Ask Canton’s Golden Girl what it’s like to have Olympic gold medalist attached to her name and Allison Schmitt flashes the smile that never seems to leave her face.
In London, Schmitt had kept her five medals – three gold, one silver, and one bronze - under her bed for safekeeping. But now, less than 24 hours after returning home from the Summer Games where she had become a household name, the events of the previous three weeks still hadn’t sunk in.
Ask her when it will, when her Olympic glory will all become real, and the smile returns.
“I don’t know when it’s going to sink in,” Schmitt said Tuesday night before becoming the guest of honor at a homecoming rally at Heritage Park. “It definitely hadn’t sunk in when I stood up (on the medal stand) and heard the national anthem and it hasn’t sunk in yet.
“I don’t know when it will….I’m still on Cloud Nine.”
Schmitt, a 2008 Canton High School graduate, returned from London Monday night, setting foot in her hometown for the first time since Christmas. The day had been busy – up at 7, taking care of one interview request after another, before making appearances at her parents’ workplaces to shake hands, pose for photos and sign autographs.
But from the moment she made her first scheduled public appearance at Tuesday night’s rally, the ever-present smile that became an Olympic storyline never left. Schmitt arrived behind a police escort, welcomed to the Heritage Park amphitheater by flag-waving well-wishers who snapped photos with their cameras and Smartphones.
Schmitt admitted to reporters earlier that she had always wanted to be famous. Now, at 22, with two Olympic appearances behind her and looking forward to a third in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Schmitt is adjusting to being one of the faces of USA Swimming.
In London, Schmitt established a new Olympic record in the 200 freestyle while also swimming the anchor leg of the gold-medal 4x200 freestyle relay as well as the freestyle leg of the world-record setting 4x100 medley. She also claimed a silver medal in the 400 freestyle and a bronze in the 4x100 meter freestyle relay.
A star is born
Earlier in the day Tuesday, a young fan walked up to her and started to cry, overtaken by the excitement of just being able to shake the hand of Canton’s hometown hero.
Following Tuesday night’s ceremony, Schmitt signed autographs and posed for more photos, accommodating a line of local residents that snaked around the Heritage Park hillside where the rally had taken place.
Whenever she has stepped out in public since winning the five medals in London, fans have approached her, wanting to know if she’s Allison Schmitt.
She has quickly discovered that life will be different from this point forward.
“I feel when people recognize me, I’m still no movie star, ” Schmitt said. “But I’m trying to get there.
"When people see me, they say, 'There goes the gold medal girl.'"
During Tuesday night’s rally, Canton Township Supervisor Phil LaJoy honored Schmitt with a proclamation, reaching out to the Olympic star in an attempt to lighten her load.
Hometown remains special
Schmitt, who has won four NCAA National Championships at the University of Georgia, will return to school Thursday, resuming her life as a college student. LaJoy said if Schmitt found herself having difficulty packing for school, her hometown could help her out.
“I know you’ve got a lot of medals and if you don’t want to lug them all over the country, we could keep them here for you,” LaJoy joked. “I promise to only wear them on special occasions.”
Schmitt says she has been happy to allow fans to get up close and personal with her medal collection – which now numbers six after she won a bronze medal at the 2008 Summer Games.
She points to the number of people around Canton who have impacted her life that she now feels obliged to share in her success with them. Among those who attended Tuesday’s rally were former teachers, classmates and teammates – all of whom still hold a special place in Schmitt’s heart.
The hometown response wasn’t lost on Schmitt’s family, either.
As his daughter signed autographs, Ralph Schmitt held onto the remaining four medals his daughter had brought home from London. As surreal as the entire Olympic experience had been for Ralph Schmitt and his family – all who traveled to London for the Games – seeing local fans turn out like they did Tuesday made it even more meaningful.
“This is so special,” Ralph Schmitt said. “This is the reason why we came to Canton – for this kind of community.”
Schmitt already has her sights set on 2016, looking to build on an Olympic dream that she hopes is far from over. She is committed to remaining true to herself, understanding that she’s now a role model for a new generation of swimmers.
Encouraged by her family and her coaches never to give up, Schmitt passed that advice on to young fans, reminding them that when she first started competitive swimming, she wasn’t winning state championships – let alone Olympic medals.
But now that she’s here, a bona fide swimming superstar who has formed a tight bond with her fellow Olympians, including Michael Phelps, Schmitt won’t forget where she came from.
“This is my favorite place to be,” Schmitt said. “It’s a very welcoming place, I feel comfortable here and I love be to be here. To be able to be here with my family, relax with my family and with all my friends and supporters that are in this town, it’s a great atmosphere to be in.”