She may be only 17 years old, but Regan Smith possesses the self-awareness of a much more experienced athlete. The Lakeville swimmer knows she does best when she limits her focus to the things immediately in front of her, rather than gazing far into the future.
That means she doesn’t want to think too much about the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. With the Summer Games still one year away, Smith knows she has hundreds of hours of practice ahead, with thousands of yards to swim before she even gets to the Olympic trials. The problem is, it’s hard not to think about something that everyone else wants to talk about.
“Even now, people at school will joke about it and ask me about going to the Olympics,’’ said Smith, a senior-to-be at Lakeville North. “It’s always there. It’s always in my mind. But at the same time, I’m pushing it away from the center of my focus.’’
That’s not going to get any easier. With two stunning swims in 24 hours last week, Smith transformed from a budding global star into a bona fide one, crushing a long-held world record in the 200-meter backstroke and capturing her first world championship in Gwangju, South Korea.
Her overwhelming victory Saturday in the 200 back — coming a day after her record time of two minutes, 3.35 seconds in the semifinals — left the swimming world searching for new superlatives. NBC announcer Dan Hicks shouted, ‘’A star is born!’’ as Smith touched the wall. His broadcast partner, Rowdy Gaines, jumped out of his seat and exclaimed, “It’s unbelievable what she’s doing!’’
When Smith received her medal, Hicks told swim fans to get used to the sight of her standing on top of a podium. Like five-time Olympic gold medalist Missy Franklin, whose world record she broke, Smith could make the Olympic team in multiple events.
Though the 200 back is her only individual event at the world championships, she entered the meet ranked second in the world in the 100 back. Smith also was the 2018 U.S. bronze medalist in the 200 butterfly and 100 back, and she set a personal-best time in the 400 freestyle last month.
“I wouldn’t dare say, ‘This could happen, or that could happen,’’’ said Mike Parratto, Smith’s coach at Apple Valley’s Riptide Swim Team. “I leave it as open-ended. I wouldn’t put a limit on what she can do.’’
Neither will Smith. After surprising herself with how fast she swam at the world championships, she plans to keep living in the moment.
“I hate getting too far ahead of myself,’’ Smith said. “Thinking about the future is something I’m really bad at. I’m always like, ‘Let’s take it one day at a time.’
“A year might seem like it’s really close, but I have time. I’ll keep (the Olympics) in the back of my head, but I want to just keep my routine the same, and kind of let things work out for themselves.’’
Learning as she goes
Smith made her world championships debut in 2017, finishing eighth in the 200 back. At age 15, she said she approached that meet as a way to gain experience and learn what it takes to compete among the world’s best.
As the youngest member of this year’s U.S. team by more than three years, she laughed at the idea of being a veteran. “I guess I’m more seasoned,’’ Smith said. “Two years ago at worlds, I was so young. I was kind of bug-eyed the whole time. Now I feel more at ease with everything, which is really cool.’’
Though Smith’s name will be new to some, she’s been well-known in her sport for some time. She earned her first national age-group record when she was 10. Five years later, she finished second at the U.S. championships in the 200 back to make her first senior world championships team.
Already a prodigious talent, Smith observed everything her older teammates did at the world meet: how they behaved on the pool deck, what they ate, when they rested, how they never allowed their technique to sag. “She learned how to play the game,’’ said Parratto, who coached 12-time Olympic medalist Jenny Thompson. “There are so many little things to learn, and she was surrounded by people who knew how to do it.’’
At 17, Smith said, she feels more mature, more confident, more relaxed. Though she said her work ethic “wasn’t the greatest’’ when she was younger, she has learned to relish the grind of Parratto’s high-yardage practices.
Her ability to train effectively, and her enthusiasm for a challenging workout, has kept Smith’s career on a steady trajectory. After winning her first U.S. title last summer—tying Olympian Kathleen Baker for gold in the 200 back—she earned bronze in that event at the Pan Pacific Championships, her first major international medal.
Smith was ranked fourth in the world in the 200 back heading into the world championships. A month ago, she said she felt ready to make “something really good’’ happen at worlds, though she wasn’t expecting to take down the world record of 2:04.06 Franklin set at the 2012 Olympics.
The night before the event, Smith watched video of Franklin’s record-setting, gold medal race. She lowered her own world junior record in the preliminaries, then dropped more than three seconds off that time with her astonishing semifinal swim.
“I never thought I would break the world record,’’ Smith said in a post-race news conference. “I guess I still don’t believe it. It’s crazy.’’
A world champion
The question on Saturday was what Smith might do for an encore. She said the world record filled her with confidence, but she didn’t think about lowering it again in the final, to avoid putting pressure on herself.
In the finals, Smith attacked the first 100 meters hard, ripping through the water in 59.4 seconds—about a second ahead of her world-record pace. She slowed at the end—“it hurt really bad going home,’’ she said—but was elated with her swim.
“My biggest goal for this meet was just to come away with a medal for Team USA, help the medal count out a little bit,’’ Smith said to reporters in Gwangju. “I’m just so happy I was able to get a gold. It just feels really awesome.’’
In keeping with her personality, Smith hasn’t thought much beyond the next few weeks. She will compete at the U.S. championships July 31-Aug. 4 at Stanford, where she has verbally committed to swim in college. When she finally returns to Minnesota, she’s looking forward to some time relaxing at a lake cabin.
Over the coming year, Smith will make more frequent trips to Florida for long-course training. The hype will certainly grow as the Olympics get closer, but Parratto isn’t worried about how Smith will handle it.
“What a great situation, to be her age and have this kind of talent and these kinds of experiences,’’ he said. “For her, I’m not sure the pressure thing exists. She takes it all in, and she enjoys everything. You don’t come across too many individuals like her.’’