Motivated by potential: USD’s Schmidt battles back from Achilles surgeries
VERMILLION -- Brennan Schmidt had Division I All-American potential.
The University of South Dakota sprinter ran a 47.07 400-meter time as a sophomore at the Howard Wood Dakota Relays in 2017, which ranks fifth in USD history. And he felt 46.9 was within reach, which would have qualified him for the NCAA Championships preliminary round.
But as a junior, the Freeman native was told there was a chance he wouldn’t be able to compete again. He suffered Haglund’s Deformity -- a bone spur on his heel was being pushed into his Achilles -- in both of his legs. It required two Achilles surgeries, with his first doctor telling him that his career was over.
“Another doctor came in and said, ‘Let’s slide the Achilles over and shave off the spur on the back of the heel and put the Achilles back in place,’ ” USD director of track and field Lucky Huber said. “So they didn’t have to do any damage to the Achilles.”
Huber said there wasn’t a root cause for the deformity, but doctors thought his quick growth as a child could have been part of it. Still, even Huber didn’t know if Schmidt could recover enough to compete again.
“We hoped,” he said when asked whether he thought Schmidt would race again. “You hate to see someone’s career end that way. He worked really hard to get himself back.”
Motivated by the desire to reach his full potential, Schmidt spent his time rehabbing in USD’s underwater treadmill, hydro tub, as well as working on his flexibility and changing his running mechanics.
He was limited to one outdoor meet as a junior and two indoor meets this season, which he ran simply to qualify for the Summit League Championships. He placed 10th in the 400 (49.18) and was part of USD’s second-place 4x400-relay team (3:15.53).
“I felt like I could be a 46-second quarter miler,” Schmidt said. “That kept pushing me to keep trying. (My doctor said), ‘You’re going to have pain, but we can train through some of that and won’t have any issues.’ I think was a driving force to keep pushing through that pain.”
The pain stayed into outdoor season until two weeks prior to Howard Wood on May 3. Schmidt said Howard Wood is a “special place,” to him, and two Achilles surgeries later -- and two years after setting a career best at the same meet -- Schmidt ran a 48.25 to win the 400 in his eighth and final time competing in the Dakota Relays.
“Honestly, (I thought) if I can run a 48.5, I really thought I was on the right track,” Schmidt said.
His career concluded a week later at the Summit Championships, where he suffered a hamstring strain but still ran a 49.97 to place eighth in the 400.
“I finished that race knowing it would be my last,” Schmidt said. “Probably if it would have been any other time, I would have probably pulled up and dropped out, but I had to finish because that was my last race.”
Schmidt’s career was predicated on improving as a 400 runner, which is why he describes his injury-riddled career as “disappointing.” Everything he did was strategic toward improving in that race. He ran the 200 -- and would have ran in the 4x100 this season -- to help his speed and improve his first 200 meters.
He also wasn’t able to see incremental week-to-week progress at meets, rather he’d, “throw stuff together, trying to make a solid race plan and let the results speak for themselves.”
“I think the talent was there to probably (run a 46), but it was a matter of staying healthy,” Schmidt said. “To run 46 seconds, I really needed to train harder and I wasn’t able to do that because I was battling injuries.”
He graduated the same weekend as Howard Wood with a degree in medical biology, but without breaking 47 seconds or reaching the All-American status Huber envisioned. Now, he’s using his expertise to help the Freeman track and field team, where his younger brother, Braxton, and Collin Helma will compete in the 400 at the Class B state meet on Friday and Saturday.
“He was so talented that it really leaves a spot in my heart knowing we couldn’t get him to the level that I think he could have been,” Huber said. “... (But he) walked off the track knowing he did everything he could to be his best. Like in life, sometimes everything doesn’t go as planned, but you still get something from going out and doing your best.”