Sierra Schmidt dances before the start of the women's 800 meter freestyle at the 2015 Pan Am Games, where she won gold

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Coming off a COVID delay that pushed the Olympics back a year, viewers of the U.S. swimming trials have been privy to a delightfully amusing sight:

The signature dance routines of Olympic hopeful Sierra Schmidt, a Montgomery County native.

Known for rocking her noise-canceling headphones or earbuds and jamming behind the blocks before scaling the platform and diving beneath the water, Schmidt’s expressive moves have earned her the moniker, “Dancing Queen.”

“Everyone has their own pre-race routine,” Schmidt told Billy Penn. “And for me it’s, it’s the dancing… Mine’s just a little bit more unique.”

Now 23 years old, Schmidt grew up in Erdenheim, Pa., a Springfield Township community just across Stenton Avenue, less than a mile outside Chestnut Hill.

The dancing isn’t new, nor is the attention she’s gotten for it. The athlete and her shimmies were featured in a 2015 Swimming World video. ESPN took note of the then-teenage swimmer in early 2016, and she drew the attention of the Associated Press at her Olympic trials debut later that year.

The following year, Schmidt joined the University of Michigan’s swim team. Before heading to college in 2017, she attended 21st Century Cyber Charter School in the Philly suburbs, and also swam for the North Baltimore Aquatic Club.

Her performance in the pool is at least as good — and probably better — than her choreographed warm-ups. She didn’t make the 2016 Olympic team, but she’s trying again. On Tuesday, she came in seventh and qualified for the 1500 meter freestyle finals. The 800 meter freelstyle

Between the Olympic trials, Schmidt continued to medal at national and international competitions, and ranks among the national top 10 swimmers in the 400 , 800  and 1500 meter freestyles.

A short list of her accomplishments includes:

  • Breaking the Pan American Games record, set in 1999, for the 800 meter freestyle in 2015
  • Gold and silver medals in the World Junior Championships
  • A bronze in the 2017 World University Games
  • Another bronze and a relay gold medal in the 2019 World University Games
  • A 2021 Big Ten championship win for the 800 meter relay

Does she like the attention her dancing brings, versus her swimming prowess?

“I kind of like to be known for both,” Schmidt said. “One of my goals by doing the dancing, not only so that I can be less nervous, [but] also to show that there are many paths to success.” She wants younger swimmers to feel comfortable and confident about finding the techniques that work best for them.

“I always encourage people that I’m lucky enough to talk to, especially younger swimmers, to experiment with pre-race routines,” Schmidt said.

There’s a method to her madness. In Montco, she grew up taking ballet, where she developed her love of dance. In 2019, she and her then-coach Mike Bottom at Michigan talked about how dancing uses certain moves that target different muscles, just like more traditional warmups.

YouTube video

What’s coming out of Schmidt’s all-important earbuds varies per season and event. She’s done top 40s and bubblegum K-Pop.

For her longer races right now, Schmidt said she’s listening to slower K-Pop, like “Dun Dun” by Everglow. For her shorter races, like the 400 meter freestyle, she turns to a Japanese music genre called idol groups. She learns choreographed routines, and practices them ahead of competitions.

Outside of swimming and dancing, entertainment still guides Schmidt’s goals. The recent college grad earned a degree in film, television and media, and worked as a video editor and post production producer at the University of Michigan’s WOLV-TV.

Schmidt just moved to Arizona, where she’s training with her father, Joseph Schmidt, and plans to swim with a team.

Asked whether she dreams of returning to the Philadelphia area, where her childhood was punctuated by trips to Old City and cheesesteaks from Rich’s Delicatessen in Fort Washington, Schmidt said she’s a wanderer, so anything’s possible.

“For me, wherever life takes me I’ll be happy,” she said. “Coming back to Philly is definitely not out of the realm of possibilities.”

Layla A. Jones (she/her) was a general assignment reporter for Billy Penn from 2019 to 2021. Her work has helped underserved community organizations, earned free repairs for property owners who sustained...