Interview with Alice Schmidt
by Peter Gambaccini

Alice Schmidt on her way to her second-straight NCAA Outdoor 800m title.
(Both photos: Alison Wade/New York Road Runners)
Schmidt helps UNC to a dominant win in the 4x1,500 at the 2003 Penn Relays.

On January 31, University of North Carolina senior Alice Schmidt will return to the adidas Boston Indoor Games, where she made her debut against "professional" competition a year ago and came away with an 800-meter victory in 2:05.75. Schmidt was the NCAA Outdoor Champion in the 800 in 2002 and 2003; at the UNC sports web site, she rates her 2003 NCAA win in an Atlantic Coast Conference record 2:01.16 as her "biggest sports thrill." She went on to finish fifth at the 2003 USA Outdoor T&F Championships in 2:01.64. The 5' 10 ½" Schmidt has been on school record 4x400, 4x1500 and Distance Medley Relay teams, and she joined Erin Donohue, Anissa Gainey, and Shalane Flanagan to win the 2003 NCAA Indoor DMR title in 11:00.20. The same quartet ran an even faster 10:56.67 outdoors to set a UNC school record at the 2003 Penn Relays. A journalism and political science major, Schmidt attended Elkhorn High School near Omaha, where she was a four-time Nebraska state 800-meter champion. How did you end up going up to last year's adidas Boston Indoor Games? It was Shalane's homecoming (Flanagan is from suburban Marblehead, MA). Did she sort of say 'Let's bring my friend Alice,' and you went along for the trip and ended up unexpectedly winning?
Alice Schmidt:
Sort of. It's definitely her hometown, and the meet director wanted her to come up and run. And Coach [Michael Whittlesey] was like 'Yeah, I'd love to be out there and coach Shalane, would it be all right if Alice came along, too?' They said 'Yeah.' It was a great weekend. The meet is put on so well... They had the place packed, and it was just families. It was literally like if you were playing in the NBA and you see families out in the audience cheering, people who were really not affiliated with track and field but heard this was going to be a great sporting event. There were tons of fans, some people who knew track, some people who didn't. They had a band there. They had banquets and receptions and massage therapy for the athletes as well. We stayed in an awesome hotel and had a lot of fun and really got to see what it would be like if we were running professionally, somewhat. I just had a really great experience, so I was definitely excited to go back this year. I was not expecting, obviously, to win (in 2003). I just wanted to go out thinking 'This will be a great opportunity for me to start racing some professional runners, because if I'm ever planning on doing anything post-collegiate, I'm going to have to have some experience.' It just turned out to be a great race for me. I was very pleased.

FW: You were already the reigning NCAA 800 champion outdoors, but how much of a psychological boost in your sense of yourself as a winner did the win in Boston mean?
It was great. Psychologically, I felt good because I felt like I raced some really tough competitors and I fared well. And mentally, it helped me know I was fit. I'd won NCAAs, but it was the slowest winning time in 20 years (2:04.73). But coming off of that, I was opening up running faster times than in previous years, and that was a good indication, so my confidence was pretty cumulative and my times were dropping. So it was definitely a great boost.

FW: Jen Toomey has already run a 2:00.34 this year, and Nicole Teter is back. What are you thoughts and expectations against this field?
I am definitely not getting my hopes up, thinking I'm the reigning champion of this meet. Obviously, I'm going to use the meet as an awesome opportunity to race professional athletes, because come July, that's what I'm going to have to do. It's going to be a little tougher this year. My training hasn't been as solid. I had a lot of time off this fall, so I feel a little less confident than I would have. I'm still definitely looking forward to it.

FW: Did you miss cross country season because of injuries?
Yes. My sister used to live in the middle of California, and I helped her move to Portland, Oregon, this summer. I flew out of California and we U-hauled it up to Portland, and we had a blast. It was a long road trip. They were really long days and I took three or four days off (from running) during the move. And as soon as we got to Portland, which is a beautiful city with tons of running as I'm sure every Nike worker knows, there are just trails on hills and the weather's awesome. I had been used to 90-degree weather with humidity, and it was 75 and not humid at all. So my sister Suzanne and I hit the trails pretty hard, and I didn't realize how hard I was working.

I flew back home to North Carolina, and the next day I ran, something felt wrong in my knee. But I thought 'This is probably one of those freak things, and it will probably go away in a day.' But later that day I was limping, and the next day it didn't go away. It just kept getting worse. I took off for about two months, no running, no crosstraining. It turned out to be a micro tear in my left quad that inflamed my knee. My kneecap was so bubbled up that I couldn't walk without pain. At the time, I hadn't had my MRIs and I didn't know what it was and I was afraid I'd do damage to my cartilage, and I didn't want to mess with it. The doctors just kept saying 'Don't run, don't do anything unless you're asymptomatic.' It was a good long while before I could do anything again. It's interesting, getting back to where I was last year.

FW: So after you rested for two months, and the leg's okay now?
Yeah, it's funny. It feels fine. We started doing some sonic care treatments, which are similar to ultrasound. You get hooked up to this machine and you hear 2000 clicks in this one treatment, just zapping you. It spurs the healing process. I had really good results from it, almost immediately. After one or two treatments, I was really able to notice the difference in pain. I had been on pretty heavy anti-inflammatories and nothing was helping. With this treatment, I saw an increase in mobility, and then I could start doing things.

FW: Shalane Flanagan's going to the Boston meet as well, but she's redshirting the NCAA indoor and outdoor seasons. You're a senior, too, with certain Olympic aspirations. What made you decide not to redshirt this season?
It was really a number of things. Shalane is definitely set on running after college, and I have to make a decision... Additionally, with the injury, I didn't know where I was going to be fitting, so that was a another deciding factor. I'm on track to graduate in four and a half years (in December 2004). I tend to race into shape, whereas Shalane likes to have a few really quality races. I'm opening up with a mile at Clemson (January 24), and I know that I'm not going to be prime, but that's fine. I definitely don't mind having a few races where I'm getting shape. I feel like I race into shape well. Redshirting wouldn't really affect me that much.

FW: Shalane also gave as a reason for redshirting that she couldn't imagine leaving the Chapel Hill (UNC) situation after this year. What's it going to be like for you? Do you think you'll move on, or will you stay in the area?
Actually, that's funny, Shalane and I were talking about that tonight. We're roommates now. But I'm not sure what I want to do next year. I'm graduating in December and I'll either stay around Chapel Hill and do some running stuff or I hope to go to graduate school in the next year and a half or two years. That could take me anywhere. The plans are really up in the air right now.

I'm holding off on the decision about running because I don't want to set my sights too high and then let myself down. I'm just keeping things open and being really patient. I'm not stressing about it, which is remarkable, because I would normally stress about life plans.

FW: You're interested in broadcasting. Could you pursue that in UNC's graduate school?
UNC's graduate school in journalism is really good, one of the best. But I'm looking at doing a particular focus in politics and journalism, and I think there are some other programs that are maybe a little bit stronger there. I'm just starting to look and figure out what I want to do in the next couple of years.

FW: So you're more interested in being some kind of political reporter rather than, say, a sports reporter?
Well, I haven't ruled sports out either. I'm doing an honors thesis this year, and I didn't realize how much I was really interested in politics and media until this year. I've taken a few classes; I'm really kind of honing in on that area. But I've done an internship in sports broadcasting as well, so I wouldn't count that out. It was at the ABC affiliate in Omaha, Nebraska, in the summer of 2002.

FW: This racing against the pros in Boston will be preparation for doing that at the USATF Championships outdoors, which are the Olympic Trials.
Yeah. I ran USA Nationals for the first time last season, and realized it was a whole new ballgame. I know I need as much practice with that high level of competition as possible.

FW: As far as the collegiate ranks were concerned in 2003, you did go from the ridiculous to the sublime — from what we might think of as an unexpected NCAA loss, a fourth place in 2:07:31, to your pretty brilliant outdoor win in 2:01.16. Did the indoor loss shock you?
No. I can honestly say I've never walked up to the line at that level expecting to win. Obviously, [I have] a shot. I'm never like 'This is mine.' Definitely outdoor, my sophomore year, that [win] was a huge surprise. I came from nowhere. And then indoor last year, I had a cold or something. I was allergic to something in the room. I was really congested and very sick. I was very sluggish. I remember [thinking] 'At this point if I was healthy, I would be pushing,' but I just did not have the strength in my body. That's why I wasn't surprised.

Outdoors, I felt like the three rounds of 800 were really beneficial for me, because I approach the 800 from more of a distance background. I knew if I could get through the rounds and still feel tough competitively and not be sore, I would fare well. But I think in any big race, once you actually make it to the finals, you are up against people who are just as good as you. It's anybody's game. It's who's tough that day, who wants it most.

FW: A year ago, your PR was a 2:04.3, and you ended up with a 2:01.16 less than six months later.
I remember my coach Michael Whittlesey telling me, 'You need to get into a race, you need to have somebody push you, and you are going to surprise yourself so much.' He was really pumping me up to let me know I definitely had it in me.

FW: You made that comment last year, too, about how your NCAA winning time in 2002 was the slowest in 20 years. We almost get the sense that you undervalued that. But it's hard to undervalue a 2:01.16.
Yeah. It's sort of like a joke around here. NCAAs was on TV (in 2002) and everybody we knew that I called across the country was watching. They said 'Yeah, we know you won, but we'd love to see your race.' And it wasn't televised. I think they mentioned it once during Shalane's race, but they didn't even show the standings. So it almost felt slightly illegitimate. It's not on TV, nobody knows about it, it wasn't a big deal in the campus newspaper, was the slowest winning time in 20 years. So it did seem flukeish. So last year, when I could win again, I just remember how proud I was. I was really happy and felt I was able to prove to myself I could do it again.

FW: You also won 3,200m and 1,600m state titles in Nebraska. At UNC, you've been on school record 4x400 and 4x1,500 relays, and you do cross country as well. You're obviously called on to be very versatile. Obviously, with some of it on the speed end and some on the strength end, it's all going to be good for your 800.
Definitely. Next weekend, when I'm opening up (at Clemson), I'll be doing the mile and the 4x400. The strength from the mile and the speed for the 400 are both great for me.

FW: Obviously, relays are stressed very heavily at UNC. That's a crucial part of your college experience. Is that something you enjoy almost more than your own 800?
I would say so. I think that all of the girls on the team are so close, and it's so much fun when you can play a team sport. Cross country's very team-oriented, but when you can see 'I need to hand it off in first,' it's very team-oriented. We definitely pride ourselves on that. We were so happy when we won the DMR. And it's nothing that our coaches are stressing. It's just really the commitment from the athletes. It's less stressful than an individual event, and everybody always performs well.

FW: With Shalane out, who'll handle the anchor on your DMR?
We're not sure right now. We have two excellent freshman milers, Megan Kaltenbach and Meghan Owen. Carol Henry is always a factor. Erin Donohue is versatile in the 1,200 and the mile, and we have a couple of 800-meter runners I work out with who could step up. We're very deep in that DMR.

FW: How well are the two Megans coming along?
Pretty well. They're both very good milers... They're roommates and they're running really well right now. They've had great season. I expect nothing but excellent performances from them in the future. They've really fit in at Carolina. Our team is great this year. Our team has all gotten along so well. We have a great, tight network. The freshmen are all so good, it's inspiring. You've got to keep going, or the freshmen are going to get you.

FW: You're from Nebraska, Shalane's from Massachusetts, one of the Megans is from Colorado and the other's from Connecticut, and Erin Donohue's from New Jersey. This is a team that draws from all over. It's a real melting pot team. There aren't many Carolinians.
And Carol Henry's from Canada. We do have some North Carolina girls. But it's funny, because whenever we go to meets, people are like 'Oh, we love those Carolina blondes,' but none of us are from North Carolina. But we're very similar, and that helps out a lot.

FW: Besides Shalane, are your other two roommates runners as well?
No. Neither is a runner. One is Elyse Kopecky, a former runner for Carolina. She had some injuries. She was forced to quit the team. Elyse was saying 'You guys are on the team, when you travel on the weekends, I don't want to be here alone, I want to find someone who's not on the team,' and Kristen Foster is our fourth roommate, she's really great, she's a psych major.

FW: You and Shalane must have different requirements as runners. There must be times when she's going out for long distance runs in the morning and you're probably sparing yourself for a fast interval workout in the afternoon.
Yeah. Shalane will be up and saying 'I'm doing a morning run,' and yesterday she was saying 'I'm getting so tired.' I said, 'Why don't you take a day off?' She said, 'I don't have a day off scheduled for two or three weeks.' I thought 'Oh my God.' We have very different training schedules. But if I'm going six miles, she'll run to the workout, run six miles with me, and then run home. We still run together every once in a while, but we're in different places with our training, especially since Shalane is still doing cross country workouts once a week. On Tuesdays, she's on trails, [while] we're all on the track.

FW: What's the rest of your indoor schedule?
I'll be running in Nebraska for the first time (as a collegian) this year, on February 6, at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln... I'm excited to see my college friends who go there, and I'll be staying at my family's home one night. After that, we're running at Virginia Tech, and then we have ACCs.

FW: And if things work out, people will be seeing you well into the summer.
Hopefully. I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

FW: The 800 is getting stronger in this country, with Toomey getting along and Teter being healthy, but there was a period of a year or two there when it wasn't a particular strong event in the U.S.
I always hear that. I've never really followed pro running that much until I was a contender or part of it, but I've always held these women up as a such high standard that even if they were weak in the world, they were awesome runners to me. Yeah, they say it's getting better, and that's nothing but good for the runners who are doing it.

(Interview conducted January 15, posted January 22, 2004)

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