By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Thursday, April 12, 2018
Erin Phenix Smith never felt short-changed by a career where she excelled largely as a relay swimmer.
If anything, as someone not highly recruited out of high school, Smith found her niche as a team swimmer – and rode that role all the way to the Olympics.
“I always loved the relays and swimming under pressure,” she said. “I feel like I was definitely more of a relay swimmer than individual. I loved when it would come down to me at the anchor leg and I would have to pull out a win. The feeling of winning and dropping time off your bests was always worth the hard work and sacrifice.
“I was a good swimmer coming out of high school, but definitely not the best. I wasn't recruited by the top schools and I was even ignored by some colleges that I reached out to. I am proud that I never gave up on the dreams and aspirations that I had for myself, and I made those come true, through a lot of hard work, not just talent.”
Smith got her start with swimming along with several other sports – at the urging of her mother. But as she got older, she realized swimming was where she excelled and belonged.
As someone who always loved racing, she said she always looked forward to the end-of-the-year taper and “just going out there and putting my heart into my races.”
Despite her limited college scholarship offers – surprising considering she earned individual state (Ohio) championships in both the 50 and 100 yard freestyle, while participating in the championships relay teams at both 200 and 400 yard distances as a junior and repeated as a champion in those four races, and was named the GGCL Swimmer of the Year as a senior – Smith landed at one of the top programs in swimming: the University of Texas.
She credits her coach – three-time Olympian and Olympic gold medalist Jill Sterkel – for instilling in her the belief that she was capable of making an Olympic team, and she knew she had put in the work to get herself there.
So, when she went to the 2000 Olympic Trials and left as a member of the team (finishing sixth in the 100 freestyle, earning the last relay spot) headed to swim-crazy Sydney, Australia, Smith said she knew she was fulfilling a lifelong dream she often doubted could or would ever happen.
And to make the story even more compelling, when Smith’s mother, Laurie, being a single parent, didn’t have the financial resources to make the trip to Sydney to see her daughter swim on the world’s biggest stage, her neighbors and friends pooled their money together so she could go to Australia and witness Erin’s preliminary swim on the United States’ gold medal-winning 400 freestyle relay performance.
“I had never even finaled at Nationals before I made the team, and then all of a sudden, I'm on a relay with all these amazing women that I had looked up to,” she said. “I have to say I feel lucky that I was able to compete for swimming in the Australia Olympics. Swimming is just so crazy there, it felt so cool to see how much they appreciate their swimming athletes and just the sport in general.
“I think it's every young swimmer’s dream to compete in the Olympics. It’s the pinnacle of the sport. I of course always had my sights set on making the team, but never did I think I would make it in 2000.”
Smith said her ultimate journey to Sydney started the summer before the Olympics when she started making some substantial improvements in her times.
She gives credit to Sterkel for the drop in times as she had her focus her training and concentration on the sprint freestyles unlike in high school when she trained for every event.
It definitely paid off.
“It wasn't until I was at Texas with Jill and really started training for my specific events that the idea of making the Olympic team became a reality,” she said. “I was just ecstatic to make my Olympic Trials cuts, but Jill pulled me aside and made it clear that I needed to set my sights on making the team because she really believed I had the ability to. This really changed my whole outlook and is what gave me the confidence to make the team.”
Following the Sydney Games, Smith continued her education and swimming at Texas, earning several All-America honors and being named to the 2001 World Championship team. In Fukuoka, Japan, she and her teammates brought home two silver relay medals – 400 free and 400 medley – and she remained focused on making the next team in Long Beach, Calif., in 2004.
When she came up short of that goal – finishing 11th in the finals of the 100 freestyle – she decided she was ready to move on to the next phase of her life.
And despite a brief moment when she thought about making a comeback (prior to 2008 Trials), Smith said she’s never regretted leaving on her own terms when it felt like the right time.
“I knew I was getting burned out toward the end, and after missing the Olympic team (in 2004), I was dropped by my sponsor,” she said. “This made it financially challenging to continue swimming and just solidified my decision to retire.
“At the same time, I loved the summers and long course swimming. I never seemed to perfect my flip turns so long course was just better for me individually. I am so grateful that I got the experience to compete internationally and also compete with some amazing swimmers.”
Now, several years removed from her final meet, Smith is living in Fairview, a rural Northern Alberta town in Canada.
Her husband, Cameron, has dual citizenship, so they are close to his side of the family. They moved there for her husband to open a Brewery with his friend that he played basketball with at University.
They also bought a greenhouse business, which she runs, and the brewery restaurant is currently being built on the greenhouse property.
She said the goal is to grow all the produce needed for the brewery restaurant. In the meantime, the greenhouses are open seasonally and provide all the gardening and landscaping needs for the area.
She’s also mom to 9-month-old daughter, Skylar, who she said is too young to swim yet, but she takes her to swimming with her weekly.
Whatever her daughter decides to do in the future – coming from two high-level athletic parents who were also excellent students – Smith said she hopes she gets the opportunity to experience many of the same amazing things that she was able to because of swimming.
“Swimming taught me how to be a strong individual, and to work for my achievements,” said Smith, who said she believes she still holds the record for the lowest seed to make an Olympic team. “I learned this through my own sacrifices, as well as from the amazing women I had as teammates over the years, as well as from my amazing coach Jill Sterkel, and from my Mother, who showed me what hard work is.
“Swimming built me as an individual, and I took all those experiences and built the rest of my life on them.”