“Keep it moving!” former Michigan coach Jon Urbanchek said. This is one of the best pieces of advice Sierra Schmidt has ever received.
Long before her accomplishments during the past four years for the Wolverines, Schmidt had dreams of going to the Olympics.
In 2014, when Schmidt was 15, she made her first Junior National Team and left her hometown club in Pennsylvania to train at North Baltimore Aquatic club where Michael Phelps, Allison Schmitt and Coach Bob Bowman were.
“After that, coach Bowman actually pulled me aside the next year and said, ‘Okay you’ve made the Junior Team, good job, now you need to make the National Team,’ and he was like you just need to do that,” Schmidt said. “And when Bob Bowman tells you you need to do something, you do it.”
Schmidt also competed at the Pan American Games with accomplished swimmers like Natalie Coughlin and Cullen Jones. One of her best memories from the tournament is the last lap of the 800 freestyle.
“The person who’s in second is coming up, trying to pass me and looking to the side and watching Natalie Coughlin jump up and down for you, that’s when you decide that you need to find another gear and probably win,” Schmidt said. “When you watch someone who you watched on your television as a kid, jumping up and down for you, it’s very weird to feel, and that’s something that I really cherish and something I remember very vividly.”
Once at Michigan, Schmidt learned a lot from her teammates and coaches that she carries with her today. Though most of her competition in high school was individual, she learned at Michigan that swimming is really a team sport. In order to be successful as an individual, you have to do it as a team.
As a distance swimmer, Schmidt doesn’t get to compete in relay races a lot but always looks forward to the times when she does get to act as a team player. She has fond memories of winning gold at the Big Ten Championships this year in the 800-yard freestyle relay. She especially enjoyed that she was able to share the victory with a younger group of teammates.
“It’s always a pleasure when I get to race in a relay with other people, and especially, with a younger group of teammates,” Schmidt said. “It’s been really exciting to watch them grow while I’ve been here, and so we were ecstatic to win gold at Big Tens.”
Schmidt embraces the team atmosphere and the strong team bond, which has helped the team stay resilient during the pandemic.
Schmidt herself has also been involved in helping other college swimming programs during the pandemic by being part of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee think tank. According to the NCAA, in 2016 over 80% of the U.S. National Team consisted of former college athletes across all sports.
While Michigan has been fortunate to maintain all of their athletic programs, other schools haven’t been as fortunate. Many college teams, including swimming and diving teams across the country were being shut down because athletic departments didn’t have the funds to support them.
The U.S. Olympic Committee took the initiative to come up with ways to save these programs.
“We were having a lot of swimming programs cut and for me, even though it wasn’t my team, it’s devastating when any team gets cut, and especially in the Big Ten,” Schmidt said.
Iowa’s women’s and men’s programs got cut, but the committee was able to help them get reinstated.
In addition to her work with the committee, Schmidt is competing on the National Team, for her fifth year with former Wolverine Gabby DeLoof. When Schmidt was a freshman, DeLoof was a senior, and they have been able to see each others’ progression as athletes.
“She’s seen the ups and downs of my collegiate career,” Schmidt said. “I’ve also been able to watch her go from a very, very good collegiate athlete into a nationally renowned swimmer, who is also in serious talks to make the Olympic team. It’s really fun to be able to also have someone else who’s also on the national team who kind of understands what you’re going through, even though we’re at different times in our lives.”
Scmidt also remembers to enjoy the process and has a signature pre-race dance routine. The routine started off as a joke to make her parents laugh from the stands. To their dismay, it became a permanent solution to feeling less nervous before races. Her dance routines have evolved over her swimming career, and now she uses them as more of a dynamic warm up, but still has fun with the routines.
Looking ahead to the future, Schmidt is still deciding what she wants to do next. She is going to the Olympic trials this June. Schmidt is also considering competing professionally for the experience and to take in all she can from the sport before she retires.
As her time with the Wolverines comes to an end, Schmidt is starting to pass along her wisdom to younger teammates, much like Urbanchek did for her years ago.
“The biggest thing that you’ll remember is the happiness you had hanging out with your teammates, the stupid jokes that you had, all of the personalized memorabilia, messages from your teammates,” Schmidt said. “I think my biggest message that I tell my team is just to enjoy every moment.”
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