Allison Schmitt, an eight-time Olympic medalist, raced Thursday for the first time since the Rio Games. At the same meet four years ago, Michael Phelps raced for the first time since the London Games.
That’s not the only parallel between the close friends’ comebacks.
“Watching the next Olympics, if I was sitting on the couch and never gave it a shot, I didn’t want that what-if,” Schmitt said after finishing second to Leah Smith in the 200m freestyle at a Pro Series meet in Mesa, Ariz., on Thursday.
Phelps made the same statement, in some form, time after time in 2014, 2015 and 2016 when asked why he unretired. (Phelps also finished second in his comeback race in Mesa in 2014.)
Schmitt technically never retired. Unlike Phelps, she didn’t sign paperwork to take her name out of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency drug-testing pool after her last Olympics. If she had, Schmitt would have had to wait nine months to return to competition this year.
“I was 26 and off my parents’ health insurance,” she said. “I still needed that USOC health insurance.”
But Schmitt was done swimming. She knew that the winter before Rio as she started counting down the days.
“I remember saying this is my last Dec. 28 practice ever,” she said.
That mindset made Schmitt’s 2016 all the more impressive. After earning five medals at the 2012 Olympics, Schmitt had failed to qualify for the 2013 and 2015 World Championships team.
She then spoke out about her own battle with depression after a 17-year-old cousin committed suicide in May 2015. But by the 2016 Olympic Trials, Schmitt said she was happy and grateful. It showed as she qualified for the relays.
But Bowman said she was “paralyzed by fear” at the time, according to Swimming World on Thursday. Schmitt went to Rio as a team captain, along with Phelps, and earned her seventh and eighth Olympic medals in the freestyle relays.
“She got her medal and went, which was a huge accomplishment considering what she went through in the years before that,” Bowman said, according to Swimming World. “I don’t think she ended up loving swimming.”
Schmitt and Olympic teammate Elizabeth Beisel traveled to Asia and Australia after Rio. Schmitt returned to Arizona to work on her master’s degree to become a licensed social worker, continuing to raise mental health awareness.
While Phelps turned to Peloton to stay in shape, Schmitt tried Orangetheory Fitness to no avail. So she started swimming two or three times a week to lose weight.
“It turned into nine practices a week,” said Schmitt, who trains with the Arizona State team that Bowman coaches.
Phelps teased a Schmitt comeback on Instagram in September. A few weeks later, Schmitt broached it in Bowman’s office.
“I said, if you don’t want me to get back in the water, we never had this talk. I’ll walk out of here. I’ll never get back in the pool,” Schmitt said. “He was like, let’s see what happens.”
Her 200m freestyle time Thursday — 1:59.57 — is two to three seconds off her results from this same meet in the last Olympic cycle. Expected, given she’s still ramping up training.
“I was surprised,” pleasantly, Schmitt said on USA Swimming’s “Deck Pass Live.” “I know there’s work to be done, but at least we have a starting point now.”
Schmitt came into the meet without a time goal. She’s not committing to a fourth Olympic run, just to the 100m freestyle on Friday (Olympic Channel, 8 p.m. ET). Saturday finals will air on NBCSN at 8.
“The second that I’m not having fun is the time that I retire,” she said, conjuring Phelps’ comments from this same meet four years ago.
One might forget her talent. Schmitt’s winning 200m free time from the 2012 Olympics remains both the American and Olympic records. One mark Katie Ledecky hasn’t eclipsed. Schmitt was the last woman to beat Ledecky in a domestic 200m free more than four years ago.
“No matter what happens in the future, I will be excited that I did give it another chance,” Schmitt said, wearing a T-shirt that read “Every Day Grateful.”
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