Schmitt emerges from Phelps' shadow

As a kid, Allison Schmitt's sport was soccer. She even had a Mia Hamm Barbie doll. If she imagined back then that she would find herself at the Olympics someday, it would have been as a teammate of Hope Solo and Alex Morgan.

Instead, she is poised for a breakout Olympics in swimming.

"I had the decision made for me when I got cut from the team at 12," she says of her stunted soccer career. "Swimming was a no-cut sport."

Schmitt, 22, is perhaps best known these days to casual followers of swimming asMichael Phelps' training partner, first in her native Michigan and then at North Baltimore Aquatic Club, and the person the previously burned-out swimmer credits with helping him rediscover the joy of swimming.

But London could shine a brighter spotlight on her own swimming. She will race in four events in the swimming competition that begins Saturday after Friday's opening ceremony, coming off of some scorching performances in the qualifying trials several weeks ago in Omaha — literally.

Pyrotechnicians launched shooting flames on either side of the trials' pool whenever someone swam impressively, which Schmitt certainly did in the 200-meter freestyle, breaking her own American record to beat a talented field that included the teenage phenom Missy Franklin.

"I didn't feel like I was on my record pace, but I could hear the crowd. When I touched and saw the flames go off, I was pretty excited before I even looked up and saw the time," she said that night after finishing in 1 minute, 54.40 seconds, the fastest time in the world this year.

She also qualified for the 400-meter free, and the 400- and 800-meter free relays. She was a member of the 800-free relay team that won bronze in Beijing.

The 6-foot-1 Schmitt, who might even be taller when she piles her long, ginger-colored mass of curls atop her head, appears to never leave the house in a bad mood. The kid who admittedly would laugh so hard at the dinner table that milk would shoot through her nose is now a young woman who still finds life a total hoot.

It is something that the more naturally intense Phelps clearly appreciates. He rarely lets an interview or press conference go by without noting how "Schmitty" has actually made him look forward to the practices that he had come to dread, particularly after he lost his passion for the sport in the aftermath of his record-breaking Beijing Games.

They are a study in contrasts, and it's easy to see how they would complement each other in training.

"Michael is very focused and goal-oriented," she said. "I'm more spontaneous, and I don't contain my energy very much. He's helped me with that."

Their coach, Bob Bowman agrees. "Because of her personality, she loves to be sociable, she likes to interact with people," he said. "And I think that drains her to a point. in some of the big meets before she burned up her energy before she could use it in the big race."

Schmitt was still in high school in Canton, Mich., when she first began training with Bowman and Phelps. After the Athens Olympics, Bowman left NBAC to become the University of Michigan head coach, and Phelps followed him there to train for Beijing.

"Everytime he would walk by, I would just, like, stare: 'Oh, it's Michael Phelps,'" Schmitt recalled of seeing the then six-time gold medalist at the pool.

Eventually, though, swimming lap after lap together, they became friends. In 2008, the same year she graduated fom high school and entered the University of Georgia, where she won multiple NCAA swimming championships, but red-shirted her senior year to train full-time at NBAC for the London Games.

She became something of a little sister to the top-performing group at NBAC that included Phelps and Chris Brady, another University of Michigan swimmer who followed Bowman to Baltimore.

"She makes practice a lot more bearable," Brady said. "She's funny and likes to joke around."

Compared to Phelps' instantly intimidating aura, Schmitt's jovial nature may make competitors take her less than seriously, Brady said, which would be a mistake.

"When she's in the pool, I wouldn't count her out," he said. "She can be mistaken as carefree and light-hearted, it could catch them off-guard."

Schmitt says she's made enormous strides training at NBAC. She is physically stronger, Bowman says, remembering the girl who couldn't do a single push-up or pull-up and now can do multiple sets of them.

Even after her dominating trials, and knowing the tough international competition she'll face in the Olympics, Bowman said there was still work to be done. "We're going into the weight room tomorrow," he said after she finished her events. Luckily, for both swimmer and coach, Bowman notes how Schmitt takes any drill or workout he throws at her with her characteristic smile — and even a thank you at the end of every practice.

While Schmitt has high goals for herself going in her second Games, in also characteristic style, she is savoring the experience out of the pool as well.

"My greatest memories from 2008, other than being on the podium for the bronze for the relay were the friendships I made," she said, especially her roommate Caroline Burckle, also part of the relay team and the sister of Clark Burckle, part of this year's Olympic team.

This year, Schmitt said, she's been assigned to yet another roommate from her school's big rival, the Florida Gators, Elizabeth Beisel.

"We're probably two of the loudest people on the team," Schmitt said. "We have a lot of fun together."

Her parents, Ralph and Gail Schmitt, her older brother and sister and younger twin sisters, plus aunts and uncles will follow her to London to cheer her on. While she doesn't anticipate getting to see much of them during them during the Games, just knowing they're there and waving to them from the pool deck makes her — you guessed it — happy.

If there is one more bittersweet aspect to the Games, though, it is that they represent Phelps' farewell to competitive swimming.

"I can't put into words what he's meant to me in the last couple of years — and what he's done for swimming in general," Schmitt said. "It's definitely going to be a special Olympics because of that."

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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