2016 Olympics, Schmitt prepared to hang up her goggles and cap and move on.
She took over a year off, staying away from the pool but continuing the pursuit of her master’s degree in social work at Arizona State University. It was the first time she’d been able to go to class without having to worry about swim practice.
But something didn’t feel right. Schmitt still got her exercise in with a cycling workout or a trip to Orangetheory, but it just wasn’t the same. So, she reached back out to her long-time coach Bob Bowman.
Schmitt had followed Bowman to Arizona State where he coached the school’s swim team starting in 2016. Bowman is a revered member of the U.S swimming community with previous coaching stints at Michigan and North Baltimore Aquatic Club, where he trained Schmitt, fellow Georgia alum Chase Kalisz, and Michael Phelps.
“I really missed the team atmosphere of the sport. I asked Bob (Bowman) if I could come in and swim with the (Arizona State) team and just warmup with them two times a week because it was between my classes,” Schmitt said. “I was getting pale. I needed some sun and I needed to actually work out. When I got in the water I remembered how fun it was and how much I loved doing it.”
What started as an occasional warmup with the Arizona State team, turned into an a few full practices. Schmitt started to go more frequently, upping her practice load from two days to four, and eventually to six times a week. Finally, after a meeting in Bowman’s office, Schmitt made the decision to fully re-commit to swimming in January of 2018.
Tokyo in 2020 was a new possibility.
Since that conversation with Bowman, Schmitt stepped back onto the international scene with mixed results. At the 2019 World Championships, she faltered in her specialty, the 200-meter freestyle, and finished 14th, missing out on the championship final.
But Schmitt returned a week later and won the 200-meter freestyle at the 2019 Phillips 66 United States National Championships, going nearly two seconds faster than her time at the World Championships. The two-week stretch reminded her about the important subtleties that come with training for an Olympics.
“Every four years (leading up to an Olympics) is completely different for me, whether it’s physically, mentally, or emotionally. This four-year cycle I’m obviously older, so I have a lot more in my toolbox of knowledge.” Schmitt said. “I’m realizing that I need to focus on every little thing whether it’s my mental health, my nutrition or my recovery. I know something that will stay the same is my love for racing. That’s what motivates me to show up at 5 a.m. to practice. On those days where I feel like sleeping in or giving up, I just remember what it’s like to step up on the block and get another opportunity to race.”
Bauerle recalls her passion for racing, dating all the way back to her time at Georgia. In her first race as a Bulldog, Schmitt went over to the starting block over 20 minutes before the start of her race, excited to get her college career underway. Bauerle remembers that the small action endeared Schmitt to her teammates, in a way that no amount of words could.
“Her (leadership) actions were even more important than what she did in the pool,” Bauerle said. “She has an extremely great common touch. She loves people. Everyone around (Georgia) that works here, swims here, or has met her just enjoyed being around her.”
Under Schmitt’s leadership, the Georgia women’s swim team won four consecutive SEC Championships from 2010-13, culminating in an NCAA Championship in 2013. During that stretch, Schmitt won four individual national titles, establishing herself as one of the premier middle-distance freestylers.
When Schmitt graduated in 2013 with a major in psychology and a minor in applied cognition and development, Bauerle knew that was she destined for more than just a great life in the pool.
“When swimming finishes, she’ll be ready to do what she wants to do,” Bauerle said. “She’s put herself in a position to help people already. Whatever she does, it’s going to be helping people be better than they already were.”
But Schmitt’s swimming career isn’t over just yet. With strong swims over the last seven months, she’s found herself back among the United States’ elite freestylers. As of now, The United States Swimming Team Trials are set to take place from June 21-28 in Omaha, Nebraska. At that meet, Schmitt will get another chance to build upon her already decorated career.
It’s still early for her to be thinking about her legacy, but for all of Schmitt’s accomplishments in the pool, she wants to be remembered for what she did out of the water.
After all, for her, swimming is just fun.
“I think that I’d rather be known as a good human being, rather than a great athlete,” Schmitt said. “I think that’s one of the things I enjoy the most about swim meets. I don’t mind taking pictures with people, I don’t mind signing autographs, but what I really enjoy doing during those times is talking with those people and talking with those kids.
“Yeah, I may be an elite athlete but I’m still a human being a normal person. I think just being a great person, doing the right thing and being kind is what I want to be remembered for.”
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