Mental health on swimmers’ minds at nationals

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IRVINE, Calif. — When Allison Schmitt changed clothes for her medal ceremony, she grabbed a shirt that read, “Mental health is just as important as physical health.”

Thirteen minutes after Schmitt received her 200m freestyle silver medal at the U.S. Swimming Championships, Micah Sumrall won the 200m breaststroke.

Sumrall, who took a break from swimming after missing the 2016 Olympic team, received applause in her post-race, pool-deck interview for broaching a growing subject in society, sports and swimming.

“Allison Schmitt really inspires me,” an out-of-breath Sumrall said on Olympic Channel. “In 2016, I had a really big problem with mental health. So, coming back like this, is really a testament to the people that have been starting talking about it.”

Later Thursday night, Missy Franklin, choking back tears, reflected on her last two years after missing the finals in both of her nationals events.

The four-time 2012 Olympic champion revealed last summer that she was diagnosed with depression and anxiety going into the Rio Olympics, where she struggled in the pool. Franklin says she’s feeling better now.

“A lot of people have been coming up to me and saying that I look really happy, which I appreciate so much, but at the same time, I think that’s part of the problem,” she said. “You can look like the happiest person in the world and still be going through one of the hardest struggles.”

In 2012, Schmitt and Franklin looked like the U.S.’ happiest swimmers. They won a combined 10 medals at the London Games.

Schmitt was credited for injecting levity into coach Bob Bowman‘s practices and boosting training partner Michael Phelps‘ morale. Schmitt would struggle in races after her breakout Olympics, failing to make the next two world championships teams.

In May 2015, Schmitt’s 17-year-old cousin, April Bocian, committed suicide. It led to Schmitt, at her next swim meet, discussing her own battle with depression. She wanted to spread awareness and remove the stigma of talking about mental health.

Shortly after, Schmitt’s swimming began improving and she eventually made one more Olympic team in Rio as a 4x200m free relay member. Schmitt, a veteran 26 years old in Rio, believed she would retire after those Games. But last year, Schmitt began swimming to stay in shape. One thing led to another, and soon enough she was training for a competitive comeback in April.

“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 at her return meet in Arizona, echoing what Phelps had repeated after he unretired in 2013.

On Thursday, Schmitt was the crowd-pleasing runner-up to Katie Ledecky in the 200m freestyle. The result wasn’t a surprise — Schmitt came to Irvine ranked second in the U.S. in the 200m free this year — but the time (1:55.82) was Schmitt’s fastest since her still-standing American and Olympic record at the London Games (1:53.61).

Immediately after the race, Ledecky threw all of her weight over the lane line to hug Schmitt, who was nearly dunked back under water. Before the race, Schmitt said she received a pep talk from Phelps, who sent her “paragraphs of messages.”

Phelps, watching from a VIP area with Kobe Bryant on Thursday night, began discussing his mental health in 2015.

Following his September 2014 DUI arrest, Phelps said he spent days curled in a fetal position, “not wanting to be alive anymore,” according to Sports Illustrated. In two years of retirement, Phelps has continued to be open about his depression and anxiety and, in May, partnered with a mental health campaign.

“[Phelps] just reminded me that swimming is such a small part of life,” Schmitt said of Phelps’ pre-race encouragement. “Yes, I love it. … But at the end of the day it is a sport. It doesn’t matter if you get first or last, you’re still loved by the same people and you’re still who you are.”

A small part of life, but a significant one.

“I can honestly say that swimming did save my life,” she said. “Having that regimen of coming to practice saved my life. … Swimming did not make me depressed. Other factors did it, and swimming actually saved me.”

Told that, Franklin said she felt a different relationship between swimming and depression.

“I think [my swimming] was more along the lines of causing it,” she said, noting that it became too much of an identity before she began struggling in races in 2015 and 2016. “There were a lot of days where getting out and going to practice was the absolute last thing I wanted to do, then lying in bed almost made me feel worse about it and more guilty and kind of led toward that spiral of emotions and negative feelings toward myself.”

Franklin, who still feels pain from shoulder surgeries in early 2017, said she was inspired by Schmitt and Phelps to reveal her mental-health struggles to a group of young female athletes last September.

“One of the biggest things I’ve learned over the past three, four years is that, for me, the biggest reason why we go through what we go through during hard times or suffering is not only so we can grow from it, but so we can help others grow as well,” she said last week. “In order to do that, we need to be open, honest and vulnerable.”

Sumrall, née Lawrence, was a 2012 Olympian and earned world championships medals in the 200m breaststroke in 2013 and 2015. But it was at the 2015 Worlds in Kazan that Sumrall remembers feeling at her lowest.

“Like my world was coming down” she said Thursday. “It really devastated my 2016 year, trying to be at meets and be excited about the meets was so difficult.”

Sumrall was the U.S.’ fastest woman in the 200m breast in 2015 by 1.5 seconds, but she went into the Rio Olympic Trials ranked 10th in the U.S. for 2016 and finished fourth.

She didn’t retire but moved on from competitive swimming, relocating from Charlotte to Georgia and living with her fiance’s parents for a while not having a job.

“I went from being at a swimming pool every single day, having something very structured and scheduled to kind of being like, I don’t know what to do with myself, so I’m going to lock myself in a room,” she joked.

She married former swimmer Austin Sumrall in January 2017. One day, his old club team offered Lawrence some work doing breaststroke clinics. By the middle of the year, one of the club’s coaches left and Sumrall was offered a position teaching 8- to 13-year-olds. That led to her joining the senior group’s practices.

On July 28, 2017, Sumrall competed for the first time since the Olympic Trials. On Thursday, she clocked 2:22.06, her third-fastest time ever. The time would have earned bronze at the Rio Games.

On USA Swimming’s post-finals recap show, “Deck Pass Live,” hosts Amy Van Dyken-Rouen and Jeff Commings welcomed Schmitt to the set. They played Sumrall’s pool-deck TV interview where she thanked Schmitt. Schmitt wiped her eye.

“My voice is being heard,” Schmitt said separately. “That’s the biggest thing I can say out of any of this. I know sometimes when people say things, we think that it just goes out in outer space, but to know that saying something about mental health, that it’s OK to not be OK, it means the world if I can save one life.”

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Emily Sisson a U.S. Olympic marathon trials favorite, thanks to Ireland

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Emily Sisson didn’t think she would become a professional runner until her last year of college. Now, at 28, she goes into the U.S. Olympic marathon trials as a contender for one of three Tokyo spots, if not the overall favorite.

“I’ve only done one marathon, so I definitely don’t feel like I’m an experienced marathoner,” Sisson said by phone last week from her Arizona base. “That’s the one question mark I’ve had all build-up.”

Predicting a marathon can be a crapshoot, but a Podiumrunner.com experts panel pegged Sisson to win. She is younger than any female U.S. Olympic marathoner since Anne Marie Lauck in 1996 (though fellow contender Jordan Hasay is a month younger).

Confidence stems from last April 28. Sisson clocked the second-fastest debut marathon in U.S. women’s history, a 2:23:08 on a windy day in London, where the early pace was slow. She finished sixth — behind five East Africans. She crossed 3:25 ahead of sometimes training partner and mentor Molly Huddle, also a headliner at trials in Atlanta on Feb. 29 (12 p.m. ET, NBC).

“We wanted to run faster,” Sisson said that day in London. “There’s a lot of room for improvement.”

Sisson later mentioned a pre-race scare on the “Keeping Track” podcast. She tripped over a carpet jogging back from a bathroom, banged both knees 15 minutes before the start and got checked out physically by a chiropractor and mentally by her husband, who has a master’s degree in mental health counseling.

Sisson then covered the final half of that marathon alone, a foreign feeling for the longtime track runner. At one point, she thought about having never before run more than 23 miles.

Her mind could have also wandered to sports memories that led her to the world’s strongest marathon: Attending a 1999 Women’s World Cup match and seeing her hero, Mia Hamm. As a soccer-playing teenager, being asked by a friend to join a track relay team. Or being told during a record-breaking high school career that she was reminiscent of 2004 Olympic marathoner Jen Rhines.

Sisson, whose dad ran and mom did gymnastics at the University of Wisconsin, transferred after one year in Madison to Providence. She had a best NCAA Championships finish of fourth going into her last year. Before that final season, Sisson was prepared to leave competitive running once her NCAA eligibility exhausted in pursuit of an MBA.

“I had been going through a bit of a funk with running,” she said. “I was getting a little tired.”

Things changed the summer before her senior year. She vacationed with then-boyfriend/now-husband Shane Quinn, a fellow Providence runner, in Quinn’s native Ireland. At one point, they altered training, ditching tempo runs for local road races. Sisson never before competed on the roads. She doesn’t remember the distances being exact. She does remember winning.

“That was a new, fun thing that kept the sport kind of fresh for me,” she said. “You finish, and you go into a local pub and have sandwiches.”

Providence coach Ray Treacy put Sisson in more road races that fall. The opportunity was right. She had no cross-country eligibility left while she readied for the winter and spring track seasons. She went on to win the 2015 NCAA Indoor and Outdoor 5000m, a springboard to the pros (while still going after the MBA).

Sisson was set back by injury in 2016 and placed 10th in the Olympic trials 10,000m. She kept training under Treacy, and perhaps just as important, with Huddle, the American record holder at 10,000m. Huddle, seven years older than Sisson, made her marathon debut after the Rio Olympics.

“Emily really looks up to her and is inspired by her,” Treacy said. “Molly has helped her out in numerous ways in training. … Making sure she’s not going overboard with the training, not running too fast. She kind of keeps her under control.”

Sisson made the last two world championships teams in the 10,000m, but Treacy thought marathon since 2015. They signed her up for the 2019 London Marathon, in part because Huddle was going to race it as her third career 26.2-miler. And in part to get Sisson ready for the Olympic trials in 10 months’ time.

The build-up was better than ideal. Sisson ran the second-fastest half marathon in U.S. history (on a record-eligible course) in January. She became the third-fastest U.S. woman all-time at 10,000m in March.

Come April, Treacy was impressed again just by watching Sisson after she crossed the London finish line in what would be the second-fastest marathon for a U.S. woman in 2019.

“It didn’t look like it took anything out of her,” Treacy said. “She recovered really fast. Within minutes, she was feeling pretty good. That was a good sign.”

Sisson returned home to Quinn and their golden retriever, Desmond, who has 1,400 Instagram followers. She skipped a fall marathon to compete in the 10,000m at track worlds in Doha, placing a respectable 10th.

The recent marathon build-up for trials went just as well, if not better, than the training for London.

“I’m definitely putting a bit of pressure on myself with this one,” Sisson said. “But at the same time, I don’t get caught up in so much what other people say. I don’t really read the articles about who’s the favorite or what chance you have of making the team.”

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Brigid Kosgei beaten as another world record smashed in Nike shoes

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Ethiopian Ababel Yeshaneh broke the half marathon world record by 20 seconds, beating new marathon world-record holder Brigid Kosgei in the United Arab Emirates on Friday.

Nike-sponsored runners lowered the men’s and women’s marathon and half marathon records since September 2018, each appearing to race in versions of the apparel giant’s scrutinized Vaporfly shoes.

Yeshaneh, a 28-year-old who finished 14th in the 2016 Olympic 5000m, clocked 1:04:31 for 13.1 miles to better Kenyan Joyciline Jepkosgei‘s world record from 2017.

Kosgei, a 26-year-old Kenyan, also came in under the old world record but 18 seconds behind Yeshaneh.

Kosgei took 81 seconds off Paula Radcliffe‘s 16-year-old women’s marathon world record on Oct. 13, clocking 2:14:04 to win the Chicago Marathon.

Nike Vaporfly shoes, including the prototypes worn by Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge when he ran a sub-two-hour marathon, were deemed legal by World Athletics’ new shoe regulations last month, according to Nike.

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