For Allison Schmitt, there was hardly any time to savour her breakout performance at the London Games, where she won a total of five medals in swimming. She had to get back to Georgia for the start of her senior year.
"This is just a part of life," Schmitt said Wednesday. "In London, we felt like we were in our own little world. But once you come back, it's back to real life."
While many athletes were able to cash in on their triumphs, Schmitt retained her amateur status so she could swim one more year for the Bulldogs. She's actually looking forward to competing in duel meets, the Southeastern Conference championships and the NCAAs, even though some might view that as a bit of a comedown from the Olympics.
"I love swimming for whatever is on my cap," she said. "I'm honoured to come back to Georgia for my last year swimming with a 'G' on my cap. I'm excited to get back in the water for this team. I think we have some great things going for us this year. I'm proud to be a Bulldog."
While overshadowed a bit by U.S. teammates such as Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte and Missy Franklin, Schmitt was right in their class when it came to the results. She won three golds, a silver and a bronze — just as many medals as Lochte and Franklin. The only London athlete, in any sport, to win more was Phelps, who claimed four golds and two silvers in his farewell Olympics.
It's all still a bit overwhelming to Schmitt, especially the part about fellow students recognizing her as she walks around campus.
"Someone stopped me as I was walking to the bus and said, 'Are you Allison Schmitt?' And I was like, 'Yeah, that's me,'" she said, chuckling. "Somebody came up to me in class and asked for a picture. It's kind of weird when people recognize me. You don't really realize that they might have been watching the Olympics this summer. It's kind of cool, too. It's definitely something I never thought would happen, but I'll take it."
Schmitt took a year off from school to prepare for the Olympics, moving to Baltimore to work with Phelps and his longtime coach, Bob Bowman.
It certainly paid off.
"I wanted to concentrate without the distraction of classes and a college schedule," she said. "I knew I had to focus solely on swimming. Going to Baltimore gave me an opportunity to travel to different place when my college team would have been doing duel meets or the SECs or the NCAAs. It was a tough decision to leave, but it was a lot easier knowing I would come back for my senior year."
She never wavered on finishing up her college eligibility, even though she could've been in line for lucrative endorsements after her starring role in London.
"Schmitty is the consummate team player," said her Georgia coach, Jack Bauerle. "I was always asked if she would come back, and there was never even a doubt about it. She loves Georgia. She's the kind of kid you want to have on your team. She's great for everybody, not just herself."
The Bulldogs have long been a college swimming powerhouse, and this year should be no exception. The Bulldogs have another gold medallist , junior Shannon Vreeland, who joined Schmitt on the winning 800-meter freestyle relay team in London. On the men's side, they have Andrew Gemmell, who competed in the 1,500 free at the Olympics.
But Schmitt is the biggest star, an athlete of enormous talent but perhaps even more impressive when it comes to her mental outlook. Phelps and Bowman talked numerous times this summer about her perpetually cheery outlook on life, her goofy antics, and her fondness for corny jokes. She'll burst into laughter, the only one in on the punch line, while everyone around her just shakes their heads and says, "That's Schmitty."
During the Olympic trials in Omaha, she was persuaded to tell an especially bad joke on the pool deck in front of more than 10,000 spectators.
"What do a coach and a dentist have in common?" she asked. "They both use drills."
Rim shot, please.
On Wednesday, she was asked if she had any new material.
"Well, my favourite joke of all time is this one," Schmitt replied.
"Who's there?" the reporter dutifully replied.
"Moooo!" Schmitt blurted out, breaking into a huge grin. "I just love that joke."
Her carefree attitude has carried her to great heights, and she's not done yet. Schmitt has every intention of returning for the 2016 Rio Games.
"She has a very unique approach to sports that's just inherently built in," Bauerle said. "Her mom and dad don't know where it came from. I don't know where it came from. But I'm glad it did.
"Even when she has disappointments — and anyone who's at this level has had some pretty grand disappointments, too — she's always smiling. Sometimes it's with tears in her eyes, but she's still smiling. Like I said, we don't know where it came from, but I wish a few more of my swimmers had it. One of her greatest gifts is she actually seems to have more fun the more important it is. That's a pretty neat thing."
This semester, Schmitt is taking a couple of psychology classes, as well as a math course and comparative literature. She's pretty much like any other senior: renting a house with friends, bumming rides until she's able to bring her car back from Baltimore, riding the bus to avoid the notoriously difficult quest to find a parking spot on campus.
As for her medals, she's still trying to figure out a safe place to keep them. For now, she's been strolling around with one of her gold medals in her backpack.
"I don't go around and say, 'Hey, check these out!" Schmitt said. "But with all the support I've had the past four years, if people ask to see them, I'm more than willing. They can hold them or try them on."
Somewhere down the line, she'll truly appreciate that magical week in Britain. For now, she's just another college student.
"It still hasn't sunk in," Schmitt said. "I haven't really has a chance to sit down and realize what I accomplished."Suggest a correction