Kieran Smith Hopes Stellar Sophomore Year Is Just The Beginning

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Kieran Smith had a huge sophomore season. But it was only the beginning. Photo Courtesy: Connor Trimble

Kieran Smith’s breakout sophomore year is a sign of bigger things to come for the Ridgefield, Connecticut native.

When the NCAA cancelled its winter championships last month due to the coronavirus that has affected the entire world, it was a huge blow to all involved. Coaches and athletes would miss out on seeing their hard work pay off, left to wonder what could have been. Fans of swimming missed out on seeing records, a tight team race – all the things that make the NCAAs so enjoyable.

Florida sophomore Kieran Smith was an athlete who many were itching to see. In February at the SEC Championships, Smith broke the American record in the 500 freestyle with a 4:06.32. The night before, he led off the 800 free relay with a 1:30.11, which put him fourth all-time in the 200 freestyle. With the NCAA cancellation, he missed out on an encore performance where he could have gone even faster. It was a disappointing end to the year, but he knew it was the necessary precaution.

“When everything started to unravel, I was disappointed at first,” Smith said. “But I knew it was necessary after how fast everything started to move and ultimately, it was the best decision for public health. I got back from Florida on Monday (last week) and I’ve been doing a good job of self-isolation and following social guidelines.”

Smith is back home in Connecticut where he is trying to stay in shape on land as best as possible so that whenever the quarantine is lifted, he can hit the ground (pool) running. The Olympics have officially been moved back to 2021, meaning the dire need for training is lessened.

Being out of the pool is hard, especially because no one knows when it will be safe to train again. Smith views the water as therapeutic but is finding ways to fill that void.

“It’s really good to clear my head,” Smith said of swimming. “I’m just trying to keep my mental game strong. Kind of taking time to find an edge over your competition while I have the time. It’ll probably end up being the longest period in recent memory without swimming.”

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Kieran Smith at US Nationals in August. Photo Courtesy: Connor Trimble

Smith was on a roll in 2020. He had a fantastic SEC championships, breaking the 500 free American record. Heading into the meet, his goal was a 4:08, which would have been right around the NCAA record of 4:08.42 set in 2017 by Clark Smith.

Kieran Smith’s best time was a 4:18 from a January duel meet against Tennessee this season, so a 4:08 was realistic, but he didn’t know what he was capable of yet. He not only blew that 4:08 goal out of the water, but he also lowered the American record that Zane Grothe set in 2017 (4:07.25).

“I can’t say that I expected a record like that or a big swim like that,” Smith said. “When I was writing down my goals before the meet, it’s kind of hard to imagine something or write something down that someone hasn’t done before. So usually I don’t go under my goal times, but I blew my goal times out of the water which was surprising but very rewarding at the same time.”

Smith led off the 800 free relay to start the championships, using that as an opportunity to swim the 200 free from a flat start since he would do the 400 IM at SECs.

“I thought that was going to be my best race of the weekend,” Smith said of the 800 free relay. “I was spot-on where I thought I could have been. I didn’t swim it very pretty, because I went out a little fast. I was very very excited to get the meet going.”

Two nights in a row, Smith was on fire. And all of a sudden he was the hot ticket in NCAA swimming. People wanted to see what he could do next. Taking after what former Gators Caeleb Dressel and Ryan Lochte did in year’s past in their college careers.

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Kieran Smith representing the United States at the 2017 World Juniors. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Kieran Smith had been thought of as a rising star when he made the national junior team in high school. But he’d been known as an IM’er at Ridgefield Aquatic Club under Emmanuel Lanzo. In 2017, he made the World Juniors team in the 200 & 400 IM and 200 back. In his first trip with Team USA, Smith won a silver medal in the 200 IM and was fourth in the 400.

When he joined the Gators in the fall of 2018, he was still thought of as an IMer, reaching the A-Final in both the 200 & 400 IM at NCAAs in 2019.

But this year, Smith branched out to the 200 & 500 free, putting up the top dual-meet time in the 200 at 1:33. He insists his recent freestyle success came from his medley background, which is still in his training repertoire.

“In high school I like to think I was an IMer with a really good freestyle. Now I am a freestyler with a really good IM,” Smith said. “I’m still a medley swimmer and I still train IM all the time. The training for freestyle and IM benefit each other so much and I think it’s really helping that I get to do both.”

“I’m still doing all my power stuff for IM. Last year I did mostly IM quality. This year we have shifted towards one day of freestyle quality and one day of IM quality. I’m doing a tiny bit more freestyle but I’m still keeping all the strokes in check and tune. I’m just making sure to hit all the cylinders.”

Smith made a big jump from his freshman year. He did not have a bad rookie year by any means, scoring in all three of his events, finishing seventh in the 400 IM and eighth in the 200 IM. In the 200 back, he received Honorable Mention All-American honors with a 15th place.

He had all best times and nothing to complain about. But Smith admits he knew he hadn’t hit his potential yet as a freshman. He knew how to train in the pool, but the added weight training was a big shock to him.

This year’s improvement started with the work he put in during the summer. That was when he started to hit his stride in the weight room, improving his strength-to-weight ratio. At US Nationals in August, he was second in the 200 free (1:46.25), fourth in the 400 IM (4:15.17) and fifth in the 200 IM (2:00.14), with best times in all three.

Nationals was the meet he needed mentally. Long-course was the Gators’ focus this season as an Olympic year (before the postponement). Coach Anthony Nesty decided not to take a group to the November Georgia Tech Invite, which was held in yards, to instead focus on the US Open, which was held in long-course, two weeks later in Atlanta.

At that meet in December, Smith was second in the 400 free with a 3:47.72, the second-fastest time by any American man in the 2019 calendar year.

Being withheld from a short-course rested meet gave Smith the hunger he needed to attack SECs. Though Florida was the seven-time defending champion, it faced plenty of doubt than an eighth title would follow. The Gators lost guys to transfers, including a major contributor in Maxime Rooney. Sophomore Trey Freeman had decided to redshirt to nurse an injury.

But the Gators also had a lot to prove. Smith – as well as fellow sophomore Bobby Finke, senior Khader Baqlah and junior Clark Beach – did not swim at the mid-season invite, leaving them with slower entry times for the postseason.

“I was itching to suit up for a short course meet all year and I think I can speak for a lot of the guys that went to the US Open,” Kieran Smith said. “It was really good strategy. Nesty said we are not showing any of our cards yet. Everyone else was playing their cards and we all know where they are at. No one knew what we were going to do yet and I think it helped us a lot.”

They quickly lost that underdog tag by winning the 800 free relay, thanks in part to Smith’s lead-off. And the Gators took off from there.

Two nights later, Florida went 1-2-3 in the 400 IM with Smith leading the way ahead of senior Grant Sanders and Finke. Baqlah won the 200 freestyle, recapturing the conference title that he won in 2018. Smith was the first one to congratulate Baqlah behind the blocks.

“That was amazing,” Smith said. “He kind of struggled with his mind game in the 500 free. He didn’t have the best swim and added a couple seconds. I don’t know what he did before that 200 free but he shifted his mind and his gear into another planet because he swam that race so gutsy and he swam it perfectly. And after he got third last year as the defending champion, I was so happy for him to be back on the top of the podium. He deserved it.”

All in all, they helped Florida win that eighth straight SEC title.

“The team culture and the environment is so much better than last year,” Smith said. “Despite losing points on paper, we ended up gaining a lot of points from guys that really stepped up. Our senior class is going to be a big loss next year. They all did their part this year in leadership and in the pool. We all performed the way we needed to in order to win, and we over-performed because we won by over 200 points, which was incredible.”

Florida was seeded for a top four finish at NCAAs but didn’t get that chance.

Now the mindset shifts away from swimming. Back in Connecticut, Kieran Smith is focused on finishing off his sophomore year remotely and staying in shape by biking, core workouts on the track, and running on the street. Academics is taking the main focus before quarantine ends and he heads back to the pool to try and attack the 2021 Olympic Trials, where he is aiming to make his first Team USA senior team.

“That’s the end all, be all for our sport,” he said. “To represent the United States is a great honor. It helps represent something bigger than yourself, which is something I really enjoy doing. I want to go down as a name to remember, so the Olympics is a good way to start.”

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Kieran Smith hopes to wear the USA flag on his cap again at the 2021 Olympics. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick