OMAHA, NEB. — Michael Phelps
The Olympic gold medalists have trained together for almost a decade. For the last year, they've shared a roof in Arizona, and Schmitt has become "Aunt Schmitty" to her friend's firstborn. This week at Olympic Trials, they're both trying to regain their places atop the sport after an emotionally harrowing four years.
Phelps' journey from the last Olympics — falling out of love with the sport, hitting an emotional bottom, rebounding to enjoy fatherhood and a reinvigorated training schedule — has been well documented. But Schmitt's was just as painful. The five-time Olympic medalist fell into a depression so deep that she sometimes slept away her days rather than face a world that expected the old bubbly Schmitty.
Phelps and Schmitt both say they're happier than they've been in years, and on Tuesday, both got to work qualifying for finals in their signature events.
After two restless days watching his buddies swim, Phelps finally made it to the pool and easily posted the best qualifying time of the morning in the 200-meter butterfly despite "dragging" his legs. He was also fastest in the evening semifinals, shaving more than a second off his preliminary time.
"I just wanted to swim," he said after finishing his preliminary heat in 1 minute, 56.68 seconds. "That was the most annoying part, having to wait this long. But I'm happy to get the first one underway."
He's used to more crammed trials schedules, but given that he no longer swims the 400-meter individual medley or the 200-meter freestyle, he had nothing to do on Sunday or Monday.
Seven-week-old Boomer Phelps was in the stands, watching his dad get to the business of qualifying for a fifth Olympics. Phelps will have to wait for Wednesday night's 200 butterfly final for a chance to make his place on the team official.
Schmitt, meanwhile, finished a distant fifth behind Katie Ledecky and Leah Smith in the 400 freestyle final on Monday evening. But the 400, an event in which she won a silver medal at the 2012 Olympics, was never her most realistic target for these trials.
It was the 200 free in which her coach, Bob Bowman, said he was confident Schmitt — who still holds the American record in the event — could swim competitively with Ledecky.
But that's looking like a daunting task after Ledecky easily posted the fastest preliminary and semifinal times on Tuesday.
It remains to be seen what Schmitt will do in Wednesday night's final, which sets up as one of the most hotly contested and star-studded races of the week, featuring Ledecky, Smith and Missy Franklin. Schmitt was third in the semifinals and needs to finish in the top two to punch her ticket to Rio de Janeiro (though she's on track for a relay spot regardless).
In many ways, however, she has won simply by making it back to trials as a legitimate Olympic contender.
Less than two years ago, she stood bawling in the parking lot at the Meadowbrook Aquatic Center in Mount Washington, convinced she needed to go inside and tell Bowman she was done with the sport.
She had been miserable much of the time since winning five medals at the London Olympics. Whether in her hometown of Canton, Mich., or at the University Georgia, Schmitt felt alien to people she'd known for years. Rather than reassuring her, crowds of well wishers overwhelmed her, pushing her to tears.
She did her best to hide it all behind her familiar goofball smile. But that was exhausting, so she took to spending whole days alone in her room where she wouldn't have to fake it.
Bowman knew something was wrong but didn't know how to help. He laughed recalling his "typical male reaction" of trying to get her to stop crying as quickly as possible.
When Schmitt entered his office that day in the summer of 2014, she was crying and more importantly, confused.
"I knew deep down that I didn't want to quit, but I didn't know what was going on," she said.
Bowman suggested they take it week by week.
"He told me let's go each week," Schmitt said. "We'll see each week how you feel and where you want to be, and it just happened to progress every time from that conversation."
Depression is a complex illness, however, and Schmitt endured plenty of rough days after that conversation. In January 2015 at a meet in Austin, Texas, Bowman, Phelps and conditioning coach Keenan Robinson listened for more than hour as she revealed the true depths of her sadness.
She started seeing a therapist and her spirits rebounded as 2015 progressed.
Then in May of last year, her 17-year-old cousin, April Bocian, committed suicide. Schmitt decided it was no longer good enough for her to heal in silence. She has since spoken out about her own struggles and plans to devote her post-swimming career to raising awareness of mental illness.
"I think I'm a whole 180 — a completely different person and a completely different attitude about everything," she said. "I think that seeing a psychologist is one of the best tools that anybody, an athlete, or any person, could possibly use, so I'm still an advocate of seeing one, and I still see one and talk to one, and I think that — I mean, I have my days. There are good days, bad days, but there's a lot more good days than bad days now."
She's also near her peak form as a swimmer, a renaissance Bowman did not necessarily expect.
"I thought it was going to be tough to get her back to where she is," he said.
He was sitting beside Schmitt at their pre-trials news conference, comparing her form now to where she was in 2008 and 2012.
"But the difference is back then she was just a girl, and now she is a real — an amazing woman," Bowman said, turning to Schmitt. "I mean, you really are!"
"Thank you," she replied.