Olympic medalist finds purpose in fight against depression

Allison Schmitt in Colorado Springs, Colorado. (April 2016)

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (WOOD) — When Allison Schmitt came home to Canton, Michigan after earning five medals at the 2012 Olympics in London, she had scores of people patting her on the back.

“I was told many times how lucky I was, how happy I should be,” Schmitt said. “I knew deep down that I should be happy.”

Allison Schmitt, Olympics
Allison Schmitt appears on NBC’s “Today” show on Friday, Aug. 17, 2012 in New York.

In photos with her haul of medals — three golds, a silver and a bronze — hanging around her neck, she looked like she was.

But all the while, she was struggling with depression.

“I had gone through thoughts of not wanting to live,” she said. “I kind of isolated and dug myself into a hole and kept isolating. I know for myself and a lot of other people out there, that’s not a good sign.”

Two events finally drew her out of that isolation and prompted her to reach out for help. The first was in January 2014 at a swim meet in Austin, Texas. Her friend, training partner and fellow Olympian Michael Phelps approached her.

Allison Schmitt, Michael Phelps, Olympics
Allison Schmitt, left, and Michael Phelps, right, share a laugh as they warm up for their events at the Longhorn Aquatics Elite Invite swimming, Friday, June 3, 2016, in Austin, Texas.

“He came up to me after my 400 free, which he could tell I kind of swam it to swim it; didn’t really swim with passion. As a swimmer, I love meets, I love competing. I wouldn’t be in the sport if it wasn’t for competing. And he could tell that I wasn’t competing and I wasn’t myself,” Schmitt recalled. “He said to me, ‘I can tell you’re not yourself. I know there is something going on. Whenever you are ready, I can help you or I know people that can help you.’”

She broke down right there and took him up on his offer.

Four months later, her cousin April’s battle with depression came to an end when she took her own life.

“So that made me realize that this had to be stopped. She didn’t know what I was going through. I didn’t know what she was going through,” Schmitt said. “I think she probably felt alone, so alone. And then seeing thousands of people, thousands of people that were at her funeral to celebrate her life, it’s hard to realize that. It’s hard to see that when you’re going through it and you’re in that bubble, but you just kind of take a deep breath and look back and realize we’re all human. We’re all there for each other.”

As an athlete, Schmitt had been taught from a young age to rely on herself to get through a race. But after her cousin’s death, she reached out to her aunt and told her what she was feeling.

“My aunt said to me, ‘You’re the first person April saved.’ And that meant a lot to me,” Schmitt said.

Now, she has a mission more important than winning races and medals. She travels the country talking about her struggle. She said if she can stop even one person from making the same decision April made, it will be a bigger win than any she ever had in the pool.

“To know that together, even though she’s not on this earth anymore, we can save some lives out there, I’m taking that in day by day,” Schmitt said. “Knowing that she is up there watching down on us and enjoying the little bit of life we have because we’re not really here for that long.”

The end of the Olympic games are difficult for athletes, Schmitt said. After making the team, she explained, everything is laid out in front of them: workouts, meals, training and rehab, travel. But once the games are over, the athletes are once again on their own to figure out what’s next. She said her mission to help others with depression has given her a greater purpose than swimming, and should help her be better prepared to deal with that feeling after the Rio games.

Schmitt is competing in the Olympic trials this week in Omaha, Nebraska.

The Rio Olympics start Aug. 5.

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