GREAT FALLS — First we have to address the puppy.
Providence sophomore guard and former Great Falls High star Molly Schmitz brings nine-week-old golden retriever Emmy Jane everywhere she goes. She sat calmly on Molly’s lap during this interview with MTN Sports.
“I got her last Sunday from a breeder in Boulder,” Schmitz explained. “Eventually, hopefully she’ll become a service dog and I’ll take her all around and she’ll help me with what I need help with.”
It’s not immediately apparent what Molly needs help with. But then she shares her story.
Molly Schmitz is the baby of the well-known Schmitz family of Great Falls. Her father is Jerry Schmitz, Argo hall of famer and head coach of the Great Falls High girls basketball team. Her siblings include former Bison stars Megan, Michela, Jerry Jr., and Matt.
Eight years separated her and her closest sibling.
“By the time I was in sports and stuff, mostly everyone was moved out” Molly said. “Since Matt went to college, I was a single child at home. “
“I wouldn’t trade it, because it was like I have second parents who look after me. I just looked up to them my whole life and they were amazing role models for me.”
Naturally, Schmitz took to sports at an early age – with a particular love for basketball.
But she faced obstacles.
“I have ongoing arthritis in my knee that’s getting progressively worse. That kind of started in seventh grade with some pain. So I’ve gone to physical therapy for my knee since seventh grade,” she explained. “My freshman year is when I had some big problems with it, that’s when I tore my ACL in a game.”
That led to her first surgery, and the end of her freshman season. After a breakout sophomore year on a state AA runner-up team, she tore her meniscus which led to another operation. Recovery from her second knee surgery kept her sidelined for most of her junior year.
A multi-sport athlete, Schmitz also excelled in the softball diamond. But she played her entire junior season with something not quite feeling right.
“I went to the doctor right after the season ended because I knew something was off,” Molly said. “The doctor said I’d been playing on a torn ACL all season. So I had my third knee surgery that summer.”
Recovery from that procedure forced her to miss her entire senior basketball season.
“It was really hard. The hardest games for me were crosstown. I’d be on the bench, and the whole town is there,” she recalled. “It was hard to sit out, and especially if the team was struggling or if I felt like there’s something I could do. I felt helpless,”
She paused, glancing down at Emmy Jane. She raised her head composed.
“It was frustrating because I worked really hard to stay healthy and not injured. But I just kept getting hurt.”
Molly was suffering physically. But the injuries also took a toll mentally. Her identity as an athlete was shaken. She’d always taken physical fitness and health seriously. But when she couldn’t control her workouts, she tried to control her diet.
And then she lost control.
“I only had like the set amount of foods I would eat every single day and when I ate anything else, I was incredibly uncomfortable,” Schmitz explained. “Exercise is an amazing thing, and an important part of my life. But I was exercising four hours on top of practice and games at the gym. For me, I took a lot of healthy good things for an athlete or a person to do but I took them to an obsessive or unhealthy level.”
Schmitz had developed anorexia, an eating disorder characterized by low weight, food restriction, fear of gaining weight, and a strong desire to be thin. She became obsessed with her weight and her image, and limited her food intake drastically.
“Eating disorders are pretty tricky things,” she said quietly. “In today’s world and society, there’s a certain way an athlete should look and a woman should look. If you fit that image, people are going to compliment that no matter what it took to get there. So that’s kind of what fed into that for me.”
Molly kept her disorder secret. But eventually her family became aware of Molly’s struggles, which had begun to overwhelm her and put her long-term health in serious jeopardy.
With their support, Molly started to see a therapist. And eventually checked into the Avalon Hills eating disorder treatment facility in Paradise, Utah. She stayed there for three months, where she underwent brain wave training and worked with a nutritionist to find out what her body needed and what she was missing.
Those steps, and the support of her family saved her life.
“I needed a little break and some time to heal and do what I can to fix it,” Molly explained. “It’s kind of like an injury in way, and you need to give yourself a time to heal and that’s kind of what I chose to do and what my family helped me do. And I’m grateful for that time, because now I’m healed and I’m ready to do what I can.”
“It’s a big thing. I have to thank my family, without their support I would be nowhere close to healed.”
Though Molly is healed her struggle with food and fitness will last a lifetime. And that’s where Emmy Jane comes in.
The future therapy dog will be by Molly’s side for the rest of her life, but right now the two are just getting used to each other.
“That’s why I got her, for emotional support. I have some anxiety with social situations and different things,” Molly said. “What we’ll train her to do is a few different tasks that will help with my anxiety. We’ll train her to do different tasks like deep pressure therapy with her paws. It’s a grounding exercise.”
With her physical and mental struggles, Molly’s dream of following in her family’s footsteps and playing college basketball seemed out of reach.
Until Providence women’s basketball coach Bill Himmelberg stepped in.
“All throughout high school I talked to Bill, I went to his camps. He was someone I looked up to in the basketball world,” Molly said. “I had no expectations to play college basketball because your senior year was that year you get recruited and you show what you have, and you make the videos and I had nothing like that. Bill came up and we had a conversation and he asked if I was thinking about playing and I told him no college coach wants me, I’ve had three knee surgeries. And he said ‘I want you, you could come play for me’.”
They set up a visit where Molly had a chance to look at the facilities, and meet the team. Two days later she was committed.
“It was an easy choice. Just to be home and around family and the town I grew up in and that was the cool thing,” Molly said.
She entered her first year of college basketball with low expectations. After all, she hadn’t played competitive basketball since her junior year and there were plenty of experienced athletes on the Argo roster.
After so much time off, Molly has just grateful to see the court.
“I didn’t even think I was going to play at all,” she said “I just remember going into the first game, I sat in my car and I called my sister because I was just so happy and thankful. I haven’t played in over a year and a half and I get to play college. It was an insane moment.”
Molly didn’t just see the court. She played substantial, meaningful minutes in all 32 Argo games this season. Schmitz was the first player off the bench for a team that advanced to the NAIA national tournament, averaging 19.6 minutes, 5 points and 4.7 rebounds per contest.
“The college season is two times longer and harder than high school, so to be able to play through the whole season was more than I could expect,” Molly said. “A lot of hard work though, I had to work hard to get myself healthy and keep my knee healthy.”
Her coaches and teammates knew about her injury history. But they were unaware of her past struggles with anorexia. The transition to college brought back some of her unhealthy urges, so midway through the season she shared her experience with the coaching staff.
“I kept the eating disorder a secret because I didn’t what them to worry about me, and I also didn’t want them to take basketball away from me,” Molly recalled. “But they were supportive, Bill especially.”
Himmelberg didn’t skip a beat.
“Anything he could do for me, he was always checking on me and doing everything he could to help me,” Molly said. “We decided, my family and I with Bill, that I would finish out the season because I felt that was important that I finished out that commitment. After the season ended, that’s when I left for treatment again and I finished school online. The team wasn’t aware until I left, but ever since then they’ve sent me letters and kind messages.”
Molly beams thinking about her teammates who have become second family.
“There’s not better a team out there than the Argos.”
Today Molly is healed, healthy, loved and supported by her teammates and family.
But she knows what it’s like to struggle in silence for much of her life.
She knows many fight a similar battle. So she decided to share her story in the hopes it will inspire others to seek help and healing.
“Just be open and honest with yourself,” she said. “Asking for help and seeking help is a more brave thing to do than to try and fix it and be strong on your own. Because we all do need a little help.
“If that’s what people worry about, they don’t want to seem weak. I think the opposite. People that seek help and know they need help, and ask for it are the strongest people.”
If you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association Helpline for information and resources at (800) 330-0490.