Leah Smith Is In Elite Company

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

By Alec Scott, Swimming World College Intern

The rise of Katie Ledecky into possibly the most dominant female swimmer of all time has redefined distance swimming. During which time Leah Smith has somewhat quietly become one of the best middle-distance freestylers of all time.

Smith’s 4:00.65 400 meter freestyle from the 2016 US Olympic trials in Omaha, Nebraska, sits right now as the fourth fastest performance in history. The only women ahead of her are Ledecky, Italy’s Federica Pellegrini, and Great Britain’s Joanne Jackson. Consider that Pellegrini and Jackson’s performances were done in rubber suits at the infamous 2009 World Championships in Rome where 43 world records fell and you have a strong case that Smith’s 400 freestyle is the best swim in the event by a woman not named Katie Ledecky.

It points to Ledecky’s dominance as well as the quality of Smith’s time when you consider that they are the only women to go under 4:01 in the 400 meter freestyle in a textile suit. International superstars like Allison Schmitt, Katie Hoff, Laure Manaudou, Rebbecca Addlington and the late Camille Muffat were unable to break that 4:01 barrier. The fact that Smith has done it has gone largely unnoticed due to Ledecky lowering the world record by such large margin.

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Photo Courtesy: David E. Klutho-USA TODAY Sports

On the biggest stage of her career Smith showed her class in in winning an individual bronze medal in the 400 freestyle and capturing gold as part of the 4×200 meter freestyle relay at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Jainero. While her performances in Rio were certainly her most noteworthy, Smith has been a steady performer for Team USA for a few years now.

She made her first national team in 2014 and won her first international gold as part of the 4×200 freestyle relay at the 2014 Pan Pacific Championships in Gold Coast, Australia. At the 2016 short course World Championships in Windsor, Canada, Smith won gold in the 400 meter freestyle and set an American Record in the preliminaries of the 800 meter freestyle before capturing the world title in finals.

She has also been a standout at the college level competing for the Virginia Cavaliers where she has won four individual NCAA championships in three seasons. Smith also stands as the second fastest performer in history in the 500 yard freestyle behind only Ledecky, and the third fastest performer in history in the 1650 yard freestyle where she trails only Ledecky and Hoff.

One place where Smith is wholly appreciated is her hometown of Pittsburgh. Before she competed in the Olympics she got a good luck message from Pittsburgh Steelers all-pro wide receiver Antonio Brown.

When Smith takes on Ledecky again this spring at the NCAA Championships in Indianapolis swim fans should be mindful of the fact that while Ledecky will undoubtedly put together some jaw-dropping performances, Smith may just swim some of the most impressive times in history alongside her.

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

2 comments

  1. avatar
    YY

    The epic 400m race between Camille Muffat and Allison Schmitt in London was among most exiting events of the meet. The race where both swimmers broke the world record. At last Olympics we had the race of same intensity between Jazmin Carlin and Leah Smith who also showed 4:01. Nobody really paid attention to their times. It is not fair.

  2. Pat Kennedy

    Great article. All if Pittsburgh is very proud of Miss Leah.