Armstrong graduate Sierra Smith won state titles, several medals and also set records for the Falcons, but very few Division I freshmen can turn high school success into immediate college success.

But Smith was able to finish strong with several personal bests and a near honorable mention with her 400-yard freestyle relay team at the NCAA Division I womens swimming and diving championships in Greensboro, N.C.

“I would say overall, it’s just been an amazing experience,” Smith said. “Being surrounded by such strong, motivated women every day – it’s just brought training to a new level, and it’s been so exciting.”

Smith did have several challenges to face in her first year. One, the COVID-19 pandemic made training and the season difficult to manage with protocols and precautions in place.

Two, Smith had a mid-season ankle injury sideline her all the way until the SEC championships in Athens, Ga.

But that didn’t stop her from making several strides in her first season for the Tigers.

Smith ended up swimming several personal best times in the SEC meet (Feb. 17-20).

She was 22nd in the finals of the 200-yard freestyle in 1 minute, 47.71 seconds, and she took 24th in the finals of the 50 free in 22.26. Smith also took 16th in the finals of the 100 free in 49.06.

Smith was then the anchor on the 400 free relay and swam her leg in 49.06 to help the team take fourth.

While Smith made B-cut times for the 50 and 100 free, she wasn’t invited to the NCAA DI meet in those events. She was invited as a part of the 400 free relay, however, with teammates senior Sarah Thompson, junior Megan Keil and sophomore Amy Feddersen.

Smith swam the third leg and set a personal best time in 48.91. The relay team took 17th in 3:15.32 and just missed earning an honorable mention.

Smith, of course, was in the Class 2A state meet annually at Armstrong, and while the NCAA Division I meet is larger, Smith said that the pressure and atmosphere was very similar, and the mindset was that it was just another meet.

But the main difference was the overall talent she was able to watch.

“Just knowing that the people there are so fast and have worked so hard, it was just really exciting to be there,” she said. “Just watching people set new records or just going crazy, fast times was just so exciting. You obviously see people setting records in high school, but it is just a whole new level of, ‘Wow, that’s the fastest time in the world.’”

Having success on a relay is also nothing new for Smith, who earned several section and state medals on relays at Armstrong. In her senior year for the Falcons, after winning two state titles, Smith said that the eighth-place finish on the 200 free relay meant more to her because she shared the success with teammates.

And the same is true at Missouri.

“It was just such an honor, I would say,” Smith said. “We talked a lot about swimming for the team, and I think that is just exemplified even more on relays – when you are behind the blocks with your team and that excitement. And while you’re racing, knowing that it is so much for your team was just so incredibly fun, and I was just so thankful for those opportunities.”

The process

There was a process to the first season, especially with the injury. Smith said she had to get used to the quantity of swimming with multiple practice sessions a day. She had to learn to recover from them.

Also, the quality of swimming helped motivate her to get better every day.

“I would say that I am just enjoying the process,” Smith said. “If you are just focused on the big meets, and that’s the joy that comes from swimming, that’s a lot of training just to go into a few big meets. So ultimately, just enjoying the training as it goes. Looking for little improvements in practice every day or in weights has just been so fun and finding new uncomfortable levels of training has been really fun with such a strong, motivated team.”

Of course, the pandemic also made Smith relish every opportunity, but she also had to do a lot of rehab with trainers and coaches to get back in time for the SEC championships.

Smith said that the injury did help her grow on the mental side of swimming and some often overlooked parts of being on a swim team.

“Overall, that taught me how to be a better teammate, not everything is just about swimming,” Smith said. “Even though times are important. It was cool just learning how to be a positive teammate and cheering aside the swimming part of it.”

And the mental training is what she is most proud of during her first season – realizing how far it can take you and to also learn new ways to come into practice every day despite being tired, she said.

“I think just the mindset that I have had toward championships meets and just the daily training has been really good this year,” Smith said. “Hopefully, just keep building on that.”

Smith said it is inspiring to know that she was able to finish the season well despite all of the challenges.

She said she has talked with coaches who remind her that no season is perfect but the challenges during the 2020-21 campaign were major ones.

“So it just really makes me excited to see what can happen next year and know that I can come back from any kind of setbacks with such an amazing team and coaches surrounding me,” Smith said.

Starting at Missouri

Smith was already transitioning to the academic side of being a student-athlete. She is studying psychology and said it was actually nice to go to classes and study as a mental break from swimming.

But it wasn’t long until she got her first taste of Division I competition.

Smith’s first meet for the Tigers was Oct. 16 against Texas Christian University at the Mizzou Athletic Center.

Smith said she was “extremely excited” but also intimidated by how fast everyone was. But it is a memory she won’t forget.

“It was just really cool just to watch my teammates just succeed and go so fast, knowing how hard they train, and then ultimately have my own chance to get up and see where I am at after training,” Smith said.

Smith swam the anchor for a winning 200 medley relay team in that first meet, but success didn’t come easy.

The new level of swimming is what Smith was expecting. She said she just didn’t know what the training would like until she was there, and she needed to put less pressure on herself for big meets and when it came to her swimming times.

Smith said it has been a cool experience being a part of a team culture that looks at more than just how fast you swim.

“We’re constantly reminding each other that people aren’t going to remember you by your times,” she said. “It’s how you are treating people and ultimately the good values and impact that you want to leave on people aside from swimming. Shifting the focus to the team and training on the mental side of swimming just as much as the physical side has been the main difference. It’s been amazing.”

Offseason goals

Smith is continuing to train with her first season at Missouri officially over, but she is also training to qualify for Olympic Trials. Her first chance was this past weekend, and there is another qualifier in about a month.

“Definitely a goal, and it would be really exciting to have the opportunity to swim at Olympic trials,” she said.

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