When Orell Schmitz used to venture out in public with his children, the long-time Bismarck attorney never made it far without running into someone he knew.
“My kids would say, ‘Dad. Do you know everybody?’” Orell said.
On a late June morning in Omaha, Neb., Orell got a taste of what that felt like, as he waited for his son Todd to meet him for breakfast. Twenty minutes passed before Todd made it from the entrance of the restaurant to his father’s table. Everyone in the café wanted to speak with the younger Schmitz.
“I told him, ‘The worm has turned a little bit.’ It was a good feeling,” Orell said.
Todd’s popularity was well deserved.
The U.S. Olympic swimming trials were in town, and the Bismarck native happens to coach the rising star of American swimming — Missy Franklin, the teenage phenom who stole the headlines in Omaha by qualifying for the 2012 London Olympics in four individual events and setting the American record in the 100-meter backstroke along the way.
With Franklin as his star pupil, Todd Schmitz made it to the pinnacle of his profession when he found out he would be on the U.S. coaching staff for the London Games.
“At the end of the day, everybody dreams of being at the Olympics,” Schmitz said. “Being a coach at the Olympics is the gold medal of coaching.”
Franklin swam her way to four gold medals in London, further legitimizing Schmitz’s approach of keeping swimming fun and allowing Franklin to be a normal teenager — as normal as possible for a star athlete. It’s an approach Schmitz developed growing up in Bismarck where he first hopped in a pool at the YMCA and where he earned a college scholarship while swimming at Century High.
“Bismarck and the YMCA and my coaches and different people in my past, what they provided — even if I didn’t realize it at the point it was happening — it was so valuable,” Schmitz said.
If it wasn’t for a happy misfortune, Schmitz’s career in swimming may never have taken off.
As a child, he competed in a number of sports, and swimming wasn’t his first love. Following those early days with a Bismarck swimming club, Schmitz was ready to step out of the pool, towel off and never jump in competitively again.
However, Schmitz’s visions of basketball stardom came to an abrupt halt when he was cut from his freshman basketball team.
“There were a lot of tears from Todd,” Orell said. “Obviously, some of his dreams were shattered.”
New ones, though, started to form quickly.
The Century swimming coach approached Schmitz and persuaded him to return to the pool, where Schmitz excelled immediately for the Patriots. He qualified for the state meet as a freshman, and, by the time he was a senior, he was setting school records.
Fate struck Schmitz again during high school when he visited Colorado to train under Connie Kirchoffner, who started coaching Schmitz at a young age in Bismarck and continued to mentor him as he matured as a swimmer.
After guiding the Mandan High girls’ swimming and diving team to four straight team titles from 1989 to 1992, Kirchoffner moved to Colorado where she coached the girls’ team at Smoky Hill High in Aurora. During Kirchoffner’s tenure there, she led the team to a state title and helped 23 athletes earn high school All-America honors.
Swimming in that competitive environment, if only for a short time, inspired Schmitz.
“He realized he could take his swimming to another level at that point,” Kirchoffner said.
Schmitz also fell in love with Colorado — an affinity that attracted him to Metro State University an NCAA Division II school in Denver. There, Schmitz set the school record in the 200-meter backstroke, earned all-conference honors for three years and was a five-time All-America at the 1999 Division II national meet.
Two things stood out when Schmitz first met the 7-year-old Franklin as she entered the Stars swimming program.
“She was always taller than everybody else. That’s what you notice right off the bat—even the tall boys who came in, she was taller than them,” Schmitz said. “The second thing is she always had a smile on her face. Even today, 95 percent of the time, she usually has a smile on her face.”
Franklin entered Schmitz’s life while he was at another crossroads. He had put his finance degree from Metro State to use at a full-time corporate position in the Denver area, but it wasn’t for him.
When Schmitz gave up the traditional corporate path to pursue coaching full time, his father had no problem with the decision.
“I didn’t ever think of swimming as his career, but I had an inkling that he wanted to be working with youth or coaching,” Orell said. “He started doing that when he was 15, and it was pretty obvious to me that’s where his heart was.”
Schmitz received offers to coach for two swim clubs, but only the Stars gave him a chance to lead his own age group. In 2002, he started guiding the 8-and-under group, and Franklin was one of his first pupils.
Franklin immediately made her mark, setting records at the 8-and-under level before nearly rewriting the entire club record book at later ages.
Through it all, Schmitz was right there teaching and making sure Franklin and the other swimmers were enjoying their time in the pool.
In 2008, the same year Schmitz took over as the Stars’ head coach, he watched the Beijing Olympics on TV, which solidified his desire to continue down the path.
“At that point, I knew that I loved coaching, and it was my passion,” he said. “I wanted to figure out where I’d fit in the next four years, and I just wanted to be on deck at the trials (in 2012) and have a player in the game.”
Franklin continued to develop as a swimmer, and Schmitz began to realize the prodigy could be that player heading into the next Olympic cycle.
Still, Schmitz allowed Franklin to continue being what she is — a high school kid.
“I’ve done a lot of things over the last two or three years that not a lot of coaches in this situation would do,” said Schmitz. “I allowed her to go to proms and allowing her to do different things, so she can just be a high school kid. At the end of the day, swimming can’t turn into a job no matter how good you are. You’ve gotta’ be able to enjoy it.
In the lead-up to the London Games, Franklin gave a preview of what was to come by capturing five medals, including three golds, at the 2011 world championships in Shanghai, China. She also earned athlete of the year honors from the world sanctioning body for swimming.
“What I like about Todd is that he is always so random with his sets, which I love because we don’t have anything set on certain days,” Franklin said in an interview with USA Swimming after the 2011 world championships. “Every day, he switches it up, and a lot of it is based on how I feel or where I need work.”
With 2012 being an Olympic year, it seemed a mere formality that Franklin would qualify for her first Olympic team — a spot she earned with her standout performance in Omaha. Schmitz didn’t know his own Olympic dream would be fulfilled until the waning moments of the 2012 trials when he found out he’d be an assistant for Team USA.
On the opening day of swimming competition, Franklin earned her first Olympic medal, as she swam the opening leg on America’s bronze medal-winning 4×100 freestyle relay team. Two days later, she broke through with her first gold, beating her own American record in the 100 backstroke.
The medal ceremony brought more tears from Schmitz, only, this time, they were tears of joy rather than the ones of heartache Orell saw after his son’s basketball hopes vanished years earlier.
“When they flashed on Todd,” said Orell, who watched the Olympics from his Bismarck home, “it was obvious there were tears in his eyes. There were tears in our eyes.”
Franklin continued to add to her medal haul when she and her teammates won gold in the 4×200 freestyle and 4×100 medley relays, setting U.S. and world records along the way.
Her finest race of the program came in the 200 backstroke, where she blazed her way to a world record.
“The goals that we have are not chosen by me, they’re chosen by her,” Schmitz said. “There was never a time of complacency during trials or the Olympics. We knew there would be tough spots, but we had to have confidence in the training that we did really over the last two years. Luckily, it all worked out or else people would be saying I’m the dumbest coach in the world.”
Now that the Olympics are over, Schmitz has had a chance to relax.
He took a vacation to Costa Rica, and shortly, he’ll return to North Dakota where he’ll spend time fishing with his father at their cabin on Lake Sakakawea. Schmitz hopes his successful 2012 continues once he gets a fishing pole in his hands.
“Last year, we knocked it dead,” Schmitz said, referring to last year’s fishing trip, “so I’m hoping the same thing.”
Olympic fame hasn’t changed Schmitz. Even though he’s now the coach of a four-time Olympic gold medalist, he continues to work closely with all the athletes in the Stars program.
He’s hoping Franklin’s success can provide a boost to the swimming club and maybe help it in its quest to finance and build its own facility. Now, the Stars rent pool time.
Schmitz isn’t ready to talk about the 2016 Rio Olympics or whether Franklin can add to her medal count. She’s focused on starting her senior year of high school, and Schmitz’s mind is on the 2013 world championships in Barcelona, Spain.
“That’s what we talk about now,” Schmitz said. “We try to prepare for that because winning four gold medals at the Olympics means diddly when you get back in the water for the next season. Everyone starts with a clean slate. Can we go out as fast or faster as the season before? That’s the magic of swimming.”
-Tim Flagstad is a freelance sports writer for the Great Plains Examiner.