AUSTIN -- In the final minutes before competition, every athlete has their own ritual to prepare themselves mentally and physically for the task ahead. But none is as entertaining, eye-opening and smile-inducing as that of 17-year-old swimmer Sierra Schmidt.
Some five minutes before every race, Schmidt, who swims for North Baltimore, performs intricately choreographed dance routines on the pool deck. She twists and turns, bounces and bops and completely escapes into her own musically fueled world of psychological bliss. Newcomers stare. Veterans ignore. She sees none of it.
"No one really exists when I'm doing my thing," she says. "I'm just in my bubble. That's the moment of Zen, that place in my mind when it's like, 'OK, I know what I'm doing. I'm confident in my abilities. I'm comfortable in my skin. I'm going to go race.' That's when I'm at my best."
Schmidt, who won gold in the 800-meter freestyle at last year's Pan Am Games, will take her dancing talents to Omaha for the U.S. Olympic Trials later this summer. She's already qualified in four events and has the sixth-fastest qualifying time in the 800 free.
The dancing began, she says, as a toddler growing up in a music-filled home. Her parents encouraged their daughter to dance wherever and whenever she felt like it. Around the age of 10, she brought her first iPod to the pool deck. What began as a little bouncing back and forth eventually became full-flung routines. Now it helps ease her nerves.
"The first couple years, my coaches thought I was crazy, and my teammates, too. 'Sierra, you're wasting this energy. Why are you doing this?'" she says. "But it stemmed down to I really love dancing. I get very nervous behind the block. The dancing gets all that out of my system so I'm confident, happy, laughing and having fun."
Now she dances to everything from pop music to Japanese school idol groups. On Friday night at the Austin Pro Swim Series, she said she performed a routine from μ's (pronounced "Muse"). The song was called "Start: Dash." She's learned to adjust her level of effort for each event. In shorter competitions like the 200 and 400 freestyle, she says she goes all out. In longer races like the 800 or 1500, where she feels the need to conserve energy, she tries to tone it down a bit.
Whatever the case, it's working. Schmidt won the "B" Final of the 400 free on Friday in Austin and will again compete in the B Final of the 400 IM on Saturday. On Sunday, she is seeded sixth in the 800 free. But for now it's just as much what she does before she gets in the pool that has earned Schmidt a reputation as a swimmer who shouldn't be missed.
"I like making people happy. I like making people laugh," she says. "I want younger kids to know that you can be whoever it is you want to be. For some people, being all serious centers them and prepares them to race. That's great. Some people jump around and swing their arms. That's fine, too. I want kids to find whatever works for them. If it's dancing, awesome. Do it. Don't be afraid to be who you are."