Her Confidence Booming, Regan Smith Ready to Take On the World

Regan Smith -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Her Confidence Booming, Regan Smith Ready to Take On the World

A joyous Regan Smith climbed out of the pool, a smile radiating pride, bliss and relief stressed across her face, and she raised her arms to an adoring crowd. For the first time in five years, since she was a 17-year-old breakout star who had never experienced serious adversity in the pool, Smith had broken a world record.

The feel was similar to that of the 2019 World Championships in Kazan, when Smith crushed Missy Franklin’s world record in the 200 backstroke and then the 100-meter mark as well when she led off the U.S. women’s 400 medley relay. Smith had not been ticketed for the relay slot, having not qualified for the individual 100-meter race that year, but her record in the 200 had been too much to ignore.

At that point, Smith was pre-ordained as a star of the upcoming Tokyo Olympics, but the sport can humble even the best, as Smith would soon find out. It would take a monumental comeback, one requiring a maturity uncommon among 22-year-olds, for Smith to find her way back.

When the Tokyo Games were delayed one year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Smith was already beginning to feel the weight of being the world-record holder, anointed the face of backstroke. plenty of teenagers used the extra time to make improvements and make a team they would not have one year earlier. Many veterans, however, grappled with the emotional toll, particularly the stress of avoiding the disease and spending so much time in isolation.

Left alone with their own thoughts, the swimmers had plenty of time — too much, in fact — to fret about their own performances, to overthink and overanalyze, to become paralyzed with the fear of not being able to replicate their own past performances. An Olympic year already ratchets up intensity and thus stress and motion; because of the pandemic, those straining thoughts lingered for two years.


Regan Smith walking out at the U.S. Olympic Trials — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Even though Smith was still a teenager, she had been to a pair of World Championships and a Pan Pacific Championships, part of the senior-level U.S. team for four years. Thus, a veteran. And by the time Smith got to Omaha, Neb., for the 2021 Olympic Trials, she had totally psyched herself out for the backstroke events, the same ones in which she set stunning world records at the 2019 World Championships.

She did not qualify for the U.S. team in the 200 back, fading badly on the last 50 as Rhyan White and Phoebe Bacon sprinted ahead. She lost her 100-meter world record to Kaylee McKeown. In a head-to-head Olympic final matchup, Smith rocketed the first length but then fell behind and ended up with a slower time than she notched in either prelims or semifinals as McKeown and Canada’s Kylie Masse went 1-2.

Smith has not beaten McKeown since then except for a 50 back final at the 2022 Worlds. McKeown skipped the 100 back at that 2022 meet (which Smith won) and then took gold to Smith’s silver in all three backstroke races at the 2023 Worlds.

In 2023, Smith surged back to the verge of her best times, swimming as fast as she had since 2019. Training with coach Bob Bowman at Arizona State University provided Smith with the high-volume work on which she had thrived in high school, the intensity providing Smith both physical conditioning and belief in her training that she had lacked at times.

But something was still missing last year as McKeown passed her and pulled away down the stretch in both the 100 and 200. Smith and Bowman believed that she has tapered too much, with the coach pledging to get the formula right in the Olympic year.

At the recent U.S. Olympic Trials in Indianapolis, everything came together with Smith’s physical and mental preparation. Her week began with a third-place finish in the 100 fly, but missing the team by one spot and one tenth of a second did not derail that hard-earned mental toughness. Instead, swimming best times in three consecutive rounds while eclipsing what had been the American record pre-meet was galvanizing.

“To drop a second in one season in the 100 fly was way above my expectation,” Smith said. “So it gave me a lot of confidence coming into the 100 backstroke. There wasn’t really much of a rebound at all.”

Before that, unexpected life upheaval did not push Smith off course, either. When Bowman agreed to become men’s head coach and Director of Swimming at the University of Texas, Smith spent several months on the road from her established home base in Tempe. She deflected any negativity from that experience as well, instead pointing out that the craziness of the situation to not scrutinize her own training times and performances more than would help.

“I don’t think it was too bad, honestly,” Smith said. “I think all the craziness externally helped take my mind off swimming, which I think is a good thing. So I was focused on other things, living out of a suitcase for two months. I think that since my mind was in other places, the swimming just kind of took care of itself, and it was a good thing.”

Simply, all the keys to elite swimming have fallen back into place: the training, the buy-in, the will, the pure joy that is at the heart of a successful professional in any field, not just athletics. Those watching from Lucas Oil Stadium and from afar on television saw the results.

There was the 57.13 world record in the 100 back, an emphatic performance that prompted F-bombs as soon as she finished the race and again when she met with reporters later in the evening. The closing split was 29.19, just one hundredth slower than McKeown had clocked in her previous record performance — and a far cry from the fading swimmer who lost leads to her Aussie rival in plenty of important races.


Regan Smith (left) with 200 backstroke runnerup Phoebe Bacon — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Smith’s performance in the 200 fly was off her best, but she did break 2:05 for the second time this year in the semifinals, and she will go to the Olympics expected to win a medal and contend for gold, although Canada’s Summer McIntosh will be extremely tough. Smith then concluded her meet with a 200 back victory by more than a second, touching in 2:05.16

In addition to the training that righted the trajectory of Smith’s career under Bowman and his staff, Smith credited her work with a former National Team swimmer who is now a mental health professional, Emily (Brunemann) Klueh.

“I started working consistently with my sports psychologist Emily Klueh back in October. And she was so good at drilling into me looking at the facts, remaining logical,” Smith said. “Here is your emotions and here is what’s not true about what you’re telling yourself.”

For Smith, the World Championships in 2019 were the meet of a lifetime. After the last five years, the swims this week in Indianapolis were more special.

“It’s incredibly rewarding. When you’re 17, when you’re a teenager and I had not really done much to my name yet, and you’re right, it was very easy. I had no pressure on me. I was always the youngest. Nobody really expected much out of me, and so it was so easy to walk into races feeling so fearless and not really caring what the outcome was,” Smith said.

“Now, I’m in a much different place in my life. I’m a lot older, obviously. The pressure is a lot different. The expectations are a lot different. So it’s a very different experience. but I’ve learned a lot over these five years, and I’ve had a lot of lows, in backstroke, in particular. But I think it’s taught me a lot and it’s helped me definitely strengthen things on the mental side. Because I think I’ve always had it physically. I just for a long time didn’t have it mentally.”

Smith has reclaimed her world record in the 100 back while finishing well clear of the field in two other events despite slightly off swims at Trials. The task ahead is trying to secure Olympic gold, and the obstacle with sights on the same prize is her familiar rival from Down Under, McKeown, who has been hitting times right on her best this year. In a different time, Smith might have tightened up and wilted when facing the pressure from McKeown, from afar right now and from a lane or two over in Paris.

Not anymore, and Smith credited Bowman and assistant coach Erik Posegay for helping return the sport to a joyful experience.

“I think I just have more excitement coming into everything. I think for a long time, I viewed swimming as like a job and it was like a business trip. I think there’s a time and a place for that. Like yes, I have a job to do but at the same time, this is just fun, and thank god it’s a sport. This isn’t life or death,” Smith said.

“So I just want to lean into the fun side a hundred percent, and I think that just makes it a lot easier to go out there and, like, rip and give your best effort every single time. And I know Kaylee will. So I just think it will be a lot of fun. I say ‘fun’ a lot but I mean it this time. I’m looking forward to it.”

In Paris, Smith will be ready. The message that Regan Smith sent in Indy is that finally she is ready to knock off McKeown in an Olympic final.

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