Comeback kids

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Allison Schmitt and Michael Phelps have trained together on and off since 2006.

Everyone may be focused on my training mate Michael Phelps -- who will be competing for the first time since the London Olympics in the Mesa Grand Prix starting on Thursday -- but I’ve actually been staging my own return to the sport. OK, OK, so Michael was out for two years, while I basically took a break last fall while I finished my last semester at the University of Georgia. And I did swim a couple of times a week to stay in shape.

But it was still pretty rough to go from training twice a week to twice a day, for two hours at a stretch. Luckily, I have an awesome training group in Baltimore who welcomed me back when I moved in December of last year.

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Allison Schmitt won five Olympic medals in London, and says she's now "tuned in" to making the next Olympic team.

And that group includes Michael, who I’m so glad to have back on the pool deck with me. I’ve been training with him on and off since 2006, and just his presence is encouraging for me. If I’m frustrated because of a practice, I can rely on him to help me through it. After all, he’s been through everything I’ve been through, and more.

When I first started training with him, he was already “the” Michael Phelps and I was just this little high school kid. I was the youngest one of the training group and he’d have me tell him a joke every day. You know, 3-year-olds’ jokes: “Knock, knock.” “Who’s there?” “Interrupting cow.” (And then, of course, you’d interrupt with a “moo” when someone would start to say, “Interrupting cow who?”)

We’d play rock-paper-scissors while doing laps, kicking on our sides. Somehow he would always beat me, and try to convince me he was the rock-paper-scissors world champion.

I was too naive to be intimidated by him, though. I was amazed by his accomplishments, but I saw him as a normal person. I’ve seen him train every day, and knowing what it takes -- seeing what it takes -- definitely has motivated me, then and now. I didn’t want to be the little kid who didn’t make the interval, so I’d just train harder and harder. Plus, I loved to talk during practice, and I knew if I wanted to talk I had to make the intervals, when everyone was resting together!

Michael’s always felt like a brother to me. After I didn’t do as well as I’d wanted to at last year’s nationals and missed the world team, he called me up and talked me through it until I felt better. I remember one time he and another teammate even rescued me when I got a flat tire on my way home from the pool.

Courtesy of Allison Schmitt

Allison Schmitt has relied on Michael Phelps for advice, and rock-paper-scissors games, throughout her career.

Now, we’ve got a great group training together again -- there are 15 of us, with a mix of swimmers from the U.S., Denmark, Brazil, France, Tunisia and Turkey. I think I’ve gotten back into shape faster than I expected to, honestly. But it’s been very intense. We have 10 swim practices a week, plus six workouts that alternate between dry land (things like abs and medicine balls) and weights.

For a while, I sounded like a 100-year-old woman complaining about my hips, because a big part of my stroke is my kick, and swimming -- when I haven’t used those muscles for a while -- makes my hips very sore.

My coaches have been good about reminding me on days when I’m hurting and not swimming as fast as I was the day before that it’s not a regression. It’s progress. I just have to keep focusing on making those milestones in practice.

I’ve had my own whirlwind since London, finishing my degree in psychology and now getting back into swimming. But I’m having fun and I’m definitely tuned in to Rio 2016.

For now it’s time to step up on the blocks and see where I am -- and I’m lucky to have Michael back training and competing with me, enjoying the water again, too.