* Dylan Schmidt has won Olympic bronze in the men’s trampoline final in Tokyo. Read about him and his special relationship with the life coach who’s helped him on his medal journey.*
The longest-serving member of “Team Dylan” – the network around Olympian Dylan Schmidt – is his athlete life advisor, Carolyn Donaldson, who’s helped ensure nothing in life will stop him from being the best trampolinist he can be.
“I’m going to the Olympic Games to win and I’m not afraid to say that,” trampolinist Dylan Schmidt admits.
He’s sitting in a consultation room at High Performance Sport New Zealand (HPSNZ) on Auckland’s North Shore, surrounded by pictures of famous athletes like Dame Valerie Adams and Mahe Drysdale – Olympic champions Schmidt hopes to emulate.
Consistently placed amongst the top trampolinists in the world, and seventh at his first Olympics in Rio five years ago, Schmidt has every chance of winning New Zealand’s first trampolining medal in Tokyo.
He attributes his remarkable rise to his desire to excel, and the people around him.
It’s not surprising that these people include his coach Angie Dougal, his parents and girlfriend, and support team members such as a sports physician, physiotherapist and nutritionist.
Less anticipated, perhaps, is that an important member of Team Dylan – as they call it – is an ‘athlete life advisor’.
Here in the consultation room, Schmidt is sitting alongside Carolyn Donaldson, his long-time athlete life advisor, and the longest-serving member of Team Dylan. Her role at HPSNZ is to help athletes maximise their performance and wellbeing in sport and in life.
She’s often been a sounding board for Schmidt when he’s had big decisions to make. She helped him make plans to cope with the year-long postponement of the Tokyo Games. And now she’s helping him prepare for a Games like no other.
It’s obvious Schmidt and Donaldson have a special working relationship. There are lots of nods and chuckles, and they frequently finish each other’s sentences.
“If I don’t verbalise what I want to achieve, I’m not living by my values and I’m not being true to myself,” Schmidt says.
Donaldson agrees. “When you identified ‘being true to yourself’ as one of your core values, that was a turning point.”
She explains that they worked through a process to articulate Schmidt’s values. “It’s all about being authentic to who you are,” she says.
Schmidt nods in agreement. “And it wasn’t just determining that my values are hard work, balance and ‘being true to myself’ – but how they apply in life.
“It’s empowering to say your goals out loud, and tell people what you’re trying to achieve, because I’m not afraid to fail. As long as I’ve done everything I can, it just is what it is.”
Donaldson says it’s an approach that has come with maturity. She’s seen the 24-year-old trampolinist blossom since they began working together in his last year of high school at King’s College in Auckland.
“At the start it was about demystifying the high performance system,” she says. “I’d explain what things meant and who he could go and see.”
Schmidt recalls being shown around AUT Millennium when he first got access to the support team at HPSNZ. “As the years went on, I realised what a resource it was to have an athlete life advisor help with life in general. We catch up every month now,” Schmidt says.
While he was at the University of Auckland completing his commerce degree, Donaldson helped Schmidt juggle his tertiary study with the demands of international sport. There were times they had to organise for him to get deadlines changed or sit university exams overseas.
“They’re life conversations really,” Donaldson says, explaining that their work together has continued to evolve.
A mum of two, Donaldson has been an athlete life advisor for over 16 years. She’s a certified sport life coach, with a post-grad qualification in career counselling for elite performers.
Schmidt chips in: “Then you obviously – as it’s your profession – made me think about…”
“Just knowing who you are as a person, your identity,” Donaldson finishes for him.
“Yeah,” says Schmidt. “We had structured sessions for my professional development, to make me think about who I am and what I want from life, using different career tools.”
Donaldson adds: “As you got older we developed trust with each other. You opened up, and we’ve had more robust conversations.
“And you developed more proactive engagements rather than just catching up when something happened. Often we wonder what we’re going to talk about, but we never have a problem finding things.” They laugh.
“Yeah you go in with nothing and something ends up popping up and we talk for an hour quite easily,” Schmidt says. “Something good always seems to come out of it.”
And a lot can change in between catch-ups, Donaldson says. “When we met after a six-week gap, I said ‘Wow, you’ve finished your degree, found a job, got a dog, bought a new car and moved out of home.’ There were all these major life things that you’d done.”
They’d determined in previous meetings that he should make the most of the Tokyo Olympics being postponed last year. “Moving out and getting a dog was all in my plan for after the Games, but we talked about it and thought, what am I waiting for?” Schmidt reveals.
He even took a seasonal job on an oyster farm.
“It’s made life a lot more bearable having all this other stuff going on and feeling like I’m moving forward – not just waiting and waiting for the Games to happen,” he says. “With Carolyn’s help, it’s made Covid and the Olympics being postponed a whole lot easier.”
It was a similar story when Schmidt badly injured his knee in 2018. “I got told I was out for 12 months,” he says. “It was horrible.”
Donaldson was the first person he reached out to. “You came straight upstairs [from the health centre],” she remembers.
Schmidt nods. “I don’t think I had an appointment. I just texted you and said, ‘Are you around?’
“We talked about how the scans showed it was far worse than I’d expected. I was basically booking surgery in two weeks’ time.”
Donaldson says her role initially was to help him sit with his emotions. “Yes it sucks, but you can’t go around it, you have to push through it,” she says.
After reconstructive surgery, Schmidt continued to regularly seek Donaldson’s support. “We made sure I was taking the opportunity to work on other things,” he says.
“Looking for silver linings,” Donaldson adds.
“What’s so good about Carolyn is the questions she asks,” Schmidt says. “They get me thinking about things I wouldn’t ask myself.”
Now, as the Olympics loom, they’re already preparing for Schmidt’s life after the Games and looking at potential internships. “I know from last time that post-Olympic blues are definitely a thing,” Schmidt confesses. “So whatever the result, having a plan in place for when you come home is helpful.”
Schmidt is also contemplating how to navigate a Games like no other. “It’s almost going to be quarantine conditions at the village,” he says. “I’m going to go and train and then be back in my room by myself, so managing that, figuring out what I’m going to do…”
“We’ve been talking it through,” Donaldson says. “We’ll nut that out at our next meeting and discuss exactly what it looks like.”
While Schmidt says he’s at his calmest on the trampoline, how does Donaldson feel watching him compete at a major event like the Olympics?
“My children have a name for that,” Donaldson laughs. “My sports Tourette’s comes out. It’s nerve-wracking. You do walk the journey with them, especially because you know them so well.”
It’s clear that Donaldson has played a significant role in Schmidt’s Olympic preparation, by helping ensure nothing in life will stop him from being the best trampolinist he can be.
“Athletes have all these other pressures, so how do you manage them?” she says. “How do you learn from your life experiences to ensure you perform in sport and life and come out in the end well-versed and ready to take on the world?
“Athletes are such cool people to work with. They are so driven. They thirst for knowledge and growth, and get the concept of connecting to something bigger than themselves. Dylan is so open to learning and curious. It’s a privilege to be able to support him.”
Schmidt describes his preparation for Tokyo as a highly enjoyable experience. “I can look back and be really happy with the decisions I’ve made, how hard I’m working, how well we’ve worked as a team,” he says. “What we’ve been doing has been innovative and creative. I’ve enjoyed the journey of improving as an athlete.”
Even though he dearly wants to win the Olympics, he also sees a bigger picture. “Whatever happens in Tokyo will be icing on the cake.”