By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Friday, September 29, 2017
Regan Smith may be months away from getting her driver’s license, but she already has a stamp from Europe in her passport.
That’s what happens when you swim fast enough to make the FINA World Championship team competing in Budapest despite being only 15.
The youngest member of the U.S. contingent that brought home 38 medals, Smith went to Hungary as an unsure young girl but returned a more seasoned competitor – and now she’s excited for more.
“I was supposed to take Driver’s Ed this summer, but I went to Budapest to swim at Worlds instead; I guess that’s a pretty good trade off,” said Regan, who just started her sophomore year of high school and swims for Riptide Swim Team in Lakeville, Minn.
Smith said she went to Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships this summer with the goal of earning a spot on the Junior World Championship – not necessarily the World team.
And while she did qualify for that team, she improved so dramatically from her performance last summer at Olympic Trials – semifinals of the 100 backstroke but didn’t make it out of preliminaries of the 100 and 200 butterfly events – she earned the right to also swim at Worlds.
Her dad, Paul, who is the co-program director at Riptide, said he and her coach, Mike Parratto, went to Indianapolis this summer feeling Regan had a 50-50 shot at making the World team.
At the risk of seeming like an overconfident dad, he said he felt she had an equal chance of finishing among the top 2 in both backstroke events but didn’t want to push too hard.
“She ended up making the team in the 200 (backstroke) and finished 5th in the 100, although, later in the summer at Junior Worlds, she cut a lot of time in the 100 back and put up a time that would have gotten it done at Nationals,” Paul said.
In Paul’s view, his daughter’s accomplishment at such a young age has been a long time coming.
He said he noticed something special in his daughter when she broke four National Age Group records in one meet as a 10 year old despite only practicing three days a week.
He added that he and Regan’s coaches have tried to take a patient approach to practice – resisting the temptation to overdo it between ages 8 and 12.
“Could she have been faster back then? Probably. But at what cost?” Paul said. “So, my attitude was to keep her happy and challenged and to then watch to see how she handled the various ‘stages’ as she moved up the ladder.”
Throughout her years in the pool, Regan has continuously proven she belongs at each stage of her career.
And when the occasional setback has arisen – like not hitting the times she needed at Trials last year to make the Junior Pan Pacific Team – the shortfall motivated her more than if she had made the team.
That’s just how she’s always been wired.
“I was so upset (at Trials) because I didn’t compete expecting to make the Olympic team; I wanted to qualify for Junior Pan Pacs and I didn’t,” she said. “That totally added fuel to my fire to make sure I put in the work so I didn’t have to experience that disappointment again.”
With that feeling strong in the back of her mind, Regan said she found new motivators to push her in practice.
She came back later that summer at the U.S. Open and broke Missy Franklin’s 13-14 NAG record in the 100 back with a much faster time than she swam at Trials 45 days earlier. She was also quite a bit faster in the 200 back.
As part of her motivation, Parratto established a four-year plan for her at the beginning of her freshman year.
Regan said she’s happy to follow his lead as she attributes her continued growth and success as a swimmer to his guidance and coaching.
Now that she’s accomplished one of her goals – World Championship Team member – she said it’s more important than ever for her to stay motivated to achieve more.
“Coming off such a high this summer, I don’t want to lose that, so I want to continue to pursue my goals and push myself more in practice,” she said. “The key is not getting caught up in the hype – what I’ve accomplished – and keep working hard to get better.”
Having started swimming at a relatively young age – following older sister Brenna to a local club team when she was 7 – Regan showed signs early that she could handle any kind of competition and pressure.
She picked up a handful of championship times in her first meet and never looked back – and her promise didn’t go unnoticed by her parents and coaches.
Described by her dad as having “ice in her veins,” she showed early that she could stay calm and focused when it matters most.
“She reminds me of Tiger Woods in his prime, standing over 8-foot-par putts at The Masters,” Paul said. “He simply made them...didn't get ‘the yips’ like most of us would. But over the years, you always run into people saying, ‘Oh, she's going to the Olympics’ and I'd honestly feel like, "Oh please, there's so much that has to go right to see that happen.’”
“Distractions from the mental and physical demands at this level are everywhere. It takes a special kind of person to tune that stuff out. So far, that's her. Will she continue to show that ability for years to come? Only time will tell. But Mike (Parratto) doesn't believe she's remotely close to backing off on the improvement front. There are lots of levers left to pull as she continues to progress.”
Now that she’s tasted “big time” swimming, Regan said she’s eager for more.
Since she’s taking her classes online this year, her schedule is flexible and she’s planning to compete in several World Cup events in Asia this fall before turning her attention to domestic events in the spring.
And even though she made the final of her event at World Championships – something she wasn’t sure was possible going into the meet – Regan said seeing the number 8 next to her name at the conclusion of the race has also motivated her moving forward.
“I never want to embarrass the United States at a meet, and when I saw that I finished dead last – even though it was a final at Worlds – I felt like I let down my country and my team,” said Regan, who won three events (100 and 200 back, 100 fly) at Junior Worlds a few weeks after returning from World Championships.
“It took me a couple of days for that to sink in, and (Olympic and World backstroke silver medalist) Kathleen (Baker) and all of my teammates and coaches were really supportive, but I never want that to happen again.”