• AFP-JIJI

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Allison Schmitt never believed a 2012 season that featured Olympic gold in London had to be the high water mark of her swimming career.

With the help of friends like Michael Phelps and rigorous training the 31-year-old is headed to her fourth Olympics in Tokyo after a runner-up finish in the 200-meter freestyle at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials.

“I didn’t believe that my 2012 was my best,” Schmitt said of a season that was highlighted by her 200 freestyle gold in London.

In 2016 she won relay gold and silver, but no individual medals in Rio de Janeiro. She retired briefly, but then decided she had more to do in the sport.

“I have heard a lot of things, that (2012) has been my best, saying that I’m washed up, all these negative things toward myself,” Schmitt said.

“But to have the support that I’ve had in my close-knit circle who have supported me through it al l— I know I’m not here alone.

“I know there is more work to do before Tokyo, and I fully believe in my coaches and the training that we have done and are going to continue to do in the next few weeks.”

Schmitt, an ebullient presence on deck with a ready smile and rapid-fire laugh, has been candid about her struggles with depression, saying it’s important that people realize top-flight athletes aren’t super heroes but people who face the same dilemmas and difficulties as others.

She speaks often of the “honor” of representing the United States on the international stage, but says excellence in the pool is necessarily fleeting.

She wants to use her time in the spotlight to advocate for mental health awareness.

“I know for me, personally, successes I have in the pool, those are going to fade.

“The medals go under your bed and the records are going to be broken, and at the end of the day it’s what you can do with that.

“And I have embraced that that platform for me can be used for mental health. That’s what I’ve chosen to do, and I’m very passionate about mental health, just like I’m very passionate about the sport of swimming.”

It’s a cause that Phelps has also embraced, and the two share a strong bond that was forged when Schmitt began training with coach Bob Bowman’s group in 2006, when she was 16 years old.

A long hug from “big brother” Phelps on the pool deck after her 200 free performance on Wednesday was “full of a lot of emotion,” Schmitt said.

“It’s been quite the journey to get to 2021,” she said. “I think for everyone but he and (Phelps’s wife) Nicole and the whole family have been a huge part of that journey.

“So to be able to embrace them right afterwards was a very special moment.

“Michael is a mentor for me in and out of the pool.”

Schmitt is just the fifth female swimmer to qualify for four U.S. Olympic teams, joining Jill Sterkel, Dara Torres, Jenny Thompson and Amanda Beard.

“To be included in those names is a complete honor,” said Schmitt, who is ready to embrace her role as an elder stateswoman on what was shaping up to be a young U.S. team.

“Watching reactions and watching the girls make the team, you can just see the pride and joy that they have,” Schmitt said. “I’m excited to get to know them throughout these next few weeks and I’m excited to cheer them on in Tokyo.”

Freestyle star Katie Ledecky, who is headed to a third Olympics herself, said Schmitt is a perfect role model.

“I think her smile brings people to her,” Ledecky said. “She’s just such a good friend to everyone, and no matter the outcome, she’s someone that you know has put in the work and done it over so many years.”

“She has been such a force in our sport, both in and out of the pool.”

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