Exclusive Interview: Regan Smith Made the Switch to Bob Bowman in Pursuit of Olympic Gold

regan-smith-
Regan Smith -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Regan Smith Made the Switch to Bob Bowman in Pursuit of Olympic Gold

Three years after her stunning breakthrough performance at the 2019 World Championships, Regan Smith became a world champion again this year as she edged out Kylie Masse for 100 backstroke gold in Budapest. Smith won a second gold medal that week as the backstroke swimmer on the U.S. women’s 400 medley relay, but as a whole, she was disappointed with her results from the entire year, a stretch that included her freshman season at Stanford and then a quick long course season leading up to Worlds.

“I think overall I had a fine season,” Smith said. “I did well at dual meets, and my midseason meet was OK. U.S. Open was OK, Pac-12s OK, NCAAs OK. I think through all of that, I just convinced myself that I’m an OK swimmer. And that’s relative, of course. I had some good swims this year, but for my standards, not to sound arrogant or anything, but for my standards, that’s not who I am, and that’s not who I want to be.”

The 20-year-old from Lakeville, Minn., thought back to the 200 butterfly final at the World Championships. Smith entered that race as the Olympic silver medalist, and she was in second place for most of the race, behind Zhang Yufei at first and then just three tenths behind Summer McIntosh with 50 meters to go. But she faded down the stretch, her final 50 the second-slowest in the field, and she ended up fourth, a second-and-a-half off her best time.

Smith vividly remembered the feeling from before the 200 fly: unprepared. And that bothered her.

“I just got behind the blocks, and I was like, ‘I’m just not sure how I want to swim it. I feel like the race is controlling me,'” Smith said. “You want to have a race plan, but in a race like the 200 fly, it’s very easy if you’re not prepared to just survive, to not have any sort of plan and be like, ‘Well, I hope I finish.’ That’s just how I was feeling. That’s not me. That’s not how I was in Tokyo a year ago. I had a great plan. I was in really great shape, and I just felt like I could attack it. This year, I just didn’t feel like that was the case.”


Smith’s Decision

regan-smith-

Regan Smith at the 2022 U.S. International Team Trials — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

After finishing up at Worlds, Smith took a planned vacation and stayed out of the water for several weeks, and during that time, she reflected on her season. She thought about her training under Stanford coach Greg Meehan, who utilized a different style of training than Smith had been accustomed to during her years training with club coach Mike Parratto. Meehan’s training emphasized pace and technique and adequate rest between repeats and between intense workouts, a style that has certainly worked for many of the world’s best swimmers under his guidance.

But Smith had trouble making the adjustment. While her backstroke and butterfly remained elite, she found herself unable to come close to years-old best times in mid-distance freestyle and individual medley races. She had been enthused about a change of pace after years training with Parratto, but by December, when Smith returned home to Minnesota for Christmas break, she felt “so excited to do one of Mike’s 7000-yard practices in 90 minutes,” a condensed set of 500-yard repeats with little rest. “I remember finishing and being like, ‘Wow, I just haven’t done anything like that in so long,’” Smith said. “It just made me miss it so much. I was like, ‘What the heck? I would have never thought that I would miss doing stuff like this.’”

She never felt like she fully bought into Meehan’s style of training because she could not shake the thought of having been so successful under Parratto’s style of training during her teenage years, a stretch that culminated with a two-gold-medal, three-world-record performance (100 and 200 back plus 400 medley relay) at the 2019 Worlds. So after Smith contemplated her future during that month-long layoff, she made the difficult decision to make a change.

“This wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I really want to leave,’” Smith said. “I love my teammates. I love Greg and (associate head coach) Tracy (Slusser) so much, still do. It was hard, but I was like, ‘I need to start thinking about things because ultimately, my swimming is so important to me.’ I have a lot of goals that I haven’t achieved yet and I feel like I’m very capable of achieving, and I feel like if I want to achieve those goals, I need to be in a place where I’m supremely confident in my training and what I’m doing and show up to meets feeling truly prepared and not like the race is controlling me.”

Smith shared her thoughts with Parratto, and Parratto connected her with Bob Bowman, the Arizona State head coach who became famous for coaching Michael Phelps and later led Allison Schmitt throughout her lengthy career. Bowman currently coaches Hali Flickinger, Smith’s American teammate in the 200 fly at the Tokyo Olympics and this year’s Worlds, and he most recently helped France’s Leon Marchand become the world’s premier swimmer in men’s individual medley. Smith and Bowman talked, and after hearing about the program and training, she was ready to commit.

“He was just telling me about the program and what kind of yardage they do in comparison to Mike and the intensity that he’s into and the sets that he likes to do,” Smith said. “He was relatively general with the sets because I guess the magician doesn’t want to give away his secrets, but I was confident. It was a good conversation. He was just asking me about my thoughts and feelings, and he was really respectful and understanding of my struggles because he’s had a lot of really great swimmers who have struggled mentally.”

Shortly after, Smith spoke with Meehan to inform him of her decision, and she could only describe the conversation as “really tough.”

“It was disappointment and sadness on both sides,” Smith said. “I really think that Greg is one of the classiest people I’ve ever met, and he said that he hopes the best for me. What mattered most to me is that he said he cares about me more as a person than as a swimmer and he wanted me to be happy, which I appreciated so much. ‘Whatever you think is best, I want to support that. It might not make me happy to be saying this and what’s happening,’ but ultimately, he put those feelings aside and cared more for me as a person.”


Eyes on the Future

regan-smith-goggles-2022-world-championships-budapest

Regan Smith at the 2022 World Championships — Photo Courtesy: Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

This upheaval in Smith’s life means that she will put her pursuit of a college degree to the side for now and concentrate on swimming. She does hope to finish that degree in the future, although she does not know what that will look like. She is excited to get to Tempe, Ariz., where she visited once before for a training camp, and she will join an elite pro group that has added other big names, including 400 IM Olympic champion Chase Kalisz, in recent days.

Smith does not view the change as a risk, but make no mistake, this decision is putting all the cards on the table, going all-in for swimming to see what could happen. And Smith acknowledged that she does sometimes think about the past, about how she was set up so well entering 2020, only for the COVID-19 pandemic to delay the Olympics by a year. She was unable to hold that sterling form into 2021, and she did not qualify to swim the 200 back, the event where she had broken Missy Franklin’s long-standing world record, in Tokyo.

She ended up winning two silver medals (200 fly, 400 medley relay) and one bronze (100 back) at her first Olympics, not bad results by any stretch but enough to leave Smith eager for more.

My biggest dream is to be an Olympic gold medalist,” Smith said. “I don’t want to live in the past, but I was set up so well. Anything could have happened, but then something bad really did happen, and things were on hold. It was really hard to feel your dreams that close within your reach and then have them pulled like that, so that was really unfortunate. I’ve been thinking about that every single day in the pool, and I thought about that when I made my decision. That’s my goal going forward. I want to be an Olympic gold medalist in Paris. If that happens or not, I don’t know, but I’m going to do everything in my power to try to make that happen.”

In the past, Smith has been reticent to state time goals, but this week, she verbalized some ambitious marks that she wants to hit: under 2:03 in the 200 back, under 2:05 in the 200 fly and under her best time of 57.57 in the 100 back. She wants to see what she can do in the 200 free and 200 IM as well, although neither of those events is a likely addition to her program for major competitions. The backstrokes and the 200 fly remain her primary focus, and she is fully convinced that training under Bowman will get her back to that elite speed.

“I feel like that maybe in the past I didn’t put out those times because then it creates this expectation,” Smith said. “I’m trying to work on being more confident mentally. I recognize when I say those times that it may not happen, and is it the end of the world? No. I’m going to do everything in my power to reach those goals, and I’m going to work as hard as I can and do everything I can, but at the end of the day, if it happens, it happens, and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t, but I know that I did everything in my power. There’s nothing scary about saying times out loud.”

Subscribe
Notify of
avatar
1 Comment
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
avatar
dscott
1 month ago

A Champion is willing to take a risk to step out to maximize possibilities. Best wishes to you Reagan.

1
0
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
()
x