Lakeville swimmer hoping for two more shots at the Olympics
Regan Smith is savoring the free time she has now, knowing there won’t be a lot of it in the coming years.
Since returning to Lakeville with three Olympic swimming medals she has tried to wind down, reconnecting with her family and boyfriend, walking her dog. Her thoughts drift back to the last few months where she competed against the best swimmers in the United States, and later bonded with them as they competed in Tokyo.
On Sunday, her family held a private welcome-home celebration. The guest list spanned generations. Smith was equal parts grateful and humbled.
“I think one of the most fun parts for me was to see all these worlds colliding,” she said, “and one of the most rewarding things was getting to spend some time celebrating with the people who helped me along the way.”
Years of high-level training and competition brought Smith to Tokyo, where she won silver medals in the 200-meter butterfly and 4x100 medley relay, and bronze in the 100 backstroke. Smith, 19, doesn’t believe she has peaked. Her long-range goals include not just competing in the next Olympics, but the next two – the 2024 Games are in Paris and the 2028 Games are in Los Angeles.
Smith said Monday she probably will be back in a pool by the end of August. She begins her college career at Stanford University in early September.
For the next couple of weeks, Smith said he goal was to “lay low as much as possible.
“I love relaxing, knowing I don’t have a tough workout hanging over my head,” she added. “At the same time, I also like having structure because I know that’s helped me achieve what I have. I know I’ll have structure when I get to Stanford.”
On to Stanford
She also will have as teammates several swimmers that competed in the recent Olympics, including Torri Huske, who swam with Smith on the silver-medal medley relay. Cardinal head coach Greg Meehan was coach of the Olympic women’s team.
“I think Stanford is going to be amazing for me. It’s one of the best swimming programs in the world,” Smith said. “In my club (Riptide in Apple Valley) I was the best swimmer and had everybody watching what I did. That won’t be the case at Stanford, and I’m almost looking forward to having my butt kicked every day because I think that will make me a better swimmer. And I love that I’ll be back with my Olympic coach (Meehan) because I think he really understands the mentality of swimmers and how they need to train.”
She also will have the opportunity to swim as a member of a team in dual meets, something Smith rarely has had the opportunity to do as she competed on national and international meets. Her dual-meet experience is limited to one high school season at Lakeville North when she was in seventh grade.
“Even though it was seven years ago, I still remember a lot about that season,” said Smith. “One of the things I remember most is what a blast it was to swim in dual meets.”
Stanford has two 50-meter outdoor pools for training. “They’re one of the few teams in the country that practices outside year-round, and I always like having a tan,” Smith quipped.
Smith hasn’t chosen a major at Stanford but is narrowing her choices. She said she’s looking at kinesiology and sports medicine after her boyfriend, a student at St. Olaf College, took a course in the field.
She also will be among the first to benefit from an NCAA rule change allowing student-athletes to sign endorsement deals while still retaining eligibility. With college and more international competition on the horizon, that will help with expenses.
Smith already has signed a contract with Speedo, the swimwear manufacturer. “That’s a dream come true because I’ve been wearing Speedo for as long as I’ve been swimming,” she said.
Memories for a lifetime
The pandemic disrupted athletics at all levels. The Olympics were no different – they were pushed back a year and held without spectators. In the days before the Games began in July, questions remained as to whether they would be held at all.
Smith had reached a fine edge by early 2020. She was the world record-holder in the 100 and 200 backstroke races (she still holds the record in the 200) and was one of the top U.S. contenders for medals in any sport.
The COVID-19 outbreak disrupted her training and she went months without being able to compete. Whatever edge she had was lost, and it was a scramble to get it back. Ultimately, she qualified in the 100 backstroke and 200 butterfly, but not the 200 backstroke. Her coach at Riptide, Mike Parratto, told Smith’s father Paul that Regan was probably still a few weeks away from peak form when the Olympics started.
But she dealt with the pressure-packed 100 backstroke final, winning the bronze after breaking the world record twice in the preliminary rounds. On July 29 she swam in the 200 butterfly final after placing fourth in the semifinal. Smith’s time of 2 minutes, 5.30 seconds in the butterfly was her personal best by more than one second and gave her the silver medal.
The last 50 meters of the 200 butterfly had been a problem for Smith in the past, but not in the Olympic final.
She also swam the backstroke leg of the U.S. 4x100 mixed medley relay during heats but not the finals. Her 58.05 backstroke split in the womens’ 4x100 medley relay gave the U.S. the lead, and the team ultimately went on to the silver medal.
Smith said she’s not sure where the burst came from that allowed her to smash her personal record in the 200 butterfly. She does know she felt a lot more relaxed.
“I was a bundle of nerves in the backstroke final,” she said, “but the butterfly has always been a fun event for me. I was able to be a little looser; I was happy just to be on Team USA in that race, and I could just have fun. The fly felt great the whole time, and I left that race knowing I could compete with the best in the world.”
NBC, the Olympic television rights holder, promoted several U.S. athletes heavily in the weeks and months leading to Tokyo. Smith was one of them. So too was Simone Biles, whose withdrawal from several events in the gymnastics competition sparked nationwide debate. Biles cited mental health challenges, including what gymnasts call the “twisties,” a sense of not knowing where the body is while airborne. Some criticized Biles for pulling out of the events (she returned for balance beam, winning a bronze medal), but many praised her for stepping aside when she knew she wasn’t in the right frame of mind.
Having competed in one of the most highly publicized events of the Olympics, the women’s 100 backstroke, Smith was asked if she could relate to any of what Biles went through.
“Yes, absolutely,” she said. “And I think she did a great job of handling it. She’s so high-profile, such a competitor, and the risk of injury in her sport is huge. It took a lot of courage for her to step away, even though she knew she had to.”
Smith said there was a lesson for her in managing expectations. There have been times when she regarded anything less than first place as no good, and she believes now that mindset can be harmful. In the future, she said, the emphasis will be on becoming the best version of herself.
“I think that’s something I’ll have to keep working on,” she said.
Coming home from Tokyo, Smith had a lot of time to reflect. The more she thought about it, the more her satisfaction grew.
“Eight weeks ago I went to the (U.S. Olympic) trials not sure I was going to make the team,” she said. “It’s an honor just to compete in the Olympics, and I won three medals. I’m extremely proud of how I performed.”
And extremely anxious to go back in three years.