Kieran Smith Achieves Commanding 400 Free Victory, Ready to Take Next Steps in Tokyo

kieran-smith
Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Kieran Smith Achieves Commanding 400 Free Victory, Ready to Take Next Steps in Tokyo

Prior to the men’s 400 freestyle final at Olympic Trials, Kieran Smith felt the nerves creeping in — even as the favorite in a relatively weak field, with no American a lock to reach the Olympic “A” cut of 3:46.78. “I had to tell myself I belonged here, that I belonged in the position that I put myself in.”

But from the start, there was never any doubt that Smith would win easily, and indeed, the rising senior at the University of Florida dominated from start to finish. The only intial doubt was whether Smith would get under the “A” cut, but he ended up challenging the American record pace for much of the race, holding 28-mid and 29-low splits, and he pulled away from his closest competition on the final length. Smith swam a time of 3:44.86, crushing his previous lifetime best of 3:47.71, and he won the race by more than three seconds. While the men’s 400 free was considered an event of significant concern prior to the Trials, Smith did jump into the top 10 in the world (among swimmers qualified for Tokyo) with his effort, but only a tie for 8th.

“It’s a pretty good feeling. I’m really excited with that swim and I’m looking forward to improving upon that against the rest of the world,” Smith said after the race. “After this morning, I saw that the top eight was wide open, and I was not concerned about time tonight, and I wanted to make sure there weren’t two guys that could beat me.”

Smith had posted significant success in short course yards competition over the past few years, including crushing the American record in the 500-yard free in February in 4:06.32. He also won the NCAA title in the 200-yard free earlier this year. After swimming no long course championship meets for two years thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, Smith seemed poised to explode onto the long course scene at Olympic Trials, and he delivered to capture his first Olympic berth. Still, Smith has had challenges in trying to convert his short course success into the 50-meter course.

“For me, the biggest challenge is carrying my momentum from halfway down the pool to the wall,” Smith said. “Growing up, I didn’t have much access to a long course pool, so that was something I kind of struggled with in long course. Since coming to Florida, I’ve been able to develop some better power, some better efficiency with my stroke to carry me all the way down the pool. The 500, it’s fun because you get a wall every 11 or 12 seconds, but the long course pool is the big boy pool.”

Smith will again be the Trials favorite in the 200 free, which begins Monday morning in Omaha. Smith is the top-ranked American in the world at 1:46.30, but he will again need to drop significant time in order to jump into the medal range. His results will also be critical looking ahead to the men’s 800 free relay in Tokyo, where the Americans look like heavy underdogs right now after Great Britain, Russia and Australia have posted very impressive efforts at their respective Olympic Trials.

But in the meantime, Smith said, “I’m pretty confident for tomorrow. I think I’ll sleep pretty well tonight.”

Smith was the only swimmer to eclipse the FINA “A” cut and earn a spot in the race in Tokyo. Carmel’s Jake Mitchell was fifth with 50 meters to go, more than a half-second out of second place, but he sprinted home in 27.79, much faster than anyone else in the field besides Smith, and it was good enough to put Mitchell into second. He touched in 3:48.17, good enough to touch out NC State’s Ross Dant (3:48.30), DART’s Chris Weiser (3:48.42) and Arizona’s Brooks Fail (3:48.47).

No American won a medal in the 400 free at the 2016 Olympics, where the retired pair of Conor Dwyer and Connor Jaeger took fourth and fifth, respectively, and they did not medal at either the 2017 or 2019 World Championships, with only Zane Grothe finishing at the back of the final on both occasions. Previously, the Americans had won bronze at four straight Olympics, with Klete Keller in 2000 and 2004, Larsen Jensen in 2008 and Peter Vanderkaay in 2012.

Smith recognizes that he will have some work to do to put himself in medal territory at the Olympics, particularly after seeing four Australian men swim quicker times at their Trials the day earlier. While Smith was happy with the first half of his swim, which he called “comfortable,” he knows that 29-low splits on the sixth and seventh 50s won’t get the job done against tough international competition in Tokyo.

“I think 3:44 for right now is pretty good,” he said. “I don’t know where I rank in the world right now. Hopefully it’s top-eight or top-10. There’s definitely a little bit more work to do. The back half wasn’t perfect. I probably have a little bit more to give on the third-to-last 50 and second-to-last 50, but I think once I get thrown into a tight race, I’ll be able to do my best for Team USA.”

Results:

  1. Kieran Smith 3:44.86
  2. Jake Mitchell 3:48.17
  3. Ross Dant 3:48.30
  4. Chris Weiser 3:48.42
  5. Brooks Fail 3:48.47
  6. Trey Freeman 3:49.07
  7. Mitch D’Arrigo 3:50.87
  8. Andrew Abruzzo 3:51.45

World Rankings:

  1. Elijah Winnington, AUS, 3:42.65
  2. Jack McLoughlin, AUS, 3:43.27
  3. Martin Malyutin, RUS, 3:44.18
  4. Florian Wellbrock, GER, 3:44.35
  5. Felix Auböck, AUT, 3:44.51
  6. Gabriele Detti, ITA, 3:44.65
  7. Marco de Tullio, ITA, 3:44.74
  8. Lukas Martens, GER, 3:44.86
  9. Kieran Smith, USA, 3:44.86
  10. Danas Rapsys, LTU, 3:45.39

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