Exclusive: Regan Smith Handling Stresses and Regaining Her Mojo in Time for Olympic Trials

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Regan Smith at the TYR Pro Swim Series in Indianapolis -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Regan Smith Handling Stresses and Regaining Her Mojo in Time for Olympic Trials

Over three astonishing days, 17-year-old Regan Smith made the best swimmers in the world look pedestrian, and she made a mockery of all previous records in the backstroke events. Smith had been a rising star since she qualified for her first World Championships at age 15. From there, she continued to improve upon her own best times season after season, so the natural progression would be world title contention, but this monumental leap was simply improbable.

At the 2019 World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea, Smith crushed Missy Franklin’s seven-year-old world record in the semifinals of the 200 backstroke. The next day, she captured her first world title by 2.57 seconds, and a day after that, she swam the leadoff leg on the U.S. women’s 400 medley relay and crushed Kathleen Baker’s 100 backstroke world record. Racing against a field of backstrokers that included two-time world champion Kylie Masse, Smith led the field by more than a bodylength.

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Regan Smith after breaking the 100 back world record at hte 2019 World Championships — Photo Courtesy: Patrick B. Kraemer

Beforehand, Smith had no idea that she was about to make a colossal leap forward. On the other hand, Mike Parratto, her coach at Riptide Swim Team, figured she would be in that range thanks to her training and her mental preparation, but Smith said, “he’s very good at not communicating what he thinks I’m going to do, and I don’t want him to.” Looking back on the leadup to the 2019 Worlds, Smith remembers swimming amazingly well every day in practice and at meets, although she admitted, “I don’t know if that’s warped because of how the summer went.”

The 2019 success set up Smith for the Olympic year as the overwhelming favorite for Olympic gold in both the 100 and 200 back, and Smith began 2020 still riding a wave of momentum, but the COVID-19 pandemic squashed that when the Olympics were postponed a year to 2021. “I think putting things on hold and putting things at a stop was very strange, and I think I kind of lost my mojo, just because the hype was really building for me but I wasn’t doing anything performance-wise to back it up,” Smith said.

Like most swimmers around the country, Smith was out of training for several months. During the initial post-lockdown buildup, Smith tried to view the delay as a positive, with 12 extra months to improve, but her initial stretch of training was limited, and her confidence, built primarily through her meticulous preparation, gradually eroded. The result was the toughest stretch of Smith’s career.

“By the time August rolled around, training was really rough because we weren’t doing as much as we had been and I wasn’t going as fast as I had normally been going in practice,” Smith said. “Backstroke, in particular, felt really rough. I remember it got to the point where I would avoid backstroke and do butterfly instead, just because backstroke felt so funky. Nobody really wants to do fly in practice.”

Her first national-level meet after the pandemic began was the November 2020 U.S. Open in Des Moines, “where I honestly kind of tanked.” Her swims at that meet included a 59.95 100 back, 2:11.74 200 back, 58.09 100 fly and 2:08.61 200 fly, nothing awful by any stretch but not close to the level she expected of herself.

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Regan Smith, Kelsi Dahlia, Lilly King and Simone Manuel celebrate winning gold in the women’s 400 medley relay at the 2019 FINA World Championships — Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

For years, Smith’s career had progressed along a straight line sloped upwards, with each season building on the previous as her stock skyrocketed upwards. She went from qualifying for her first Worlds team in 2017 and making a final to winning her first national title and her first international medal at the Pan Pacific Championships in 2018. In 2019, American records in short course yards racing preceded winning world titles and setting world records in the summer. She was constantly knocking chunks off her lifetime bests and even expanding her repertoire of events, particularly into the 100 and 200 butterfly.

Now, for the first time, her momentum was halted, the sense of can-do-no-wrong broken by the pandemic.

After that, Smith’s path to regaining her confidence was through practice. During the fall, she said, “I was killing myself to get back to where I wanted to be,” but she continued missing her practice goal times and struggling in sets. But finally, the long-awaited breakthrough came in December, when a new COVID spike in Minnesota halted all high school sports but a provision in the governor’s order allowed college-aged athletes to continue practicing.

“Practice was super small, one to a lane. They were just awesome. They got really difficult, but it was a lot less stressful, a lot less people in the pool. I really got to focus on me,” Smith said. “I really feel like I found myself again because I’d been struggling for so long, and then all the sudden, it was just like a switch flipped and suddenly, I was just doing really great again and I feel like myself again. I feel like I’ve just been kind of riding that wave ever since Christmas break, and I think that’s what started to get my confidence back where I needed to be.”


Regan Smith Building Back Up After Challenging Year

Smith’s father, Paul, who is on staff at Riptide Swim Team, described Regan as “not remotely an extrovert,” and she has a small group of close friends who are mainly swimmers. Mostly, she’s a normal teenager who is “on her phone too much, looking at TikToks,” and she can be a bit obsessive-compulsive about certain aspects of her routine, like watching the same show over and over.

“She can be as goofy and funny as anyone I know, but it’s selective,” Paul said. “It has to be in a safe place. She has to be in the right mood. And then all the sudden, she can just be a complete goofball. And people don’t really see that side of her.”

Given the one-year delay of the Olympic Games and the state of the world in the fall of 2020, Smith decided to defer her enrollment at Stanford by one year. “I think moving on without finishing this chapter with Mike just wouldn’t have been the right thing to do,” Smith said. “It didn’t feel right in my heart.”

Smith, now 19, said she has not enjoyed being one of the oldest swimmers in her practice group and feeling like the “old lady,” but she has enjoyed the extra year at home in Minnesota. The year has helped melt away some of the anxiety she felt about leaving.

“Before college last year, before COVID, I every day would wake up and be nervous about going to school in the fall. I was so excited, but I didn’t feel quite ready to leave,” she said. “But I now feel like I’m ready. I don’t feel as scared and terrified as I was last year. I think COVID taught me that the world is very small. You’re not as far away as you think you are. It’s not the end of the world. It’ll be a change, but it’s nothing to lose sleep over and freak out over. It’s just another part of life.”

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Regan Smith at the TYR Pro Swim Series in Indianapolis in May 2021 — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Now, as the gap year approaches its endpoint with Olympic Trials just weeks away, Smith enters a realm that carries a lot more anxiety than she might have felt in 2020. Even though she has regained confidence in her swimming, in part through a string of recent in-season performances on par with those from the 2019 season, entering the Olympic season as the double world record-holder, the reigning dominant swimmer but now two years removed from that campaign, will bring some tension.

“It’s weird,” Smith said of her position, her solemn, pensive tone conveying her complex emotions. “If this were a year ago, I’d be like, ‘Sick. I just did those times a year ago. I’m ready to do them again.’ And now, I’m two years removed. We’ll see what happens.”

Smith’s challenge has been preparing herself to handle negative thoughts, the what-if-it-goes-wrong thought that spins through every swimmer’s mind before a significant race or through someone’s mind before an exam or a job interview. Sometimes, Smith will have that thought pop into her head at night, and when that happens, she reminds herself to breathe, that she is ready, and that everything is going to be OK. Returning her inner monologue to a positive framework has been critical.

“This meet’s going to be harder than it would have been in another year, but I think I’m up for the challenge, and I think I’m ready for it,” Smith said. “I don’t want to walk into the meet with that label of world record-holder on me because then I’m going to get too caught up in that and I’m going to let that affect me and add pressure, and that’s the last thing I want. I’m just me. I don’t want to walk in with that label on myself because I think I do better when I just swim as me and not as the world record-holder.”

Smith’s father explained that she has been accustomed to swimming under scrutiny since she was 10 and certainly through her experiences at national-level meets and World Championships over the past four years, and those situations have never been overwhelming for her. Every human feels pressure, but Smith has been very adept at not letting that diminish her performances. But Paul believes having to wait an extra year between opportunities to race at peak form has allowed more doubt than ever to creep in, specifically the need to prove that her remarkable accomplishments in 2019 were no fluke.

“I think it’s bothering her now more than in the past because when the clock turned over to January 2020, she was on a roll,” Paul Smith said. “She was aware of that pressure last year, but I don’t think she internalized it and I don’t think she was really worried about it. But now, she’s another year removed from that kind of lightning speed.”

Kaylee McKeown breaks Commonwealth and Australian Record, 100m BACKSTROKE Final, 2021 Sydney Open, Sydney Olympic Park Aquatic Centre , May 15 2021. Photo by Delly Carr / SOPAC. Pic credit is mandatory for complimentary editorial usage. I thank you in advance.

Australia’s Kaylee McKeown, the primary challenger to Regan Smith in both backstroke events for the 2021 Olympics

Ratcheting up the tension even more has been following the exploits Australia’s Kaylee McKeown, another 19-year-old who won silver behind Smith in the 200 back at the 2019 World Championship and has challenged Smith’s world records in the 100 and 200 back on multiple occasions this year. In May, McKeown swam a 57.63 100 back, just six hundredths off Smith’s world record, and she also went under 58 in December and has two other 58.1 performances in the past seven months. In the 200 back, McKeown is the third-fastest swimmer in history after recording a 2:04.31 in May, and she has also swum under 2:06 five additional times since November.

Smith admitted that it was tough to see McKeown begin her hot streak, particularly in late 2020 when Smith was struggling mightily, but recently, she has been able to view impressive results by McKeown and other competitors as motivational and positive. Smith even messaged McKeown after her recent stellar swims to congratulate her.

“It’s not cutthroat competition, even internationally,” Smith said. “I just want to use it as motivation and inspiration. What she’s doing right now is incredible, and it’s very inspiring to see. I think it’s helped me swim better and practice, and I think it’s helped me get better at meets. Just hats off to her, seriously. I really hope that I can make it to the Games, that we can compete against each other because I think it would be really special. I don’t want to be jealous, and I don’t want to be angry that she’s doing so fantastically when it’s been a little bit for me. I just want to use it as motivation remember that I’m capable of that, too. I’ve done that before, and I can do it again.”


The Final Stretch

The pandemic year of 2020 challenged every person to adapt to some new normal, to handle and deflect challenges they never could have anticipated. That sometimes meant learning to cope and finding fresh methods of maintaining sanity and new sources of inspiration for pushing through the frustration.

For Smith, that meant getting a puppy, a Pomsky (Pomeranian husky mix) named Kai that she got in September. That dog became her release and her comfort at a time when nothing felt normal and the future felt more uncertain and daunting.

“He’s been my stress reliever,” Smith said. He’s just been so great at helping me shake things off and distracting me. If I’m ever feeling like I’m not in control of my thoughts and I just need to get away, I go play with Kai. He’s just always there. He always wants to hang out with me. That dude has been my rock for almost nine months now. He’s just been one of the best parts about this whole past year. All the ups and downs, he’s just been there.”

Now, the eventful and far longer-than-expected journey has nearly reached its natural endpoint as Smith prepares to compete for a spot on her first Olympic team. The Olympic Trials will actually be her second as she competed as a 14-year-old in 2016, and she qualified for the semifinals of the 100 back, placing 13th. Now 19, Smith will return to Omaha to compete in four events, the 100 and 200 back and the 100 and 200 butterfly.

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Regan Smith at U.S. Nationals in 2019 — Photo Courtesy: Connor Trimble

She enters as the favorite in both backstroke events as the world record-holder, but the 100 back projects to be the most competitive event of the entire meet. The field features the previous world record-holder (Baker), the 2019 World Championship bronze medalist (Olivia Smoliga) and three other swimmers who have previously broken 59. Smith also ranks fifth in the U.S. in the 100 fly during the Olympic Trials qualifying period and second in the country in the 200 fly, so she stands a strong chance at qualifying for an Olympic berth in that event, as well.

No, she does not feel quite as poised and confident as she did in 2019, primarily due to the layoff and the competitive nature of her events, but she has gotten herself back to the point where it would be foolish to expect anything but her best over the next two months. Beyond anything else, Smith can be certain that she has done everything possible to be at her best at the right time.

“I’m nervous,” Smith admitted. “I’m sure everyone’s nervous. It’s going to be really tough. Every day, I’m trying to remind myself of what I’m capable of and what I’ve done in the past and how hard I’ve worked. I know how talented I am and I know I can do great things if I believe in myself.”

And even with the challenges and understandable anxiety ahead, Smith wants to soak in the experience of Olympic Trials and hopefully the Olympics as much as possible.

“This is something I’m going to look back on and remember for the rest of my life,” she said. “I just want to look back on it and have fond memories, no matter what the outcome is, just because this is an incredible experience that very few people get to experience. And that’s just what I want to try to remember because if I get too caught up in the stress and the nerves, that’s not what I want to be there for.”

1 comment

  1. avatar
    Ger

    Good article and it explains a lot. But questions remain unanswered because she hasn’t posted anything eye catching for a while. The 200’s should be ok for her as they are less competitive, but the 100 back might be a problem if she is not at her best. I can’t see her qualifying in the 100 butterfly. I just hope she’s feeling confident and in top form in June and we see her swimming fast again.