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Assuming that 2012 Olympic darling Missy Franklin qualifies for the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, her longtime coach Todd Schmitz will be right there with her.
After two years swimming for the University of California Berkeley and a year of professional competition, the four-time Olympic gold medalist decided to return to Colorado to train for the Olympic trials with her old club team, the Colorado STARS, where Schmitz serves as head coach and CEO.
Schmitz has been coaching Franklin since she was a 7-year-old who turned up in his first “Starfish” group, after he’d left a corporate career in favor of the under-8 coaching position at STARS. “We’ve grown up together,” he said of their relationship. “I’ve grown up in coaching and she’s grown up in swimming.”
Schmitz, in fact, learned to swim before he could walk, swimming as a tyke at his hometown YMCA in Bismarck, North Dakota. With some high-school records and national YMCA meets behind him – and a desire to live in the Mile High City – Schmitz landed an athletic scholarship with the now-defunct Roadrunner swim team.
In the four years he swam with the Roadrunners, Schmitz was named to the All-America conference team three times and was a one-time automatic All-American and four-time honorable mention All-American at NCAA Division II national championships. During his collegiate swimming career he also set a school record in the 200-yard backstroke (a record that has since been broken).
The Metro State Schmitz remembers from the late 1990s is both similar to today’s MSU Denver and transformed. Gone is the parking lot where he used to park (for free) for 4:30 a.m. swim practice and in its place stands the Pepsi Center. Residence halls now offer some student housing, whereas Schmitz lived downtown with another swimmer.
What remains the same, he says, is the diversity. “One of the beauties about MSU Denver is you get people from every walk of life,” said Schmitz. “People in my graduating class ranged from those who had worked in the real world for 10 to 20 years to me, who was fresh out of high school and just finding my way. A lot of universities like to say they’re diverse but MSU Denver has an extremely diverse student body, not just ethnic, but socio-economic and age diversity.”
The exposure to that kind of diversity at a young age, he says, helped him become comfortable doing everything from teaching kids to swim to coaching at the highest levels.
“Diversity opens your eyes to reality and to real life,” he said. “It shapes you to be a better person.”
Though Schmitz, 37, never reached the elite athletic ranks Franklin has, his work with her has turned the Colorado STARS program into an international powerhouse, attracting Olympic medalists and those aspiring to stand on the winners’ podiums. Fernanda Gonzalez, a 2008 and 2012 Olympian and Mexico’s best backstroker, currently trains with the STARS as does 2012 bronze medalist from China, Tang Yi.
Schmitz has also amassed plenty of honors for his coaching style, which emphasizes enjoyment of the sport and swim-life balance. Last year he was inducted into the MSU Denver Athletics Hall of Fame.
Now that Franklin is almost 21, Schmitz says he looks for her input more – and that it’s easier to get her to eat well and drink water than when she was a teen. Franklin herself has said their relationship has evolved to become more of a partnership over time. “We have been through so much together,” she’s told The Denver Post. “We both started at the bottom and now we’re here.”