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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Brooke Raboutou is first U.S. Olympic sport climbing qualifier

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Brooke Raboutou, 18, became the first American to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics in sport climbing by reaching Tuesday’s combined final at the world championships in Hachioji, Japan, USA Climbing confirmed.

She qualified ninth into that final.

Raboutou, the daughter of two world-class climbers who has competed since age 7, became the seventh American across all sports to qualify for the 2020 Olympics after three open-water swimmers, two modern pentathletes and a triathlete.

Olympic sport climbing will feature one set of medals per gender, the event combining three disciplines: lead, speed and bouldering.

From Tokyo 2020: Speed climbing pits two climbers against each other, both climbing a fixed route on a 15-meter wall at a 95-degree angle. Winning times are generally between five and eight seconds. In bouldering, climbers scale a number of fixed routes on a four-meter wall in a specified time without safety ropes. In lead climbing, athletes attempt to climb as high as possible on a wall measuring over 15 meters in height within a fixed time with safety ropes.

A nation can qualify up to two athletes per gender into Olympic sport climbing.

The sport debuted at the Youth Olympics in 2018 in Buenos Aires, but no Americans were entered.

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Danielle Williams cemented as world No. 1 hurdler in Birmingham

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The 100m hurdles has been one of the U.S.’ deepest events the last several years, but Jamaican Danielle Williams looks like the favorite at the world championships in early October.

Williams, who owns the world’s fastest time this year, easily beat world-record holder Kendra Harrison and Olympic champion Brianna McNeal at a Diamond League meet in Birmingham, Great Britain, on Sunday.

Williams crossed in 12.46 seconds despite hitting her knee on one hurdle, but still two tenths clear of Harrison, whose world record is 12.20. It marked Harrison’s first loss in nine meets this year and the first time a non-American has ever beaten her at a Diamond League stop.

It looked like Williams wouldn’t make it to worlds in Doha when she false started out of the Jamaican Championships. But the final was soon after strangely canceled, and Jamaican media reported last week that Williams, the 2015 World champion who failed to make the Rio Olympics, is eligible to be chosen next month by the federation.

The U.S. had at least the two fastest women in the world each of the previous six years. Then Williams re-emerged with a Jamaican record 12.32 on July 20.

The meet airs Monday on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA at 4 p.m. ET and NBCSN at 7 p.m. ET. The Diamond League moves to Paris on Saturday.

In other events Sunday, Olympic 400m champion Shaunae Miller-Uibo overtook Brit Dina Asher-Smith and Jamaican Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce in the 200m in 22.24. Miller-Uibo extended her unbeaten streak to two years across all distances.

It appears Miller-Uibo will not be racing the 200m at worlds, given it overlaps with the 400m. She ranks third in the world this year at the shorter distance, trailing Jamaican Olympic champion Elaine Thompson, who clocked 22.00 on June 23 but was not in Sunday’s field. Miller-Uibo has ranked No. 1 at 400m four straight years.

Yohan Blake won the 100m in 10.07 seconds, holding off Brit Adam Gemili, who had the same time with a 2 meter/second tailwind. Blake, the second-fastest man in history with a personal best of 9.69, hasn’t been the same since suffering a series of leg injuries starting in 2013.

Sunday’s field lacked the world championships favorites — Americans Christian Coleman and Justin Gatlin, who clocked 9.81 and 9.87 on June 30.

Surprise U.S. champion Teahna Daniels placed third in her Diamond League 100m debut, clocking 11.24 seconds. The field lacked world championships favorites Thompson and Fraser-Pryce, who each ran 10.73 at the Jamaican Championships on June 21.

American record holder Ajeé Wilson won an 800m that lacked all three Rio Olympic medalists, who are barred from racing the event due to the IAAF’s new testosterone cap in middle distances. Wilson’s time, 2:00.76, was far off her 2019 world-leading time of 1:57.72 among eligible women.

Olympic and world heptathlon champion Nafi Thiam broke the Belgian long jump record twice, winning with a 6.86-meter leap. That ranks ninth in the world this year. The field lacked the last two Olympic champions, Americans Tianna Bartoletta and Brittney Reese.

A meeting of the last two Olympic pole vault champs went to Rio gold medalist Katerina Stefanidi of Greece, who cleared 4.75 meters in swirling wind. London 2012 champ Jenn Suhr was third but remains No. 1 in the world this year with a 4.91-meter clearance from March 30.

Croatian Sandra Perkovic, the 2012 and 2016 Olympic discus champion, lost her third straight Diamond League meet to start the season as she returns from injury. Perkovic, who placed third behind winner Cuban Yaimé Pérez, had not lost in back-to-back meets since returning from a six-month doping ban in 2011, according to Tilastopaja.org.

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