Sierra Schmidt glided and grooved. Her limbs twisted with enthusiasm and grace.

But Schmidt was not in the water. Her race had not even started yet.

In Michigan’s opening meet against Navy and Miami of Ohio on Sept. 20, as Schmidt awaited the 1,000-yard freestyle, the first race of her junior season, she was performing her usual pre-race ritual.

Schmidt stood behind the blocks of Canham Natatorium, black Dr. Dre Beats headphones on. Locked-in, she did what she did before every race — she danced.

Listening to her favorite kind of music, K-Pop, Schmidt did her thing. Usually performing pre-choreographed dance routines inspired by the dance moves of her favorite musical artists, this time, Schmidt’s feet tapped, her hips swiveled and her arms fluttered through a series of fist pumps and linked motions. A bright, cheek-to-cheek smile sat on her face.

She did not care about the confused stares of her competitors who had never raced against her before.

Instead, Schmidt cared about just two things in that moment. One: The race. Two: Staying on the section of white tiles on the pool deck, as the brown tiles behind her were determined to be too slippery for dancing through her own trial and error. 

A dancing-related incident that resulted in a twisted ankle prior to her arrival at Michigan taught her to be cautious. 

“Everyone has a different way of getting ready for a race,” Schmidt said. “Mine is just a very particular way of doing it.”

Lebron tosses chalk in the air. Brian Dawkins crawled out of the tunnel on all fours onto the football field. Steph Curry does trick shots in his warm-ups.

Junior distance swimmer Sierra Schmidt dances.

When she was a younger swimmer, Schmidt would get nervous before her races. 

She grew up in the small town of Erdenheim, Penn., 30 minutes outside of downtown Philadelphia. The daughter of a musician, Schmidt grew up surrounded by song and dance, particularly music from the 80’s and 90’s alternative and pop scenes that both of her parents heavily subscribed to. Paired with daily after-school runs to Rich’s Delicatessen for a cheesesteak, music defined her childhood in the Philadelphia suburbs. 

“I can remember going to performances, musicals, and just hanging out in the historical sector (in downtown Philly),” Schmidt said. “It’s beautiful.”

So, naturally, music — a symbol of comfort and home — became a remedy for her pre-race anxieties. 

When she was around 12, prior to her races, Schmidt began to plug in her headphones and dance to Top 100 hits to calm herself down behind the blocks.

“It was originally to make my parents laugh up in the stands,” Schmidt said. I started realizing that I really liked it and how I felt in the water afterwards. It kind of just evolved into what it is today. Now my parents are shaking their heads, because they know they can’t change it anymore.”

And Schmidt’s ritual has been with her ever since.

It was with her when she was invited to join the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, a club renowned for pumping out all-time swimming greats like eight-time Olympic medalist Allison Schmitt and 28-time Olympic medalist Michael Phelps.

It was with her last year when she finished fifth in the 1,650-yard freestyle and finished seventh in the 500-yard freestyle at the Big Ten Championships in Iowa City. While she was there, she even got Michigan coach Mike Bottom in on the show, teaching him how to “floss.”

It was with her last year when she finished sixth in 1,650-yard freestyle at the NCAA Championships in Austin, an event where four of the six top-finishers came from Big Ten schools. 

Wherever Schmidt’s swimming journey takes her, her dancing follows.

And her dances are carefully choreographed, each particularly coordinated to her upcoming race.

“Each (song in my playlist) is different. Some are for the 500-yard or the 200-yard,” Schmidt said. Some I do for the mile because they are a little bit slower. They focus on different muscle groups and how high I want my heart rate. When you dance, you basically are doing a dynamic warm-up. It’s all about how high I want my heart rate to go. Do I want to skyrocket it for a short race or do I want to keep it steady with a slower song (for a longer race)?”

As a distance swimmer, Schmidt spends a lot of time staring at a straight blue line underwater in her own thoughts. Through music, Schmidt uses the music and dance of her pre-race ritual to push through.

“With distance events, it’s really hard, even with a really interesting race, it’s hard to focus for 15 minutes straight and not focus on the pain and all that,” Schmidt said. “What music does, both before and after (a race), is just help me be calm and centered in on the race. I am able to focus and be in that space where I can do the best that I can.”

And Schmidt’s passion for music and dance extends beyond the poolside. As a Film, Television and Media major, Schmidt is also an editor for Newsfeed and involved in WOLV TV on campus. For the team, she designs the hype videos for big meets by collecting footage and pairing it with select music.

“When I look at swimming, I think that every single person on the team has a puzzle piece to give to a bigger picture. The whole season, you are trying to see everyone’s puzzle piece so they can all connect together,” Schmidt said. “I see that a lot in film, TV and videos in general, too. Music is a really great way to connect bridges. You are always going to meet people who are different from you, and sometimes it is hard to make that connection.

But music is so universal that it can actually connect that bridge.”

Schmidt’s time waiting for the 1,000-yard freestyle is now over. As the official blows his whistle for swimmers to take their mark at the Sept. 20 meet, she takes off her Beats, puts down her goggles and steps onto the block. 

There is no doubt that she is ready to race. Her nerves are settled. The rhythm of the music still churns through her. 

For her grand finale, Schmidt lunges into the water and takes off.

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