Allison Schmitt

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Olympic medalists Kathleen Baker, Caeleb Dressel headline TYR Pro Swim Series stop in Des Moines

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The TYR Pro Swim series continues this week with a stop in Des Moines, Iowa. The meet marks the first time that Iowa has hosted a professional swimming competition.

The women’s field is headlined by a handful of Olympic medalists, including Allison Schmitt, Kathleen Baker, Leah Smith, and Olivia Smoliga.

Baker, a two-time Olympic medalist and backstroke specialist, will look to improve on her performance at the first stop of the series in Knoxville, Tennessee, where she finished third in the 50m back, eighth in the 100m back (an event in which she holds the world record), and scratched the 200m back.

Schmitt, an eight-time Olympic medalist, is entered in her first meet of 2019. The three-time Olympian is slated to compete in six events, including the 200m free, where she holds a six-year-old American record. Schmitt originally planned to retire after the 2016 Rio Olympics, but she never officially took herself out of the drug-testing pool, and returned to competition in April 2018. The 28-year-old has been open in recent years about battling depression and says one of her goals is to destigmatize conversations surrounding mental health.

The men’s field features seven-time world champion Caeleb Dressel, who is entered in seven events: the 100m free, 100m breast, 200m free, 50m breast, 50m fly, 100m fly, and 50m free. The 22-year-old had a slow start to the meet on Thursday morning, finishing 15th in the preliminary round of the 100m free (an event in which he holds the American record). Given that it is still early in the season, it is hard to draw too many conclusions from results in Des Moines as most swimmers are currently in the middle of a heavy training period as they look ahead to this summer’s World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea.

Michael Andrew, 19, is also expected to compete in seven events, including five that overlap with Dressel. At last summer’s U.S. National Championships, the two swimmers dueled in multiple events, with Andrew out-touching Dressel in both the 50m fly and 50m free, while Dressel secured the win in the 100m fly.

Live coverage of Thursday’s finals begins at 8:00pm ET on Olympic Channel, while Friday’s finals get underway at 8:00pm ET on NBCSN.

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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Allison Schmitt’s comeback has shades of Michael Phelps

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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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