Regan Smith Feels No Pressure and Possesses Unlimited Potential

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

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By David Rieder.

Under a spotless sky and a glistening sun, Regan Smith stared skyward, head perfectly still. Her left arm splashed above her shoulder, then her right arm, then her left arm again, all in perfect rhythm. On either side of her Kentucky swimmers Asia Seidt and Ali Galyer drifted back as Smith asserted her superiority.

It was art, a young professional perfectly executing a stroke she was built for, an event in which she has quickly made herself into one of the best in the world—first a surprise World Championships participant at just 15 years old, then a World Championships finalist.

This year in Irvine, Smith earned herself lane four for the evening final, ahead of World Championship bronze medalist Kathleen Baker. In that final, the more experienced 21-year-old Baker went out hard, as is her style. Smith did not yield. She tracked down Baker lap after lap, only for Baker to extend her advantage on each turn. As they came down to the wall under a darkening sky, Smith was closing. And drifting—towards Baker.

Smith, in lane four, was moving to her left. Baker was drifting right. A wire that holds up NBC’s Spidercam crosses straight over the pool between those two lanes, and both swimmers were following that wire down the pool towards the wall.

As Baker faded and even Smith began to show cracks of fatigue, the two could have touched hands underwater. They missed by inches. Baker lunged for the wall, then Smith. A “1” flashed up on the scoreboard next to Baker’s name, then next to Smith’s.

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Baker, Smith & Isabelle Stadden (L to R) — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

A tie. The time was 2:06.43, just five hundredths off Baker’s lifetime best and seven tenths faster than Smith’s (2:07.03 from prelims). Smith reclaimed the world junior record from Australia’s Kaylee McKeown in the process. She became the 14th-fastest performer in history, as well as the seventh-fastest American.

All at only 16 years old.

“That was a ton of fun. Kathleen is someone that I’ve looked up to for a long time. Racing her and tying her was a really great experience,” Smith said. “I remember being so disappointed last summer in the final in Budapest when I lost the world junior record and got eighth in that heat, so coming back and dropping time and getting to do what I did was awesome.”

She finished 2017 as a budding backstroke star, the world junior record-holder in the 100 back in addition to her 200-meter success. Then 2018 began, and the world realized that Smith was pretty darn good at butterfly, too.

At the beginning of the year, her lifetime best in the 200 fly was 2:12.90. In January, she dropped it to 2:11.66. In June, she managed a 2:10.47. And then at Nationals, she swam a 2:08.87 in prelims, qualifying third for the final, and then finished third at night in 2:07.42.

To recap, in an event that was off her radar just one year ago, Smith swam a time that would have qualified her for the final at the 2017 World Championships. She will swim the event again at the Pan Pacific Championships next month in Tokyo, and if she ends up with one of the two fastest times among Americans after that meet, she would earn a spot swimming the event at next year’s World Championships.

“I’ve really been trying to improve my strength training over the past couple months, and I really think that it’s shown in the 200 fly,” Smith said. “That race used to be so hard for me—I’d really die. I felt really good when I did it on Wednesday.”

She added that at this point, she sometimes prefers the 200 fly to the 200 back, depending on the point in the season. After all the butterfly success, maybe she could even add some events to the schedule?

“Definitely not IM because my breaststroke, I just can’t do it,” Smith said. “But freestyle, I love freestyle, so maybe in the future it could be something that I try to add on. We’ll see.”

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

When Smith qualified for her first senior international team last summer, she felt star-struck and wondered if she belonged. But after coming out of her shell on the Budapest trip, she’s heading to Tokyo with a mountain of positive energy. The well-traveled teen has swum in Tokyo before, at last year’s World Cup stop when she was with the U.S. junior team, and she calls the Japanese capital “one of my favorite cities.”

Unlike most competitive swimmers, Smith does not set goal times for herself—she thinks goals limit her potential, and she would rather just be excited about going a best time. Of course, she seems to be dropping chunks of time pretty much every time she hits the water at a big meet, leaving her with plenty to be excited about.

The final component to Smith’s sustained success: She’s learned how to not feel pressure.

“I was kind of scared I was going to feel pressure, coming into September after that big summer. I tried to block everything out and start fresh,” she said. “Taking some time off at the end of August after Junior Worlds was really great and helped get my head back in a good place before the next season started.”

Now, Regan Smith swims as if she’s caught in a powerful downstream current, her momentum of improvement too much to stop. She will again aim for a top finish in Saturday’s 100 back, and that’s a scary thought for anyone not already on the Pan Pacs team—like Olivia Smoliga, an Olympic finalist in the 100 back who needs a top-two finish in that event to secure her spot in Tokyo.

Amidst all the success, Smith might get excited, but she never brags on herself. Her friends from the national junior team adore her, with one explaining that Smith has a knack for making her day with just a brief conversation. Maybe she doesn’t yet grasp how much of an impact she’s made in the sport in the span of just two summers.

But this much is undisputable: Smith is before our eyes becoming one of the best swimmers in the world. By the time you finish reading this, she will probably have swum another best time. These days, it’s what she does.

Video Interview with Regan Smith:

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