Regan Smith Envisioning Return to World-Record Form After Outstanding U.S. Open

Regan Smith -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Regan Smith Envisioning Return to World-Record Form After Outstanding U.S. Open

It was the U.S. Open in early December, not exactly the cornerstone competition of an elite swimmer’s season, and Regan Smith was up against none of her main rivals in this 200 backstroke final. But after winning the race by almost two seconds, the 20-year-old Smith was beaming. Not even the fatigue of a 200 back or the thought of a final in the 200 butterfly coming up in less than an hour could prevent the smile.

Smith was the world-record holder in the 200 back, and this mark was nearly two seconds off her best. But it was the fastest time she had recorded in more than three years — and in fact, the fastest time she had ever posted outside of the 2019 World Championships, when she broke Missy Franklin’s world record in the semifinals and captured her first world title one night later.

After 2019, she was on track for a Tokyo Olympics that would have been held in 2020, but the one-year delay to 2021 did her no favors. She qualified for the Olympic team and won three medals, but she did not qualify for the team in the 200 back as she finished a stunning third place behind Rhyan White and Phoebe Bacon at the U.S. Olympic Trials. At the 2021 International Team Trials, Smith again fell just short in the 200 back behind Bacon and White.

So at the end of the U.S. Open final, when Smith saw her time of 2:05.28, she could not help her joy and relief.

“I was really, really happy with it. Going into the meet, I was quietly hoping for a 2:04-anything. I knew that was a big goal, but I also thought I’d been doing some great things in practice for the last two months and that I was really capable of doing something like that,” Smith said. “Of course, I would have loved to go a 2:04, but I’m not going to complain for one second.”

Throughout 2021 and early 2022, the long course 200 back had been a struggle for Smith both physically and mentally as she tried to live up to the otherworldly time she recorded in 2019. This one? It felt like Smith believed a 200 back should feel. The confidence to control the race and swim at the pace she wanted to hold had returned.

“When I broke my world record, for example, it felt like I was just going. I could keep going. I could hold the same pace forever. I kind of felt like a superhero,” Smith said. “Every 200 back after that, I kind of felt like I was holding on for dear life. I was scared to go out fast, and coming back on the second 100 would always hurt so bad no matter what.

“This 200 back, it still hurt really bad on the last 50. I started to tighten up there at the end. It really started to feel like I was capable of going out pretty fast, being pretty aggressive on the first 100, and then it still felt like I was able to finish on the second 100. It hasn’t felt like that in a very long time, and it felt like I was in control of the race. For years, it felt like that race was controlling me, so it was really nice to have it feel like that again.”

The positive vibes emanating from Smith’s 200 back carried throughout her entire performance at the meet and indeed her entire demeanor. “Everyone who talked to me that I just seemed so genuinely happy, and it didn’t seem like I was trying to put up a good face,” Smith said.


Bob Bowman (right) at the 2022 U.S. International Team Trials — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

The difference? The move to Tempe, Ariz., to swim under coach Bob Bowman at Arizona State University has been exactly what she needed, both in terms of the training style that maximizes higher volume and intensity — the type of training that helped Smith develop into one of the world’s top backstrokers as a high schooler — and the lifestyle of living as an independent adult for the first time at age 20.

In just over two months training with Bowman, Smith has seen a spark of confidence return to her swimming, the same feelings that dissolved in the two-year gap between major competitions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Her successes in practice directly fueled her results in Greensboro, which also included wins in 200 IM (2:10.40), 100 fly (57.65), 100 back (57.95) and 200 fly (2:07.30).

The backstroke and butterfly wins are nothing out of the ordinary, but the 200 IM? That’s never been a focus event for Smith on the national level, and her best time prior to the U.S. Open stood at 2:13.18. Smith then walloped her best mark in prelims (2:11.66) before breaking into the 2:10-range at night.

In the final, Smith covered her first 100 meters in 59.25, close to world-record pace and two seconds ahead of the field before Leah Hayes, the teenager who won World Championships bronze in the event this year, moved well ahead on breaststroke. Smith then fought back with a 29.93 closing split on her way to becoming the third-fastest American in the event this year behind world champion Alex Walsh and Hayes.

So after that stunning improvement, could more focus on the 200 IM be in Smith’s future? Smith doubts it — even with three world-class strokes, her breaststroke weakness might be too much to overcome. “Not unless I can get my breaststroke down to at least a 39,” Smith said after splitting 41.22 in Greensboro.

“Maybe Bob is thinking about it more than I am. I’m not sure. For a while, he would just watch my breaststroke. He didn’t want to give me a ton of technical advice right off the bat. He was like, ‘I really want to digest what you’re doing and think about it thoughtfully and not just throw a bunch of technical advice at you,’” Smith said.

“The advice that he’s given me has been really, really helpful. My previous best time before this meet was a 2:13.1 or something, and my breaststroke split in that was 42.5. I chopped one-and-a-half seconds off my 50 breast split just like that. I have a long way to go, but it’s a huge step in the right direction. We’re going to keep working on it, and we’re going to see, but I don’t know. I don’t want to give myself false hope because I’ve never been a breaststroker at all. It’s always been such a glaring weakness.”


Regan Smith at the 2022 FINA World Championships — Photo Courtesy: Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Regardless of whether her foray into the 200 IM turns out to be serious, Smith has a full plate with her usual events. After that brief introduction to Bowman’s training and the very positive early returns, Smith is stewing with anticipation over what could be possible six months down the line when the next World Championships team is selected. The possibility of returning to her 2019 peak, which included the 200 back world record along with a still-standing 100 back American mark (57.57) seems more tangible.

“My goal has always been to return to the form that I was at in 2019 with my backstroke, not only with the physical form but also return to my mental form and feel more confident with backstroke,” Smith said. “I always hoped it was possible, but I never really felt it was possible until I began training here. I was just able to do some really great things at practice. I was really positive, and I was on a really great roll. I feel like the goals have stayed the same, but I think my perspective with the goals and how realistic they seem to me has improved a lot.”

Notify of

Welcome to our community. We invite you to join our discussion. Our community guidelines are simple: be respectful and constructive, keep on topic, and support your fellow commenters. Commenting signifies that you agree to our Terms of Use

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x