By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Friday, February 16, 2018
Last year, Leah Smith had the summer of her life.
Following a solid NCAA Championships where she was the runner-up in both the 500 and 1650 freestyle events, the recent University of Virginia graduate made the most of her opportunities at the Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships to make the World Championship team.
She not only made the World team in her signature distance freestyle events – the 200, 400 and 800 – but she also earned a spot in the 400 individual medley, a relatively new event she added to her repertoire.
“I love freestyle, but I think it was really fun to challenge myself in something else,” she said. “I told my coach, Cory Chitwood, that I wanted to make Worlds in the 400 IM in 2019, but he challenged me after I had a good 400 IM at the Charlotte Ultraswim (in the spring) to do it earlier than that.”
She said that having Phillips 66 Nationals start off on a great note with her runner-up swim in the 800 on the first night of competition – gave her a lot of confidence for the rest of the meet.
A few weeks later at Worlds, Smith, who won gold and bronze medals at the Rio Olympics the summer before, said she felt the team chemistry was “so amazing” in Budapest that during training camp she felt and swam very fast.
“I tried to use the confidence that I had from Nationals and carry that into Worlds, and I was really pleased with the results that I had, but definitely didn’t want to be complacent,” she said.
At Worlds, Smith won three medals – one of each color in the 800 freestyle relay (gold), 400 frees (silver) and 800 free (bronze).
In her individual freestyle races, she finished behind American distance juggernaut Katie Ledecky – a position Smith said she’s happy with because of all that Ledecky does in the water for USA Swimming.
“I feel fortunate that I have had the opportunity to race Katie so many times because I feel like she sets the stakes so high that we all get better when she is in the race,” Smith said. “I think that it is truly special to think that I get to race someone who has and continues to inspire young generations of swimmers.
“I have achieved many of my own personal goals while racing Katie because she was there to push the pace, which is really motivating I think. I've swum on a couple relays with Katie, and I really admire how she puts the team on her back to help us win. Also, there's nothing quite like the bond of two distance swimmers who are about to go into battle together for the USA.”
And while she has found her greater self in the water with Ledecky’s help, Smith admits she doesn’t want to put limits on herself when it comes to getting faster in the water.
As she gets older, she said she sees a lot of people doing that with respect to how their age might impact them.
“I like to look up to different role models or teammates that I have had who don't put an age limit on getting faster,” said Smith, who had “the honor” of graduating from Virginia last spring 30 years after her father graduated as a Cavalier.
“For me, people like Katie Meili, Melanie Margalis, Elizabeth Beisel and so many others really inspire me because they might be older than the team average but they have still continued to do amazing things in the pool and get faster.”
Last October, Smith made the decision to move cross-country from Virginia to Tucson, Ariz., to change up her training. She said she stopped at a few National Parks along the way and enjoyed the time alone and the scenery along the way.
She said she’s now enjoying the weather and training – swimming fast and gearing up for the TYR Pro Swim Series in Atlanta in a few weeks and National Team training camp in Chula Vista next month.
Everything she’s doing is to make sure she’s in the best shape possible for the Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships this summer – a pivotal meet for the next two summers as the 2018 Pan Pacific Championships and 2019 FINA World Championship teams will be chosen.
Smith said she’ll approach Nationals the same way she has the past couple of years – one step at a time.
“For right now that means gearing up for a couple good Pro Swim series meets and putting in solid training until it's taper time,” she said. “I am getting really excited for this summer though because Tokyo is the site of the Olympics in 2020, so I know Pan Pacs will be an amazing meet.”
As for her life beyond the 2020 Olympics, Smith said she’s not looking that far ahead as she will decide after that summer whether or not she wants to continue training and competing.
One thing she does know, however, is that there are a few examples she’s seen who, despite coming short of reaching their Olympic dreams, continue to chase them because they love the sport so much – just as she does.
“I’m not sure what I will do after 2020,” she said. “I've always admired Madison Kennedy for staying in the sport because she loves it, so I think I will swim as long as I love it. After I am done however, I'm hoping to work in advertising or marketing.”
And while she realizes the individual role she plays in swimming, she is most proud of the team aspect she enjoyed at Virginia, on the U.S. National Team, international teams at Worlds and the Olympics and especially being part of relays at competitions.
“It is one thing to achieve something for yourself, but it is an even more special thing to do it with your teammates,” she said. “Swimming has given me the most amazing friends in the world and that is something I will never be able to repay.
“I could not imagine my life without the people that I have met through swimming, or without the bonds we were able to form through our experiences in the sport.”