Worlds: Resilient Regan Smith Grateful to Be Back on Global Stage in 200 Back

Photo Courtesy: Andrea Masini / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

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Worlds: Resilient Regan Smith Grateful to Be Back on Global Stage in 200 Back

Even at her age, even with her pedigree, Regan Smith was deeply worried about the 200 back.

She may have had a world record and a world championship before she was old enough to vote in the United States. But two summers without swimming what she once hoped would be her signature event at a major competition gave room for thoughts to spool in her mind. What if she never got back on top in the 200 back? Not just globally, but within the United States, with its deep wells of backstroke talent, to even get a chance to prove herself internationally?

The relief was evident on Smith’s face Saturday night, adorned by a silver medal around her neck.

Smith picked up her fourth individual medal of the World Championships in Fukuoka, Japan, by finishing second in the 200 back. It brought more poise than any of the others, for the doubts that it had conquered on the way.

“It means a lot, honestly,” Smith said. “Having the opportunity to be here, competing internationally again in the 200 back, is something that for a while I thought I’d never get to do again. It means a lot that I got to be here, and that’s the second time I’ve ever gone 2:04, so I’m going to take that swim.”

Smith’s journey with the 200 back has been fraught. She famously put the world on notice at age 17 when she obliterated Missy Franklin’s world record in 2:03.35 en route to the world title in Gwangju.

Since those Worlds, though, she’s struggled in the event. She didn’t get back to 2:05-low again until the Toyota U.S. Open last year, then she blasted a 2:04.76 at TYR Pro Swim Series in Westmont. The 2:03.80 she turned in at U.S. Trials, then the third-fastest time ever, banished some demons.

Regan Smith of United States of America, silver, Kaylee Mckeown of Australia, gold, Katharine Berkoff of United States of America, bronze show the medals after competing in the 100m Backstroke Women Final during the 20th World Aquatics Championships at the Marine Messe Hall A in Fukuoka (Japan), July 25th, 2023.

Regan Smith, left, in the podium of the 100 back; Photo Courtesy: Andrea Masini / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

But between Gwangju and Fukuoka, Smith had seen her share of hardships. She failed to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics in the 200 back, finishing behind Phoebe Bacon and Rhyan White in the crucible of U.S. Team Trials. She avoided the event altogether last summer, a second dose of seeing a reigning world record-holder compete at a meet but not in the event in which her name tops the record board. She watched Kaylee McKeown surpass her, taking down her world record in March after winning the Olympic gold medal and the world championship in Budapest in 2022.

Wearing that label as world record holder weighed her down, and the 21-year-old is only now freeing herself from that pressure.

“I just think no one really prepares you for how hard it is to achieve something like that at such a young age,” she said. “I just wasn’t ready for it. I don’t think I mentally prepared myself for what was to come after that. That, coupled with COVID stalling everything, it just really screwed with me mentally.”

Smith appears to be back at near her best, or at least in position to plot a path to her best. She garnered three silvers in the Fukuoka, all in backstroke events behind McKeown, who authored a Swimmer of the Meet performance. Smith added bronze in the 200 fly, an emerging event in which she could compete for the podium, especially since it’s not the strongest event among Americans or globally.

The dynamic between McKeown and Smith, from all accounts, seems cordial and mutually beneficial.

“She’s a great competitor and she’s been on fire for a very long time now,” Smith said. “This is a place that I never really thought that I could get to again for a couple of years of my life. So to be here and see that I’m on the rise back up is really awesome for me. It gives me a lot of confidence going into this next year leading up to Paris. It’s been great. She’s a great competitor. I think I race my best when I’m against her and it’s a lot of fun.”

“I think it’s great experience,” McKeown said. “It definitely brought out my nerves, but without her pushing me and without me pushing her, I don’t think we’d be the swimmers we are today. I’m super grateful that we have that competitive rivalry and we probably spoke the most the most that we have this week than we have in all of our careers. We’ve been racing each other since 2017 when we were both juniors. It’s gone back way before anyone ever thought. It’s pretty special.”

Smith’s speed over 100 meters is fine and likely to grow with more training. Her 200 strokes are coming along, and Fukuoka brought positive building blocks in both. She led the final of the 200 back for 150 meters before McKeown overtook her on the final turn. The 200 fly saw Smith go out fast, then fade to fourth before rallying with a powerful final 50 on the back end of a double to get bronze.

Her coach, Bob Bowman, praised her fight and took the blame for a training miscalculation that they hope to resolve for Paris.

“I thought Regan has done a great job effort wise and giving her best in these races,” Bowman. “To give you the short answer, I miscalculated the preparation for her trials. That miscalculation, because I’d never tapered her before, was not able to be fully corrected between the Trials and now.

“We clearly want better times than that. I rested her too much for the trials. I’ve learned now that she tapers for like two days, not eight days.”

Smith’s fight may be the lasting legacy from her time in Fukuoka. If she ends up back atop the podium in Paris, the climb will have gotten a major boost from the resilience of Worlds.

Nowhere is that more blatant than in the 200 back.

“I really value and take a lot of pride in my mental toughness and my ability to bounce back,” she said. “I’m never going to give up and I’m never going to quit on a race like that, so I’m really proud of that. Being here again means a lot, and I’m really proud of myself for getting out of that place I was in for a long time.”

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11 months ago

Peak taper at two days!? I didn’t know that was even a thing.

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