RIO DE JANEIRO -- She was a winner before her fingertips touched the water Wednesday night, but Allison Schmitt wasn't satisfied with simply toeing the start. She wanted to measure herself at least one last time against the merciless clock and the athletes alongside her.
Schmitt wanted to help win the 800 freestyle relay gold medal in prime time, continuing the tradition in an event the U.S. women have dominated in five of the past six Summer Games. She wanted to do it with her parents and four siblings in the stands and a worldwide audience hanging on splits and fractions the way it does only once every four years.
She raced well in Wednesday afternoon's preliminary heat and waited to hear whether she would be chosen for the evening final. Schmitt knew her teammates and coaches respected her for years of hard work in the pool and for speaking frankly about the depression that swamped and nearly capsized her after winning five medals at the London 2012 Games.
But relay selections aren't lifetime achievement awards or popularity contests. She had to earn her swim.
Schmitt made the cut, and she led off. She covered the initial 200 meters in 1 minute 56.21 seconds -- an eyelash's width of 0.01 behind her Swedish counterpart Michelle Coleman. Leah Smith and Maya DiRado did their jobs and held second place as Australia overhauled Sweden for the lead.
Katie Ledecky dove in for the anchor leg with 0.89 seconds to make up. Few who have watched her at this meet doubted she would do that. The U.S. women beat Australia by 1.84 seconds thanks to Ledecky's split of 1:53.74, tops for anyone in the race, finishing in 7:43.03. Wednesday's gold was Ledecky's fourth medal of these Games, DiRado's third -- each a different color -- and Smith's first ever.
It was Schmitt's eighth, a number as round as her past few years have been ragged.
"I'm grateful for where I am," she said when pressed for her future competitive plans. "I think my emotions are so high right now, I just want to soak that in and figure out the rest later."
She sounded utterly present. That, too, has been earned. Schmitt won five medals in London, including an individual 200 freestyle gold, then found herself inexplicably desolate, buffeted by people's altered perceptions of her. She tamped down her distress, hid from people who loved her, and at one juncture, considered whether it would be better to disappear altogether. It took her 17-year-old cousin's suicide to yank her from sleepwalking off the edge.
Schmitt qualified for two relays in Rio and was tapped as a co-captain by her teammates. She received a silver medal for a 400 freestyle relay preliminary heat swim, and had to wait until five days into the meet to race against the best.
It has been 17 years since Allison first flung herself into a pool in her hometown of Canton, Michigan, thrashed her way across and declared she loved it. Her parents were there for her then and stayed as close as they could even when she bewildered them and kept them in the dark about how much she was floundering.
Wednesday night, they made their way through the stands to try to get within range for some decent photos. Allison spotted Ralph and Gail Schmitt from the deck and bridged the distance between them almost as swiftly as Ledecky had closed the gap in the final 200, clambering up the photographers' risers and throwing her arms around each of them.
Gail tapped out a quick text to her sister Amy Bocian in Grove City, Pennsylvania: "I don't know who was crying harder." It was Amy's daughter April who took her own life last year, searing both families with grief and regret. Allison's reaction was to drop her own mask of denial, crouch and take a racing dive into advocacy.
"She has fueled me," Allison's aunt said by phone in the wee hours Thursday morning. In October, Amy will make her first public appearance at a gathering of mental health professionals.
Ralph Schmitt didn't understand how close he came to losing his daughter until after the worst had passed. After that, no embrace could ever be long enough, but he hugged her and let her go back to her victory lap.
"Let me try to put it into words: Excited for her, relieved for her and our family, that she made it to the peak again," he said.
Allison wants to do her best to make it down safely this time. She and a few teammates will embark on a mini-vacation to Argentina next week and return in time for the Aug. 21 closing ceremony in Rio. She has more travel planned with good friend Elizabeth Beisel this fall. And Schmitt is intent on beginning graduate studies in psychology In January. Her goal is to work with young female athletes.
It she ever needs a prop, a two-sided object to demonstrate there's strength in admitting vulnerability, this medal will suffice.