After a breakout performance that earned five medals at the London Olympics, swimmer Allison Schmitt has trouble blending in
“Are you Allison Schmitt?”
This is a question the UGA senior hears often because she gets recognized pretty much everywhere she goes—in class, while walking to the bus stop and even at the bowling alley. She was planning on settling back into campus life with a little less fanfare, but that’s not exactly working out.
It’s understandable, though, because less than a month before UGA’s fall semester began Schmitt won five medals—three golds, one silver and a bronze—at the London Olympics. Add those to the bronze medal she earned at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and she’s the most decorated Olympic Bulldog ever.
Lots of people watched as she made her mark in freestyle swimming. More than 219.4 million Americans tuned in to the Olympics, according to Nielsen television ratings, making the summer games the most-watched event ever in U.S. TV history. All that makes it difficult for Schmitt to fly under the radar.
“It’s something I never thought would happen,” she says, “but I’ll take it.”
In 2009, UGA Swim Coach Jack Bauerle found Allison Schmitt sitting by herself at the NCAA championships at Texas A&M. It was the first day of the meet, typically a high-stress event for most swimmers, and she was laughing and giggling. A little concerned, Bauerle asked her what was going on.
“I’m just so happy this meet’s getting ready to start,” she told him.
That happy-go-lucky attitude is vintage Schmitt, who goes by “Schmitty” and is notorious for telling really lame jokes, offering a vast repertoire of high fives and being the consummate team player.
Schmitt (center, in purple) is well known for keeping practices light. “I get my work done for sure, but you can’t go two hours without having fun,” she says.
Her Twitter account (@arschmitty) identifies her as “a professional waver with a permanent smile… always up for a high five.” She has a theory about the best way to achieve a quality high five.
“If you both look at elbows, you both hit it always right,” she says.
Her repertoire includes a turkey, for which she pounds her open palm, fingers spread wide, against the other person’s fist, and a snail, for which she curls two fingers and bumps them against the top of the other person’s fist.
At a media session in August, she told a couple of her favorite jokes.
Schmitt: “Knock knock.”
Reporters: “Who’s there?”
Schmitt: “Interrupting cow.”
Teammate Megan Romano, Schmitt’s roommate and best friend, is accustomed to her sense of humor.
“She likes to tell jokes, and she likes to think she’s funny,” says Romano, a UGA senior. “I mean, she is a funny person, but I don’t think her jokes are funny.”
But Romano—and the rest of the team—can count on Schmitt to make a bad practice better.
“She’s just a great friend,” she says. “She’s positive like 95 percent of the time. She’s always pushing you and just wants the best for you.”
Bauerle, in his 34th year of coaching swimming at UGA, says Schmitt always takes swimmers under her wing if they’re having a rough time.
“She’s the kind of kid you always want to have on your team,” he says. “She’s great. She’s great for everybody, not just herself.
“To Schmitty’s credit, I’ve been doing this awhile, and I’m not sure I’ve seen too many people love college swimming as much as she does.”
Perhaps her love of the team dynamic stems from her childhood. Schmitt grew up in Canton, Mich., with an older brother and sister and younger twin sisters. Self described as “the loud one,” she spent her formative years playing sports like baseball and ice hockey (their dad built a rink in the backyard) before embracing soccer as her sport of choice. But Schmitt got cut from the team at age 12 and followed her older sister into the pool, where she found her niche.
Although swimming is an intense sport with a grueling schedule that can include twice-daily practices, Schmitt enjoys it.
“Racing’s fun for me, and that’s one of the best things about the sport,” she says. “It’s just fun for me, and I’m pretty lighthearted about it.”
Don’t mistake lighthearted for lackadaisical, though. Dissatisfied with her performance at the 2008 Olympics—where she earned a bronze medal as a member of the 800-meter freestyle relay and finished ninth in the 200-meter freestyle—she redshirted last year to train with Bob Bowman at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. She’d trained there for a year before enrolling at UGA so it was a homecoming of sorts, reuniting her with Bowman and a group of elite swimmers including Michael Phelps.
Bowman watched as the bubbly Schmitt and the more serious Phelps developed a tight bond.
“I think that Allison lightened Michael up a little bit, and he made her more serious, which they both needed,” he says. “It worked out well.”
Schmitt gets a little teary talking about Phelps.
“He is the best swimmer ever alive, so just being able to train with him was an honor,” she says. “He is like a brother to me, and he’s really helped me get to the point where I am right now.”
Though Phelps—swimming’s best-known athlete—retired after the London Olympics, Bowman is confident that the sport of swimming is in good hands with Schmitt, who thanked him at the end of every practice, sometimes twice a day.
“I think she’s a great example of how to work hard and make improvements and be a team leader,” he says. “I think you couldn’t get a better role model than Allison.”
Schmitt’s positive attitude was on full display when she spoke to reporters after returning to UGA.
“I love swimming for whatever is on my cap, and I’m honored to come back to Georgia for my last year and swim with a G on my cap,” she told them. “I’m excited for it, and I’m excited to get back in the water with this team. I think we have great things coming for us this year, and I’m proud to be a Bulldog.”
Early in September, Schmitt is sitting in the back of an SUV, autographing photos while on the way to Rocky Branch Elementary School in Watkinsville, where she’ll meet with kindergartners and talk about goal setting.
In September Schmitt visited Rocky Branch Elementary School in Watkinsville, where she read The Little Engine That Could and talked with kindergartners about how she trains. “You like cupcakes? I like cupcakes sometimes too, but you need to eat your greens,” she told them.
Invitations have been pouring in, including one from the Detroit Lions, who want her to be a guest at one of their games.
“The Lions?” she says, smiling as she hears this news. “Sweet.”
Then she turns her attention back to the task at hand.
“What am I supposed to say here?” she asks.
But Schmitt—who thinks she might want to work with kids one day—is a natural and knows exactly what to do. After signing in at the school’s main office, she meets a 5-year-old boy who’s headed home with a tummy ache. The 6-foot-1-inch Schmitt kneels down to show him a gold medal.
“Do you wanna touch it?” she asks. “Do you wanna hold it? Do you play sports? What’s your favorite thing to do in school?”
The boy smiles as he touches the medal and tells her that he plays football.
After posing for photos and autographing a swim cap, Schmitt faces more than 75 kindergartners that have assembled to meet her. One of the children asks how many Olympic medals she has, and Schmitt answers with a question of her own.
“Who’s 5?” she asks, and is answered with a chorus of “I’m 5! I’m 6!” before she replies. “That’s how many I have.”
When she pulls out one of the three gold medals she brought, the kids react with a collective “Ohhhhhhh.”
“This is what I got for going to practice every day,” she says.
Schmitt shares her daily routine and asks the kids lots of questions, emphasizing the importance of going to practice, eating healthy foods, listening to your coaches and setting goals. She brings kids up to the front to demonstrate swim strokes, answers questions about what it was like at the Olympics and reads a story—The Little Engine That Could.
After the story Schmitt brings out all three gold medals, and the kids line up to see them. One little boy puts a medal around his neck.
“Then you have to hold it up and smile,” Schmitt says, bringing an imaginary medal up near her face to demonstrate. She watches as the boy imitates her. “That’s a gold medal smile right there.”
Today’s visit is one of many appearances she’s made since the Olympics. While in London, she and Olympic roommate Elizabeth Beisel, also a swimmer, appeared on “Beat TV,” a daily entertainment show broadcast in 30 countries. The show’s other guest that day was actor Rupert Grint (Harry Potter’s Ron Weasley, for any Muggles out there), whom she immediately dubbed “Rupe Dog.”
When she returned to the U.S., she appeared on NBC’s “Today” show, where 98 Degrees band member Nick Lachey asked to take a photo with her.
“I felt like I was in middle school,” she says. “I was like, this is so cool!”
Schmitt (left), fellow gold medalist Shannon Vreeland (center) and Swim Coach Jack Bauerle addressed the press at a UGA media event in August. This month Schmitt will travel to Istanbul, Turkey, to compete with the U.S. team at the short course world championships.
Her hometown organized a ceremony to honor her when she returned for a visit before heading to Athens for fall semester. At UGA, she was part of a relay—including Vince Dooley, who gave her a quick lesson on the Heisman pose—that delivered the football onto the field for the first home game. She traveled to Washington, D.C., with Team USA to meet President Obama. And she and other UGA Olympians were honored at the Sept. 29 football game against Tennessee.
Despite the accolades, Schmitt is ready to return to a more normal life. At the media session, she told reporters that it was no problem transitioning from the glory of the Olympics to the more normal existence of a student athlete. She made this transition once before, after the 2008 Olympics, so it’s not a big deal.
“When we were in London it felt like we were in our own little world, but once we come back, it’s back to real life.”
Not long after she returned to Athens, Schmitt spent a Friday night sitting on the couch watching TV with Romano. A little bored, they started talking about picking up Schmitt’s car, which she’d left in Baltimore.
“We looked up flights, and there was a flight in like two and a half hours, and we’re like, ‘Ok, we can make it just in time for this flight,’” Schmitt says. “So we picked up and left for the weekend.”
An impromptu road trip is something any college student might do, and when she’s not in the pool Schmitt is pretty much like any other 22 year old. She enjoys shopping—she’s a fan of the TOMS line—scrapbooking and just hanging out. Her favorite movies are comedies, but under Romano’s tutelage she’s learning to enjoy scary movies, although she won’t watch them by herself. She tries to keep her free time unscheduled, leaving room for spontaneity.
“I guess I just don’t really ever have plans,” Schmitt says, laughing. “I just like to go with the flow, play it by ear.”
At UGA’s Sept. 1 football game against Buffalo, Schmitt was part of a relay that delivered the football onto the field. She and other UGA Olympians enjoyed a more formal recognition during the Sept. 29 football game against Tennessee.
Between classes and workouts, the life of a student athlete doesn’t allow for a lot of down time. When it does, she’s sometimes so sore that she can’t lift her arms.
“It’s rough. It’s hard,” she says. “Sometimes I go home and just pass out. I don’t even want to make dinner.”
But Schmitt appreciates the structure the coaches provide, because she has plans that include helping the UGA women’s team win an NCAA championship this year, something it hasn’t done since 2005, three years before she enrolled.
“It would be the icing on top of my whole career here,” she says.
And after graduation she’ll keep swimming, training for the 2013 FINA World Championships in Barcelona and then the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
“Even with three gold medals I’m still not satisfied, and I still want more,” Schmitt says. “I still have more goals to accomplish.”
In the meantime, she’s concentrating on finishing her degree in psychology and fulfilling her role on the UGA team. Although the Olympics were an experience she’ll never forget, in some ways her success hasn’t quite sunk in.
“I still don’t think I realize I’m walking around with five medals,” she says.
Chances are that if she forgets, someone on campus will remind her by asking the question she hears most often these days.
“Are you Allison Schmitt?”