Regan Smith doesn't spend a lot of time looking backward. Especially not at this point in her life, with the U.S. Olympic swimming trials starting on Sunday.
But sometimes, it's unavoidable. Like at the Pro Swim Series meets, where a clip of her world-record swim in the 200 backstroke in 2019 is part of the video played before every finals session. Even if she turns her eyes away from the big screen, Smith can't tune out commentator Rowdy Gaines hollering, "This is the new star!"
"I've probably heard it about a dozen times,'' Smith said. "I'm not trying to dwell on that, because it was a while ago. Things are a lot different now.''
Some things, anyway. Smith, of Lakeville, still enters the Olympic trials in Omaha as a favorite to make the U.S. team for the Tokyo Games. Two years removed from world records in the 100 and 200 backstroke and a pair of world championships, the 19-year-old will be one of the most watched and most hyped athletes at the trials.
During the yearlong wait for an Olympics postponed by COVID-19, Smith endured struggles with her signature stroke, interruptions to her training routine and occasional lapses of confidence. She said last week that she has put that behind her, freeing her to swim fast as a top-five seed in the 100 and 200 backstroke and 100 and 200 butterfly.
As for other events in her past, Smith is striving to maintain a healthy perspective. She doesn't want to pressure herself to re-create the swim that made Gaines jump out of his seat at the 2019 world championships. But as she approaches the trials, that race reminds her of everything she worked toward during a challenging year.
"I'm trying to find the balance of not dwelling on it but knowing I'm capable of doing it again,'' Smith said. "I'm confident in my talents and abilities and how hard I've worked.
"I have to execute, and I can't have any slip-ups, because it's going to be a dogfight. But I'm trying to remind myself that I know who I am. I know what I'm capable of doing. And I'm ready.''
Smith is the No. 1 seed in both women's backstroke events at the Olympic trials, based on her world-record times of 2 minutes, 3.35 seconds in the 200 and 57.57 seconds in the 100 from the 2019 world championships in Gwangju, South Korea. (On Sunday at the Australian Olympic trials, Kaylee McKeown lowered the 100 record to 57.45.)
The reigning world champion in the 200 back, Smith also won a gold medal swimming the backstroke leg in the women's 4 x 100 medley relay at the 2019 worlds.
Over the past 15 months, Smith has moved up the butterfly rankings, giving her a chance to make the Olympic team in another stroke. She will begin the trials Sunday as the No. 5 seed in the 100 fly and is seeded second in the 200 fly after setting national age-group records in both events last year.
Coaches and athletes often say it's harder to make the U.S. Olympic swimming team than it is to win a medal at the Games. That remains true this year. Smith will face loaded fields, particularly in the 100 back, where 2016 Olympic silver medalist Kathleen Baker and Rio Olympian Olivia Smoliga are among a deep group of contenders.
Smith's coach, Mike Parratto, guided 12-time Olympic medalist Jenny Thompson through four Summer Games. He said Smith is primed for a tough trials schedule that will include 12 races in seven days if she makes all four finals.
"I like her demeanor and the way she's thinking,'' said Parratto, head coach of Apple Valley's Riptide Swim Team. "I think after all the training, it feels good that it's coming to an end. Everything is very positive for Regan.''
Smith enters the trials off a strong performance at the Pro Swim Series finale in May. She swam season-best times in the 200 back and 100 fly and dropped more than a second off her season best in the 200 fly, an event in which Smith said she is "capable of doing something great.''
Her confidence hasn't always been that stout in the past year and a half. When the pandemic delayed the Olympics, Parratto and Smith had to throw out their carefully calibrated four-year plan.
After preparing to peak last June and July, Smith faced another year of hard training, with summer and fall competitions canceled. She deferred her enrollment at Stanford. State regulations forced closures at her training facility, Bluewater Aquatic Center in Apple Valley, and her regular training trips to Florida were called off.
Smith became stronger in the butterfly, where she didn't feel the weight of any expectations. The backstroke was a different story. The world champion suddenly found her signature event exhausting and frustrating, to the point where she avoided it.
"At the end of last summer, it felt horrible,'' Smith said. "So much was expected of me in backstroke, and I didn't want to be scared that people would judge me if I didn't perform how they expected. I felt like that for a long time.
"I needed to get out of that mentality. It was a very long and slow and painful process to get back to where I used to be. But I'm super pleased with how it feels now.''
'In a good head space'
No matter how Smith felt, Parratto said, she never lost her dedication. Last Tuesday, she was in the Bluewater pool at 5:30 a.m. as usual, two days before leaving for Omaha.
That workout lasted only about an hour, as Smith rested up for the trials. She is limiting her time on social media to insulate herself from what others are saying about her, and she is trying to avoid reading about what her opponents are doing. Smith said she was "in a good head space'' last week, with a sense of excitement that wasn't tilting into anxiety.
"She had a lot of ups and downs in the past year, but I think she came through it well,'' Parratto said. "And she has experience with these kinds of things. We're at another level at the Olympic trials, but she said the other day, 'You go there and do what you've trained to do.' That's what I think she'll hold on to.''
Though the 2019 world championships helped bring her to this moment, Smith said she won't be thinking about that race. Over the next seven days, with four chances to make the Olympic team, she's looking straight ahead.
"I know the external pressure will be more prevalent at the meet,'' she said. "I'm going to try my hardest to not worry about that. I'm trying to focus on myself and trust myself. And I know I have the potential to do some amazing things.''