Schmitt returns to Georgia, gold medals in backpack

semerson@macon.comAugust 22, 2012 

ATHENS -- Allison Schmitt spent the past year training with Michael Phelps, winning five Olympic medals -- three of them gold -- and getting hit up for autographs by rock stars.

But these days Schmitt is just another Georgia student, waiting at the bus stop, lugging around a backpack, which, incidentally, is where she was keeping her three gold medals.

Schmitt’s life has changed. She’s fine with that.

“I think it’s kind of cool. I’ve always wanted to be kind of famous,” she said. “I know I’m not quite there yet. So it’s kind of cool that people recognize me right now. I’ll take it all in because I know it won’t last very long.”

Schmitt was one of the most decorated Olympians in London, winning three golds, a silver and a bronze in the swimming pool. When the games were done, she went home to Michigan, then got back to Athens this week for the start of class, where she has discovered her exploits were closely followed.

“Even (Wednesday) someone stopped me as I was walking to the bus. ‘Are you Allison Schmitt?’ ‘Yeah, that’s me.’ And someone came up to me in class asking for a picture,” she said. “So it’s kind of weird when people recognize me and ask me if I’m Allison Schmitt, because I don’t really realize that they might have watched the Olympics this summer. It is kind of cool. It’s different.”

It’s also pretty cool for Georgia swimming coach Jack Bauerle. Not only is Schmitt back for her senior year -- think of LeBron James returning to help Mark Fox and the Georgia basketball team -- but another Georgia swimmer, junior Shannon Vreeland, was Schmitt’s teammate on the gold medal-winning 4-by-200 freestyle relay team.

“I feel pretty good about these two being on our team. I think we’ll be all right,” Bauerle said.

Vreeland was also in attendance at a news conference for the Olympian swimmers. But even she seemed caught up in the wake of Schmitt’s glory.

“Just being able to get to the Olympics and getting on the final relay and watching her break an Olympic record while she was doing it, it was really cool,” Vreeland said.

“But it was you, too,” Schmitt interjected. “It wasn’t just me.”

“Oh yeah. That happened,” Vreeland said, laughing.

There’s another story that shows Schmitt’s newfound fame. Last week Schmitt was doing one of the national morning shows, when she heard Nick Lachey, reunited with his pop group 98 Degrees. Schmitt wanted to hit up Lachey for an autograph, but before she could, Lachey asked her for one.

People have also asked to see Schmitt’s medals. She has been happy to oblige.

“I like showing them off, but I don’t go around saying, ‘Hey, check these out.’ ” Schmitt said. “With all the support I’ve had the past four years, if people ask to see them, I’m more than willing to let them hold them, try them on.”

The one thing she claims not to have done yet is exploit her fame for a free lunch. Reese Hoffa, a Georgia graduate and bronze medalist in the shot put in London, said he got half-off from Jason’s Deli in Athens for showing off his medal. When told about that, Schmitt smiled and exclaimed, “Thanks for letting me know.”

Plenty of people in her position may have a case of “what to do next.” Schmitt, still just 21, already has her sights on the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016.

“I feel like even when I have gold medals in my hand, and I have world records in my hand, I want more,” she said. “I think that’s part of the competitive nature to keep going. And that’s why I have my eyes set on Rio.”

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