Words by Rebecca Parsons
Will Schmidt's story began on the day it could have ended.
When I first met Will, he struck me as a positive, gung-ho paddler with a thirst for adventure. He then proceeded to tell me his story and it really struck a chord with me.
Since a young age, Schmidt had dealt with anxiety and depression. After serving overseas in the U.S. Marine Corps, his condition had worsened so much that in 2008, he decided it was time to take his own life.
To the rest of the world, it was a Monday morning like any other. For Will Schmidt, it was the day he was going to end his lifelong battle with anxiety and depression. Then the phone rang.
Thank goodness for a mother's intuition.
"She was just going to call and leave a message,” Schmidt said. “My phone rings at a time when I should have been at work and I answered it. She knew right away something was wrong. She said, 'I want you to go out and do something. Go for a walk, paddle, do something, because I think if you stay in your room any longer I'm going to be burying you."
So he did. Schmidt grabbed his SUP and drove to Dana Point Harbor where he paddled about a mile offshore to the "flag buoy." He tethered himself there and bobbed for hours, alone with his thoughts and the sounds of the sea.
"I found my vindication on the water that day," he recalls.
Reality sank in and Will concluded that if he didn't do something to turn his situation around, he wasn't going to make it much longer. Floating out on the Pacific that day, Will remembered how good paddling made him feel and decided to throw himself into it, full force.
"I really believe that not just standup paddling, but being around the ocean in general is what saved my life."
And so, Schmidt's SUP story began.
In 2009, a good friend of his returned from serving overseas and committed suicide, leaving behind a wife and two children. To honor his memory, Schmidt decided to do a channel-to-channel crossing from Dana Point to Catalina Island as a tribute to his friend and to raise awareness about the mental illnesses many U.S. veterans suffer from.
The response was not what he'd expected.
"People started emailing me asking what I was going to do next,” Schmidt said. “I'd never thought about that. The response from everybody was so well-received [that] I thought I could really do something with this."
Since that first crossing, Schmidt has paddled the Catalina channel numerous times and holds the records for the fastest time on a 14-foot and unlimited board. He also completed a 58-day solo and unassisted trip from Canada to Mexico in 2014. Never one to take it easy, Schmidt is currently putting the finishing touches on the plans for his next big adventure—a three-week voyage through the Channel Islands.
In 2013, Schmidt unsuccessfully led a solo, chase boat-supported expedition from Oxnard to Dana Point with the goal of consecutively reaching all eight islands in the chain. This spring, he’s back to finish what he started and complete the 300+ mile voyage once and for all. In partnership with researcher Tom Holm, Schmidt hopes to raise awareness about the threats to both endangered species and historic Native American cultural sites throughout the region.
Schmidt found a purpose for his life through paddling and wants to help others do the same. Through his expeditions, he seeks to inspire people and raise money for various charities.
"I know it feels like you've got nothing to live for, but what you need to understand is that [depression] is a sickness not unlike a cold, the flu, or cancer and just because it can't be diagnosed with a test, people think that it's made up.” Schmidt said. “What I really want to get out there is that it's real. You're not any weaker for saying that you have a problem and that you need help. Because that's the thing, the silence is what's killing people."
The first step to solving the problem is admitting you have one. After that, the choice is yours. Seek counseling, surround yourself with good people, or find a hobby and immerse yourself in it. Most importantly, know that your life is full of purpose.
For the past nine years, Will has lived his life with that purpose in mind. He continues to defy depression and inspire others every day, one paddle stroke at a time.