Column: Olympic champion Schmitt struggles away from pool

Allison Schmitt seemed like the happiest person at the pool.

Always laughing. Always telling a corny joke.

Ask anyone about the five-time Olympic medalist, they'll quickly rattle off some offbeat thing she said or did, something that got everyone smiling. They'll usually finish the story with two words: ''That's Schmitty.''

But after her starring role at the 2012 London Games, the swimmer realized something wasn't right. She felt depressed. She really didn't like herself but wasn't sure why.

For the longest time, she didn't talk about it.

But the 24-year-old Pennsylvania native opened up about her struggles during an interview with The Associated Press at last weekend's pro swim meet in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Reluctant at first, she decided to share her experience with other elite athletes.

''I didn't like myself,'' she said. ''I didn't like that I was feeling like that. I thought if I suppressed it, it would go away. But it was something where I needed help from outside sources.''

She didn't go into specifics about her diagnosis or who she turned to for help, but believes she's not the only one dealing with wearying burdens on the inside.

''You can put on a front for it,'' she said. ''On the outside, I can look happy and be doing a great time, but not really feel what I'm looking like.''

At London, Schmitt turned in one of the greatest performances of the Olympics, though her feats were a bit overshadowed by Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte and Missy Franklin.

Schmitt won her first individual gold with a dominating performance in the 200-meter freestyle. She took silver in the 400 free after a dramatic race with France's Camille Muffat (who was killed in a helicopter crash 2 1-2 months ago). Schmitt also swam in all three relays, helping the U.S. win gold in the 4x100 free and 4x100 medley as well as take bronze in the 4x200 free.

After the Olympics, she returned to the University of Georgia to complete her degree in psychology.

But Schmitt struggled to recapture the form she showed at the Olympics. She failed to even qualify for the American team that competed in the 2013 world championships or the squad that will be at this summer's worlds in Kazan, Russia.

It was clear something else was wrong.

''I don't want to say it was (a lack of) confidence at the pool,'' Schmitt said. ''It was more about the confidence in myself.''

There's no room for doubts when you're trying to beat someone who's trained just as hard as you have. An athlete never wants to show the opponent any sign of weakness.

That made it difficult for Schmitt to cope with the rest of her life.

She's surely not alone.

''I know a lot of athletes who are very strong, who have a strong will, a strong passion,'' Schmitt said. ''They don't really like to show their other side, their emotional side. That's something very prevalent in athletes. That's something in the future I would like to work on, to let them know it's OK not to be OK.''

Her struggle really hit home a couple of weeks ago when a younger cousin killed herself.

Schmitt knows better than anyone that perception often has little to do with reality.

''Things are filtered on Instagram and social media or even walking around with a smile on your face, and it's filtering out how you really feel,'' she said. ''After a few years, I'm finally being able to realize that.''

She's still trying to sort out exactly how she reached her nadir, how a natural post-Olympic letdown took her to a darker place.

''Maybe the post-Olympic blues started it, and it just kept crashing down from there,'' Schmitt said. ''Or maybe it was not doing as well as I wanted to do (after the Olympics). I don't know what triggered it. I would like to work on that and figure out what triggered it.''

It wasn't easy to seek help. Her friends say she's enormously generous with others. Her college coach, Jack Bauerle, tells of Schmitt helping pay for a child's Halloween costume at a store when the mother didn't have enough money.

''I had a friend who happened to see it, because she didn't tell me about it,'' Bauerle said. ''I'm just guessing that wasn't the only time.''

Along the way, Schmitt didn't pay enough attention to herself.

''It's hard for me to open up and hard for me to accept the fact that if I need help, I need to go ask for help,'' she said. ''I'd much rather be helping someone else.''

Since she didn't qualify for the world championships, Schmitt will compete this summer at what is essentially a backup meet, the Pan American Games in Toronto.

But her coach, Bob Bowman, said she is finally showing the form that made her a champion in 2012. Sure, everyone is focused on Phelps and Franklin and America's next great swimming star, 18-year-old Katie Ledecky.

Don't forget about Schmitty.

''I'm not concerned at all,'' Bowman said. ''I have no doubt she can get back to where she once was.''

And away from the pool, she's pulling off her greatest triumph of all.

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Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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