Leah Smith Has Message for UVA Women on Champion’s Mojo Podcast

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An Olympic gold medalist, world champion and multiple time NCAA Champion, Leah Smith is arguably the best distance swimmer the United States has had in the last decade, besides Katie Ledecky.

In this exclusive interview with Kelly Palace and Maria Parker of the Champion’s Mojo Podcast, Leah has a message for the University of Virginia women’s swim team as it goes into the championship season. Leah also discusses her practice of taking an endurance race out hard and holding on. You’ll love listening to Leah’s tough mindset and her thoughts on racing and life.

Below is an abridged Q & A of the interview with Leah Smith. You can listen to the full podcast episode #51 at www.ChampionsMojo.com.

Champion’s Mojo: Leah, welcome to the Champion’s Mojo podcast. Catch us up on where you are in the world and how your training is going and what your life is like right now?

Leah Smith: I’m training in Tucson, Arizona and gearing up for 2020, just fine tuning some things, getting ready for a big spring and summer of racing. And I’m getting really excited about that.

Champion’s Mojo: How are you feeling? Are you feeling strong?

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Leah Smith: I am feeling strong. I think that I have been over the past three years. I probably wouldn’t have mapped out my career or my life the way that it has gone. But I do think that I am feeling really strong and I’m very excited to see what I can do.

Champion’s Mojo: Are you generally a planner and things didn’t go the way you maybe planned or mapped them?

Leah Smith: In college I was extremely disorganized with everything. I had a planner and I never filled it out. Now I have an extremely detailed Google calendar. It reminds me of my events like five times a day. I have my Alexa read me my schedule every morning. I have a little schedule hanging up in my apartment. I like to plan out a lot of things. So I think I’ve really grown in that respect. As far as mapping out where my career has gone, it’s not really measuring up to where I thought I’d be. It’s more just that you can’t really predict the future. And I think that I’ve really learned to roll with the punches and adapt to things.

Champion’s Mojo: Did you think you’d be an Olympian?

Leah Smith: When I was 10, I started to think that that’s what I wanted to do because I saw it as this very clear path of just checking off these boxes. You make Zones and you check that off and you make Sectionals and you check that off. And each step after the other had a very clear path to the next thing. So naturally I thought, well, what’s the next step? And as I mapped it out, the highest one was the Olympics. So I just thought, well, if I’ve checked off all of these boxes already, I could just keep going. And, you know, to my 10 year old self, maybe that’s not giving credit to how hard the journey to the Olympics can be. But I think I did see that for myself as a possibility. There was never a moment where I said I could never do that.

Champion’s Mojo: If you wrote a letter back to your 10 year old self right now, what would you say?

Leah Smith: I wonder what I would say. Maybe I would say do everything that you want to do. Maybe I wouldn’t change anything. Maybe I wouldn’t read a letter because I don’t know that I would want my life to be too different from how it is right now. I think it’s easy to wish that things had never happened to you or they had never worked out the way that they did. But then you wouldn’t be yourself and you wouldn’t be the person that you are today. And I think I’ve learned so much. There’s things that I regret. But at the same time, I don’t regret the way I handled myself in certain situations. If everything in my life had gone perfectly so far, I don’t think that I would be the same person or know the same people or have the same friends.

Champion’s Mojo: What’s the biggest obstacle you think you’ve been through?

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Leah Smith; Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Leah Smith: I think I’ve had some various coaching changes in my career at different times. And I think that of course, I put a lot of stock into coaching and the trust that you have to have and just the relationship that you have and how much they can propel your career. But I think that maybe in the past I didn’t put enough stock in myself and what I could do for myself. And I think that that’s one of the things that I’ve really learned. The coach that I committed to in college isn’t who I ended up swimming for, and I had to adjust to that. And then after I finished college, my coach took another job. And I remember after that, so many people kept asking me what I was going to do. I really wanted to take time to think about it and think, what do I want? And I remember I actually took two months off of swimming after Worlds in 2017. It wasn’t what I would have mapped out. But I think it did allow me to do something for myself and to make a decision by myself, which was really hard because I had just finished up college where so many things are done for you and you don’t really have to make too many big decisions because you’re just part of a team. But when you’re on your own and you’re a professional, you have to make those by yourself. And I wanted to make sure that I knew what I was getting myself into and that I made a decision for myself.

Champion’s Mojo: So your coaching changes have been a lot. You’re training in Tucson, at the University of Arizona. Who is actually coaching you on a daily basis and what is a day in the life of training for Leah Smith?

Leah Smith: I guess a day in the life wouldn’t really cover it. Maybe a week in the life. We do two practices, three times a week. That’s on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. We do a single practice on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and we have Sunday off. I have a new coach that I’m swimming for, Peter Richardson, and he’s really great. And so Monday, Wednesday, Friday, I would say primarily is with him and the distance group. And then Tuesday, Thursday, the whole team is together. And usually Augie Busch writes that and it’s usually kind of a kick set that’s really challenging. It usually has some tough intervals. I really like those days because I can kind of see how I fare against people that are really good sprinting, kicking type people. And usually before the kicks the distance group will come in and do extra pulling. Out of the pool I actually lift and do physical therapy at the same place.They have a whole gym and everything and they have strength coaches. And so they took over my strength program, which has been great because I get to be on the same page with my physical therapy and my lifting and knowing what’s going to aggravate certain things. They’ve met my coaches too, which has been really awesome.

Champion’s Mojo: So what about when you’re not swimming or lifting? What’s your life like?

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Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Leah Smith: I would say I kind of have a strange schedule. I’ve really been into cooking my own food lately. So by the time I’m done cooking breakfast or just meal prepping in the morning, I don’t have as much time as it sounds before my next practice. My boyfriend lives in Colorado so he’ll come to Arizona and we go hiking. That’s like a big thing that I like to do. I love going on road trips or scenic drives. I love trying new restaurants. So those are my fun things. I think right now I’m a pretty big foodie.

Champion’s Mojo: So which do you enjoy more, cooking, or going out?

Leah Smith: So I enjoy both. I think I love seeing new restaurants and finding little foodie spots. But at the same time, I think that also inspires me to say, well, I could try to make this. Growing up I had three other siblings and my mom did a lot of bulk shopping at Costco. Sorry mom, but a lot of it was kind of like frozen type food. If you told me I could make bread that would blow my mind. That one day I could make bread. I think that when I realized I could make anything that I wanted it opened up a new world for me.

Champion’s Mojo: I have to get into your mindset of going through a tough 1650 or a 1500. I swam in college, 1650 was my best event. Maybe I was doing it wrong, but I was mostly in excruciating pain during that race. Are you in pain during your races?

Leah Smith: Yeah. Honestly, I really haven’t had too many where I wasn’t in excruciating pain. So many people asked me when I ventured into the 400 IM which was worse and every time I would say the mile. One of them is four and a half minutes, the other is sixteen minutes of pain. I do think there were times that I didn’t really swim it correctly. I was always someone that was so excited to be in the race. And my other races were just go, go, go. My coaches tried to get me to do each 500 faster, but every time it was like letting a horse out of its gates. I would just sprint the first 500 and then hold on for dear life. I didn’t have a lot of good miles doing that. The pain that you can get into is just, I can’t explain it to somebody who hasn’t done it.

Champion’s Mojo: What are you thinking during the long races when you’re at the 500 and you’re like, my gosh, I am in so much pain right now and I have ten more minutes to swim. What do you say?

Leah Smith: My friends and I in college went back and forth on which was the worst lap of the mile and it was really all over the place. I always thought that it was after you finished the thousand. That was always the worst for me. My friends kind of said it was like the 1350 range where you’ve done a ton already, but you still have like a 300 left and you probably in your head said that when there’s a 300 left I’ll pick it up. And then each lap you kind of say, maybe at the 1500 I’ll do that. And then it’s the last twenty five. I think I had a lot of different miles that kind of prepped me for different things that I would eventually experience later in my career.

So my first big mile was at ACCs my freshman year and Stephanie Peacock was leading and I was behind. I had won the 500 so I expected to be more in the race than I was in the beginning. If things aren’t going the way that you want them you kind of have this self talk where you’re like, maybe I’m not as tough as I thought I was. Is this all I have? And that kind of prepared me for NCAAs a few weeks later. I had a rough 200 free and didn’t make it back. I had a rough 500.

I was seeded first and ended up 11th in prelims. I was ninth in finals but was stuck in the B-final. So for the mile, I knew that I was in the timed final and I knew that I had to just lay it all out there. And I did. And around maybe like the 1200 mark, there were two girls that started to gain on me that had swum it kind of negative split. I remember telling my friends after the race that I said I saw Jesus because I was in so much pain. You have so much self talk that goes on just convincing yourself that you are OK, that you’re not in pain. That was really where it was, the dialog in your head where you’re like, I don’t know if I can do this. Like I am really dying. And then kind of like another side of you is like, no, you can do this. You train for this. You did not put in all this time to back off now. I think tapping into that can be really important and also tapping into the fact that maybe you had some negative self talk in your race earlier in the race, but then you kept going and now suddenly you actually are in a pretty good spot.

Champion’s Mojo: I think that’s huge. And I hope all mile swimmers that are listening to this realize that you might feel terrible at the 500 and then at the thousand you might feel better. So, that’s a beautiful point. Is that something you’ve seen in other parts of your life?

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Photo Courtesy: SIPA USA

Leah Smith: I think that if there’s parts of my personal life or different things going on outside of the pool, I’ve sort of thought, yeah, this might be really, really tough right now, but I’m gonna stick it out. And I know it’s not going to be tough forever and I know that I’ll be better off after it. Sometimes even if it is swimming and it is going really tough for you for a while, sometimes taking a step back and saying, I’m not just a swimmer, this isn’t my complete self worth and it’s just swimming. That has really helped me in the past, realizing that it’s not my entire life.

Champion’s Mojo: What commonalities do you think that champions share?

Leah Smith: The biggest thing for me is probably confidence. And that’s something that is definitely internal. But from an outsider’s perspective, you can tell when someone is confident and I think that gives a lot of champions an edge. I think that I have confidence naturally based on my personality. But I’ve also had to harness it. In the past I’ve had a lot of self-doubt. But I’ve had to kind of work with that and become more confident. And I think that’s something that a lot of champions have in common, is that they’ve been kind of curating that and working on it for years to the point where you really trust in yourself and you trust in your training. So you can use that to carry you out of a rough patch and keep moving forward, as well as using it day to day.

Champion’s Mojo: So who has inspired you or been a mentor or somebody that’s really encouraged your swimming career?

Leah Smith: That’s a tough one because there’s so many. Joining the national team in 2014 I was such a rookie and I really looked up to the whole team. I was 19. I felt like such a little kid. I just tried to soak up everything anyone said. The next summer, in 2015, I got closer to Katie Meili and Elizabeth Beisel. Those are two girls that have really inspired me because I think that they’re just really great people as well as amazing swimmers. I’ve really harnessed their advice at different times. I swim in Tucson with Mack Rivers and he always has little bits and pieces of wisdom that I hang on to. I think that’s something that a lot more people should take advantage of, that you’re going to meet so many people who will impact you in different ways. I think soaking up what people say can really help you.

Champion’s Mojo: I want to ask you about that period of reflection after you graduated and you had to decide, do I continue training, or am I maybe done with swimming. Was that hard? Did you have to be by yourself to do that? How did that affect your confidence going through that decision making process?

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Leah Smith: I definitely think that I’ve gained confidence. I mean, each thing that I do by myself and kind of all these decisions that I make for myself, I gain confidence each time, just knowing that I really can handle this and I can handle it by myself. And that’s not to say I haven’t had a lot of people help me out in different places of my life. But I do think there have been some tough spots in my life that I’ve had to reflect and do things on my own. I think a lot of people struggle to leave their college towns, especially if you maybe have something keeping you around. It is kind of like a little safety blanket. It broke my heart to think of leaving my friends. But at the same time, I felt like what I had reflected on and what was good for me was trying something new. And I knew that part of me was really scared to do it. I was afraid of change, but I knew that that was what was best for me.

Champion’s Mojo: Do you think that women can compete against each other head to head and still be friends?

Leah Smith: I do, yeah. I made the 400 IM for the World Championships in Budapest. So did Elizabeth Beisel. The week before we did a Gregg Troy 400 IM practice. There wasn’t really a lot of pool space that day and Beisel and I did it in the same lane right next to each other. I remember her and I were just going head to head. And at the same time that in my head I’m thinking I want to do really well in this practice. I’m also thinking like, this is really cool. I’m going stroke for stroke with her. And I know that she thought the same thing too because, after it she was like, wow you just crushed that practice. And we were really proud of each other. I am sure that she wanted to win and so did I. But we both appreciated that the other was doing something really cool. And I think taking a step back and making sure that, yeah I want to be in touch with my goals, but at the same time I want to appreciate what other people are doing. And I have a lot of friends that I swim against. Sometimes it can be tense with different people.There’s something to be said for being a competitor or being in the zone right before your race. But if you are respectful about it and you don’t carry it home with you then of course women can be friends.

Champion’s Mojo: I love that and any and I’ve had a lot of swimmers recommend you for the podcast because you’re so fun to hear. You’re funny and you’re adventurous. What are your thoughts on that? Leah Smith Smith is known as just being really fun to be around.

Leah Smith: Thank you. Yeah. I think where I excel is in a group of people where we’re all just like talking and we’re just exchanging stories or doing impersonations or just honestly being really silly. That’s where I’m having the most fun before warm ups. It’s not too close to the meet where people are getting into meet mode. We’re kind of just being loose and silly. That’s really where I feel like I excel. And I feel like maybe I’ve channeled Elizabeth Beisel a little bit. She was just electric when we were on the national team together. And I always felt like you could hear her laughing from miles away. I just kind of like making everyone laugh. And yeah, I like to enjoy myself. People have asked, when do you think you’ll be done with swimming? And there’s no real concrete time in my head. I think I’ll be done with swimming when I’m not enjoying it anymore.

Champion’s Mojo: What would you like to go into after swimming?

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Leah Smith: So I majored in media studies at UVA. And, with that in mind, I kind of had an idea that I wanted to go into marketing or advertising. But, you know, recently I’ve had the idea that, like, do I really want to make people buy more stuff? I have this kind of moral dilemma. I might be really good at marketing. But then at the same time, maybe I should work with a nonprofit. My boyfriend and his former teammate at UVA and another swimmer from Clemson started a nonprofit in Nicaragua that helps kids there who are really disadvantaged learn how to swim, as well as helping to pay their tuition. I think that really inspired me to think about how everyone has these big goals they want to achieve. But there is also something to be said for devoting yourself to something that’s way bigger than what you want to achieve.

Champion’s Mojo: So it sounds like you thought about what would make the world a better place.

Leah Smith: Maybe if I could find overlap between what would make the world a better place and kind of my creative side, maybe that could be something that I want to do.

Champion’s Mojo: Last question, your Alma Mater the University of Virginia (UVA) women’s swim team is poised to have an outstanding season this year. What would you tell the UVA women going into this championship season?

Leah Smith: I would just say, I’m just so proud of them even though I might not know all of them. I think I really mostly only know the seniors because that’s who I swim with and it’s a different coaching staff. But I am just really, really proud of them. And as an alumni, I think about something that I wanted to hear so much from my alumni when I was on the team. And I think that that’s really what I want to tell them. I’m proud of them. I’m cheering for them. I’m always so happy for them. And I have a lot of pride in my team and I feel like I’ll always have like a special piece of them in my heart. So, yeah, even when I don’t know everyone on the team.

Champion’s Mojo: Leah Smith, thank you so much for your terrific interview. We’re going to be cheering for you. Best of luck.

Leah Smith: Thanks so much!

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