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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SWIM NATIONALS: TV Schedule | Results | Swimmers to Watch

Justin Gatlin, Noah Lyles headline U.S. roster for IAAF World Relays

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Justin Gatlin and Noah Lyles haven’t been in the same race since the 2016 Olympic Trials, but they could exchange a baton at the IAAF World Relays next month.

Gatlin, the reigning world 100m champion, and Lyles, undefeated at 200m outdoors in this Olympic cycle, headline the U.S. roster at World Relays in Yokohama, Japan, from May 11-12.

It’s the fourth edition of the meet that was held in the Bahamas in 2014, 2015 and 2017. Competition includes men’s and women’s 4x100m, 4x200m and 4x400m, a mixed-gender 4x400m (making its Olympic debut in 2020), a shuttle hurdle relay and a 2x2x400m.

The U.S. has topped the medal standings at every World Relays, most memorably beating a Usain Bolt-anchored Jamaican 4x100m in 2015.

This U.S. team also includes world 100m champion Tori Bowie, U.S. 100m champion Aleia Hobbs and Lyles’ younger brother, Josephus.

The full U.S. roster:

Devon Allen
Joanna Atkina
Olivia Baker
Jessica Beard
Chris Belcher
Jasmine Blocker
Tori Bowie
Donavan Brazier
Mikiah Brisco
Ce’Aira Brown
Dezerea Bryant
Cameron Burrell
Michael Cherry
Christina Clemons (Manning)
Shania Collins
Freddie Crittenden
Paul Dedewo
Ryan Fontenot
Justin Gatlin
Queen Harrison
Aleia Hobbs
Ashley Henderson
Je’Von Hutchinson
Kyra Jefferson
Fred Kerley
My’lik Kerley
Jordan Lavender
Josephus Lyles
Noah Lyles
Remontay McClain
Sharika Nelvis
Vernon Norwood
Courtney Okolo
Jenna Prandini
Bryce Robinson
Mike Rodgers
Jaide Stepter
Nathan Strother
Gabby Thomas
Brionna Thomas
Ameer Webb
Shakima Wimbley
Dontavius Wright
Isiah Young

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How to watch 2019 London Marathon

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The London Marathon airs live on NBCSN and streams commercial free for NBC Sports Gold “Track and Field Pass” subscribers on Sunday at 4 a.m. ET.

NBCSN coverage also streams on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app for subscribers.

Sunday’s race start times (ET)
4:05 – Elite Wheelchair Races
4:10 – World Para Athletics Marathon Championships Ambulant Athletes
4:25 – Elite Women’s Race
5:10 – Elite Men’s Race, Mass Race

The London Marathon is known for the deepest fields of all the annual major marathons. This year is no exception.

Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge will race his first 26.2-miler since shattering the world record by 78 seconds in Berlin on Sept. 16 (2:01:39).

Kipchoge, on a modern-era record win streak of nine elite marathons, won his last three London starts, including setting the course record of 2:03:05 in 2016. Another world record on Sunday is a monumental ask, given Berlin is traditionally a faster course than London.

Kipchoge’s competition includes Britain’s four-time Olympic track champion Mo Farah and fellow Kenyans and past London winners Daniel Wanjiru and Wilson Kipsang.

Yet another Kenyan, Mary Keitany, also eyes a fourth London title. The 5-foot-2 soft speaker bagged either the London or New York City Marathons seven of the last eight years, with the outlier being 2013, when she gave birth to her second child.

Keitany’s greatest feat came in London in 2017, when she won in 2:17:01, erasing Paula Radcliffe‘s world record in a women’s only race by 41 seconds.

But last year, Keitany went out at world-record pace and was passed by yet another Kenyan mom, Vivian Cheruiyot, in the 23rd mile in London. Cheruiyot, a four-time Olympic track medalist, returns to defend her title Sunday.

The top two U.S. runners are Molly Huddle, in her London debut, and Emily Sisson, in her marathon debut. Both are jockeying for position among the deepest group of American female marathoners in history with the Olympic Trials looming in 10 months.

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MORE: 2019 Boston Marathon Results