Clark Smith Not Afraid as He Chases Spot on Worlds Team

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Clark Smith -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

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By David Rieder.

In his first Olympic Trials final last summer, Clark Smith quickly made his presence felt. Swimming the men’s 400 free from lane one, Smith got his feet on the wall first at each of the first five turns, and he was more than a second and a half under world record-pace at the halfway point.

But for that front-half effort Smith paid the price. He faded badly down the stretch and end up fifth, a disappointing result even if his final time of 3:45.74 was by far a lifetime best.

“I think it was a combination of just going out too fast and over-resting a little bit, so it kind of hit me like a double-whammy, and the last 50 hurt real bad,” Smith said. “I was worried the girls would out-split me on the last 50. That’s how it went down.”

One year later, Smith will head to Indianapolis and the U.S. World Championship Trials as a favorite to book his ticket to Budapest in that event. He did end up making the Olympic team as a relay swimmer after finishing sixth in the 200 free, but an individual event looks within reach this time around.

Townley Haas

Tonwley Haas — Photo Courtesy: Dan D’Addona

Connor Jaeger, who won the event at Trials, has retired, while runner-up Conor Dwyer has not swum a 400 free all year and appears unlikely to jump into that event for Trials. That leaves Smith, his Texas teammate Townley Haas and Indiana-trained Zane Grothe as the top contenders.

It’s what Smith accomplished in the college arena that has him set up so well for this summer. At the NCAA championships in March, Smith won the 500 free in 4:08.42, taking down a nine-year-old American record in the process. And then two days later, he showed why he’s among the toughest swimmers in the world.

Smith had strained his groin at the end of his 500 final, and with his Texas Longhorns up big in the team battle headed into the final day of the meet, he even considered pulling out of the 1650. But he swam the race and gutted through, even as the pain became so severe over the final 500 yards.

“I didn’t want to make any pre-meditated excuses. I had to swim the race, no matter how I felt,” Smith said that night. “The last 10 lengths I kind of just sucked it up because I knew no one would feel bad for me. Kind of had to put it together on my own.”

In a field where the top four swimmers all broke the existing American and NCAA record, Smith pulled away the last 50 and touched the wall first in 14:22.41.

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

It was an amazing swim, particularly under the circumstances with his injury. At that point, Texas was on the verge of a third straight national championship, but Smith was still not satisfied. He explained that his 500 and 1650 were “not the times I wanted to do,” and even sitting victorious that night, he seemed hungry for more.

After NCAAs, Smith became a professional swimmer and turned his attention full-time to the long course pool, but his return to racing in that format was not what he had hoped. Competing in the 400 free final in nine months at the Arena Pro Swim Series meet in Atlanta, Smith struggled to a seventh-place finish, touching in 3:53.65.

But a month later, the 6’9” Texas man had begun to round into form, winning the event at the Pro Swim Series stop in Santa Clara in 3:49.40. While the time doesn’t even rank among the top 25 in the world for 2017, he currently ranks second among Americans behind Grothe (3:47.99).

“I think it’s a good time for right now. Going into the meet I just wanted to better than I did in Atlanta,” Smith said afterwards. “It’s good for me mentally going into Trials.”

Compared to last year, Smith is one year older and has some crucial Olympic experience under his belt, but he won’t rule out another seemingly unwise go-for-broke strategy when he goes for a spot on the Worlds team in the 400 free. As he explained it, Smith is the rare swimmer that doesn’t focus on perfecting his race strategy.

“I don’t really plan out my races beforehand,” he said. “I just swim on instinct, which can be a good thing or a bad thing. I don’t really think too much ahead of time. I don’t really swim the races over in my head so I don’t overthink it.”

Smith insisted that he will be satisfied with his results at World Champs Trials in Indianapolis “if I see a time I like,” but what will matter much more is the place next to his name. In his quest to see a “1” or a “2,” Smith’s continued strong form and his perpetual fearlessness give him more than just a fighting chance.

Watch a video interview with Clark Smith from the Arena Pro Swim Series meet in Santa Clara: