By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Friday, November 4, 2016
After she finished second in the 400 freestyle at Olympic Trials and made the Olympic team this summer, Leah Smith had an epiphany of sorts.
For the past few years, she’d spent a good bit of her time in the water chasing down Katie Ledecky – watching her put more and more distance between her and the finish line each time they swam.
But that all changed a few weeks before Omaha – and it galvanized her confidence as she took the water at Trials.
Although she still finished second behind the world’s best female swimmer, for the first time in her memory, she was a close second.
In a weird way, she had arrived – and she’s not going anywhere any time soon.
“I had raced her earlier in the season at the Arena Pro Swim Series meet in Minnesota, and up to that point, I had never been able to see her feet before, but I did that day, and it felt so amazing,” said Smith, a senior at the University of Virginia.
“My coaches are always telling me to swim my own race. That night in Omaha, I swam my own race. I stayed in my lane and swam like I knew I could.”
While she admits her race in the 800 freestyle wasn’t what she hoped it would be (she finished out of medal contention in 6th place, admitting she didn’t swim the same race strategy she did at Trials), Smith excelled in the 400 free – winning bronze and fulfilling a dream she had since she was a 6-year-old in Pennsylvania.
She also won gold as a member of the 800 freestyle relay – joining international veterans Allison Schmitt, Ledecky and Miya DiRado in the evening final.
For her, that was the most special part of the meet – that and experiencing the Olympics with her family present to cheer her on.
“Not only was it my first Olympics, but to swim that relay with Schmitty, who had gone through so much just to get there, Maya, who was retiring after the meet, and, of course, Katie, was absolutely amazing for me,” she said. “I didn’t realize how special it really was until it was over, but I feel so grateful to have had that experience.”
Smith, who comes from stellar athletic genealogy – her dad, Dan, was a pole vaulter at Virginia, and her great uncle, Bill Conn, was the World Light Heavyweight Boxing Champion – said her journey to Rio was a progressive one that really started almost three years ago when she made her first U.S. National Team.
At the Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships in the summer of 2014, she won bronze medals in the 200 and 400 freestyle events and qualified for that summer’s Pan Pacific Championships as well as the 2015 World University Games and FINA World Championship teams.
At WUGs, Smith won gold in the 400 freestyle as well as in the 800 freestyle relay, and a few weeks later in Kazan, Russia, she joined her U.S. teammates at Worlds to win gold in the 800 free relay.
Even though she came up short of medaling in her individual events at Pan Pacs, her first senior international meet, in retrospect, all of these steps led to Smith becoming an Olympic champion.
“I kind of see it as gradually prepping myself for the Olympics,” she said. “Once I made those other teams, and they progressively got bigger and bigger in terms of competition and meaning, I knew once I came to Trials, I would have a really good shot at making the Olympic team. Once I was in Omaha, I was really confident.”
Confident by still nervous – a quality Smith said she embraces before she swims at big meets.
And even though she was nervous at Trials – the one-and-done meet that chooses the Olympic team – she said she was even more nervous before her first event in Rio.
But rather than let it get the best of her, Smith used that electric energy to her advantage.
“I was mostly nervous (at the Olympics) because I knew I was there representing the United States, and I wanted to make sure I properly honored my country through my swimming,” she said.
“I also knew I was there representing all of the girls back home who swim the same events but weren’t on the team, as well as swimming for my family and friends who have supported me my whole life. There was a lot on my mind.”
With her summer success behind her, Smith is in the early weeks of her senior year and season with the Cavaliers.
And while she has several team and individual goals – including improving Virginia’s team showing at NCAAs to the top 4 and breaking the 4:30 mark in the 500 freestyle – Smith said she is looking at this season as an opportunity to be with her friends and teammates as she continues forward on her path to a post-season professional career starting next spring.
“I’m already looking forward to Short Course Worlds (next month) and World Championships in Hungary next summer,” said Smith, the two-time defending NCAA champion in the 500 and 1650 freestyle events and media studies major for the Cavaliers.
“Swimming will be my life for at least the next four years leading up to 2020 Trials and the Tokyo Olympics. From there, I’ll decide if I want to keep going for another four years or step into my post-swimming life."