Following the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, five-time Olympic medalist Allison Schmitt should have been on cloud nine. She had won three gold medals in London, and was at her peak for an Olympic athlete.
She was “Schmitty.” Always upbeat, a down-to-earth girl, who just happened to swim insanely fast.
But she was far from that. Despite a cheerful exterior, she was left feeling sad more often than not. She would sleep away full days instead of facing the real world. And she felt helpless and hopeless, as if the girl who could fly through water was stuck treading water.
“There were times I didn’t like being around myself, so I figured why would other people want to be around me?” Schmitt said.
In December 2014, Schmitt was on her way to Penn State to watch her younger twin sisters’ women’s hockey game. She had been looking forward to it, but found herself feeling anxious, restless and panicky on her drive. She was exhausted from the way she had been feeling for too long now, and desperate for relief. There had been so many nights of interrupted sleep, when she would wake up crying or laughing for no reason, or throwing herself against the mattress.
So easy to steer off the road.
The thought presented itself, then immediately mortified her.
For a minute, she thought she was going crazy. She was shocked at the thought that had entered her mind.
She grabbed her phone the next day and texted random friends, telling them she loved them and wishing them a Happy New Year.
It was all an attempt to gather herself and re-focus. Or in case something happened. She wasn’t sure which.
Help From a Friend
After that, in January 2015, Michael Phelps noticed something different in Schmitt when they were competing at a swim meet in Austin, Texas. Phelps, whom Schmitt has considered an older brother figure since they began training together before the 2008 Olympics, said, “I can tell that something is wrong.”
Phelps, who had recently battled his own troubles with depression and suicide, was in a new frame of mind, thanks to Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life. He went on to tell Schmitt, “I don’t know what it is. I’m here for you. I can help you or I can find someone else to help you.”
Here’s a 26-year-old woman who had dedicated her entire life to swimming, and she wanted to quit.
Thanks to Phelps’ words, Schmitt “woke up.”
“That was the turning point for me,” she said.
On a pool deck in Austin, Texas, teammate Michael Phelps and Coaches Bob Bowman and Keenan Robinson stood beside her as a swim meet unfolded around them, and Schmitt told them the truth.
Following their meeting, Schmitt went to see a psychologist. It turns out even this elite Olympic Athlete is among the 16 million Americans suffering from depression. She began attending regular therapy sessions, where she learned how to cope with her emotions and identify feelings she never realized she had bottled up.
Back in the pool, Schmitt says therapy has brought her a long way from the place she was at a year and a half ago. In fact, her depression therapy has given her a sense of purpose.
In May of 2015, Schmitt’s 17-year-old cousin, April Bocian, committed suicide. She was a junior in high school with a promising basketball future, and no one had suspected that anything was wrong.
In wake of her cousin’s death, Schmitt realized that she might be able to help others who are slipping down a similarly dark path. If she spoke out about her struggles and need for help, others might take advice from an Olympic champion.
“She felt she was trapped,” Schmitt says of her cousin. “And I realized that if I could save one life by telling people that’s not the case, I would love to do that.”
She gave her first public interview on the subject just a few weeks after Bocian’s death, and is prepared to tell her story again and again as a 2016 Olympian.
She wants people to know, “It’s OK to ask for help,” she said. “That shows more strength than trying to persevere and push through it.” She hopes to encourage others to do what she did.
As she returned to Rio this past week, Allison has gotten back that huge smile and infectious spirit. Her and the U.S. Women’s 4x100m Freestyle Relay Team just took silver in the final this past Saturday