Last week’s ballistic missile scare was such a traumatizing experience for University of Hawaii swimmer Kasey Schmidt, she decided to write about it.
The lifelong St. Augustine resident wrote an essay she sent to Swimming World about the false alarm and how the Hawaii swim team dealt with it. The online magazine posted her story on Monday.
“I am an English and economics major and I felt so inspired to write about it because it was frightening,” the college junior said in a phone interview. “I think writing about it helped alleviate the stress.”
At about 8 a.m. last Saturday the swim team was doing a set of 30 50s in its 25-yard pool, meaning after two laps the swimmers would stop and then continue the set. On this particular break, the swimmers saw head coach Dan Schemmel running toward his phone. Everybody froze.
“We had a bad feeling. Nobody went for the next lap,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt thought there might be a gunman, which has always been a fear of hers during swim practice, because it would be “literally shooting fish in a barrel,” she said. She also thought about the possibility of a nuclear threat from North Korea, because in October the university began sending out emails and power points to students telling them to be informed and mindful about a threat to the islands.
Schemmel told the team to get out of the pool and led the swimmers to a door Schmidt had never seen before. They walked down concrete steps into a small dark room that Schmidt described in her essay as “a rather moldy room that hadn’t seen a human or a bleaching agent for a couple decades.”
Over 50 swimmers and coaches stood in the small room for about 15 minutes — there wasn’t enough room for everyone to sit. There was one window that looked directly into the pool under the diving area.
“If the window was going to break, the pool would flood into the room, but we knew it was the safest place we could go,” Schmidt said.
The swimmers didn’t have their cell phones. Schmidt grabbed her water bottle from the pool deck on the way to the underground room. An assistant coach’s phone displayed the emergency alert: “A ballistic missile threat is inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.”
Schmidt said her life flashed before her eyes.
“We’re college swimmers. We don’t stop practice unless it’s a life-threatening situation,” she said. “It was so terrifying, so disheartening. I thought of all the things I haven’t done.”
Then a calm swept over her. Even though her parents, Brandi and Kevin, weren’t there, she realized she loved everyone in the room — her boyfriend, who is also on the team, and all of her other teammates and coaches.
“I thought about the happiness I gained since I started swimming, the lifelong relationships I’ve gained through swimming. These are the people I’m inviting to my wedding. I had a real connection with everyone in that room,” she said
It struck her how differently people deal with a crisis situation. Some swimmers cried softly, but nobody screamed or panicked, she said. Some cracked jokes, such as, “At least we won’t have to finish the set.” Many comforted their distressed teammates.
Schmidt knew that panicking was useless. This wasn’t her first traumatic ordeal. Ten years ago, when she was 9, she was bitten by a shark on her right thigh while surfing with her mom in the ocean by her Vilano Beach home.
To this day, she doesn’t know how many stitches it took to sew up the wound.
“They stopped counting,” she said.
While the shark bite was painful, at least that was a controllable situation, she said.
“The situation Saturday was completely out of our hands, and that was the scariest part of it all,” Schmidt said.
In the week since the false alert, Schmidt’s life has returned to normal. She went to the beach and wrote the essay. The team got the rest of the day off but they are back in the pool, gearing up for next month’s conference meet.
Schmidt, a freestyle and butterfly sprinter, swam for the Bolles School after beginning her swimming career with the St. Augustine Cyclones.
She started her college career at the University of Virginia before transferring to Hawaii.
The ordeal, she said, brought the team closer together.
In the Swimming World essay, she wrote, “It’s interesting how something so frightening as facing one’s own mortality can connect a group of individuals on such a deep level.”