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  • Writer's pictureJosh Oldridge

Athletes in dark places: Allison Schmitt

Updated: Oct 29, 2019

It’s great that ITV recently began a five-year commitment to increasing mental wellness in the British public, starting with encouraging people to open up more through the Britain Get Talking initiative supported by Mind and YoungMinds. Lots of mental health charities have a similar aim. Doctors say it. Therapists suggest it. I agree. Talking with people close to you is one of the best ways to overcome dark thoughts and depression. I’m looking forward to seeing the other ways ITV will broach this topic, because the truth is this: it’s hard. It’s really, really hard to start telling people you are struggling.

Allison Schmitt competed in her first Olympic games – and won medals – at only 18; back in 2008 in Beijing. In 2012 she won three golds in London, complementing a silver and bronze at the same tournament, as well as helping to set a 4x100-metre medley relay world record to solidify her status as a leader on the world stage. But it was this fame that caused Schmitt, known to her coach as ‘Sunny-side up’ for her upbeat disposition, to spiral into depression. In an interview with Dr Nandi (available online at the YouTube link below) Schmitt explains how her success made her recognisable in the public domain; meaning she could no longer live a quiet life as before. She couldn’t spend time with her friends out in public as previously. So she started to see her friends less. To avoid frequent encounters with people to whom she was an icon, Schmitt would either not make plans with friends or hide from them. She started to turn inwards upon herself and became increasingly unhappy.

Sleep became her friend. This is not uncommon for depression sufferers. When everywhere you are is nowhere you want to be, sleep acts as relief. It’s a world away from conscious thought, which means a world away from torturous thought for someone with depression. Schmitt used sleep as an escape from her inner anguish. It was one of the few things she could look forward to during this agonising time. But escapement is not treatment, as she later learned.

Depression started to affect her performance in the pool. Having won gold medals on the world stage, Schmitt soon started to lack the motivation to perform well enough to even get into the USA national team. But she played this off with false reasons, such as that her training just hadn’t been right. Schmitt comes from a good family and had seen major success in her profession. She felt she ought to be happy, she hated complaining, and saw her struggles as a sign of weakness. From after the summer games of 2012, she tried and failed to manage her depression by herself for over two years. When a day can feel like a lifetime, this is a long stretch to be battling alone. Then, in May 2015, Schmitt’s seventeen-year-old cousin, April Bocian, committed suicide. She had been depressed, but at the time nobody knew. Schmitt was deeply distressed. As a combination of this and the gentle coercion of a good friend – the most successful Olympic athlete ever, Michael Phelps, who had spotted that she was not her usual self – Schmitt started to open up about her depression. The death of her cousin was tragic and harrowing, but in it Schmitt saw that she had to talk in order to overcome her own struggles, as well as helping to prevent it happening to other people. As her mum pointed out to Schmitt when at last she began to talk – giving a key reason as saving people from the same fate as that of her cousin – the first person she saved through opening up was herself.

Link to Dr Nandi interview:

For the amazing 4x100-metre relay world record swim (with Schmitt on the final leg) at the London games:

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