A Summer of Redemption for Team USA Veteran and Distance Star Leah Smith

Photo Courtesy: Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

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A Summer of Redemption for Team USA Veteran and Distance Star Leah Smith

The summer of 2021 could’ve been the end of the road for Leah Smith on the global swimming stage.

The ingredients were all there. Smith won two medals at the Rio Olympics. Five years later, she was four years post-grad and on the outside looking in at the team for the Tokyo Olympics. A combination of tough breaks at Trials in Omaha, the unsuccessful search to find an angle in new events and the unrelenting stream of young talent in the distance freestyle events where – to begin with – everyone is chasing the one non-Katie Ledecky spot … it all conspired against Smith. And it could’ve marked the last we saw of Smith on the international stage.

But it says something about Smith’s fortitude and character that she came back from that adversity and was as good as ever at the 2022 FINA World Championships.

Smith was excellent in Budapest. Though she didn’t make the final in the 200 free, an odd event for an otherwise dominant American effort, she won bronze behind Ledecky in the 400 free. She was also part of the best swim of the meet, according to FINA ranking points, the American women’s 800 free relay, which won gold in 7:41.45.

Smith proved that last summer’s Trials was the aberration. She seemed to be constantly chasing in that meet, after falling short in the 400 IM. A 4:37 in the months leading up to Omaha made for a “crunch time decision” on whether she’d opt for the 400 IM or try to qualify for the first ever Olympic 1,500 free.

She went for the latter, finished fourth on the opening day in Omaha, and never really got back on track.  The rest of the program seemed to be a game of whack-a-mole, of swims and scratches. She passed on the 1,500 to focus on the 800, and missed the final in 10th. She led the way in prelims of the 200 freestyle but was eight in the semis and final. The kicker was that her prelims time of 1:57.52 would’ve been fifth int eh final, earning her a relay spot.

Summer McIntosh of Canada, Katie Ledecky of United States and Leah Smith of United States show their medal after compete in the swimming 400m Freestyle Women Final during the FINA 19th World Championships Budapest 2022 at Duna Arena, Budapest (Hungary), June 18th, 2022. Katie Ledecky placed first winning the gold medal, Summer Mcintosh placed second, Leah Smith placed third. . Photo Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Leah Smith, right, with her 400 free bronze medal; Photo Courtesy: Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia

Factor in the immense young talent emerging around her – Bella Sims in the 200, Paige Madden in the 400, Katie Grimes in the 800 and Erica Sullivan in the 1,500 – and Smith could’ve seen this as the end of her time on the international scene.

Instead, she likely saw it for what it was: To make an Olympic team as an American, you need to have a good performance at Trials and get a little luck. Smith had neither.

But she refocused, the University of Virginia grad jolting her training with a move to the University of Texas (where Sullivan also trains). She went back to her wheelhouse, focusing on a narrower range of swims, as many mid- to late-20s swimmers do. And the reward was not just a place in Budapest but improvement from the disappointment of 2021.

Smith didn’t just qualify in the 200 and 400 freestyle. She set her best time in the former since 2018. In the latter, she got to within 1.5 seconds of her best time, from 2016. And her performance in the 400 free final, going from the fifth seed in prelims to a late charge down the stretch to pip Australia’s Lani Pallister at the wall by .08 seconds, was the kind of gutsy swim that has typified her stellar career.

Coming in the event where she won her individual bronze medal, behind Ledecky and Jaz Carlin in 2016, seemed a fitting, full-circle moment.

“It means a lot,” Smith said. “I think that’s my third podium at Worlds with Katie in the 400. It doesn’t get old, such an honor and I am really excited that we were able to get two Americans on the podium in the first night.”

Smith played a vital role in Budapest. The youth of the American delegation required leadership. Smith provided that, alongside Ledecky, in leading the U.S. to the most successful Worlds ever. She’s had a long enough career that swimmers she shares a relay with could’ve grown up as swimmers idolizing her.

If there’s any doubt as to Smith’s standing in American swimming, refer to the elation in Rowdy Gaines’ voice on the broadcast at seeing her nab bronze. Or the comments on her Instagram posts from Budapest, a who’s who of American swimmers, many of the rivals she has to fend off at Trials. To an individual, they seemed utterly elated to see her succeed on the global stage again.

That’s the esteem in which Smith is held in U.S. swimming. It’s a presence that will continue to loom through at least Paris.

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Mark S. Schwartz
1 month ago

I totally agree. Thank you for that article. She was swimming well in the meets leading up to Worlds and I’m pleased that she had a successful meet at FINA as well.

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