Lakeville’s Regan Smith is happy again, and swimming faster as a result

21 July 2023

Everything was coming up Regan Smith in 2019. The Lakeville star swimmer emerged onto the global scene in the biggest way, setting world records and claiming gold medals at the World Championships in South Korea.

Smith was fast, and she was happy.

“2019 was one of the best years of my life,” Smith said via phone this week. “I was going into my senior year of high school. I had such a great friend group at swimming. I liked going to practice every day because all my best friends were there just having fun. I had a great relationship with my family, loved my pets — I just loved everything about life.”

Four years later, Smith believes she’s getting back to that point. Her swims suggest as much heading into the World Championships in Japan, where the swimming portion of the program begins on Saturday.

At the U.S. nationals last month, Smith won the 200 butterfly, 200 backstroke and 100 backstroke, while taking second in the 50 back. Her 200 back time of 2 minutes, 3.8 seconds marked the first time in quite a while that she had cracked 2:04 in the event in which she previously held the world record.

“I think even if I didn’t swim quite as well as I was able to do at nationals, I still would’ve felt a lot of pride and been happy, just because I love where I am right now,” she said. “I just feel so much happier. I think I’m in a good place, a place that’s right for me. I just feel very at peace with where I’m at in my swimming career, which is awesome.”

Smith got back to this place via a non-traditional route. She left Stanford last summer after just one year swimming for the Cardinal in search of something that worked better for her.

She initially was eager to find a “balance” between swimming and school — or so she said. Internally, she had doubts about how she would like the setup of college competition.

“Me trying to give good answers to people who asked me how I felt about going there, … I did say, ‘I think this will be a great balance for me, blah, blah, blah,’ ” Smith said. “But I realized that very quickly when I got to school last year. … It didn’t feel like I belonged, and not in a way like, ‘I feel left out.’ I just literally was like, ‘This is not the place for me.’ I just knew it in my heart and my soul.”

But Smith didn’t want to quit. That’s not in her DNA. She had to give the experience an honest go. So she stuck out an entire season, winning Pac-12 Swimmer of the Year honors and a pair of NCAA titles before making the decision to turn pro in search of rigorous, consistent workouts and an environment she felt would be conducive to her growth as a swimmer.

“I think I came out stronger because of it,” Smith said of her year of college swimming. “But yeah, looking back, I think I was forcing myself into this box that I just didn’t fit into at all.”

Conversations with her parents and club coach Mike Parratto eventually led Smith to Bob Bowman, the former coach of Michael Phelps. Smith said Bowman and Parratto have similar “vibes” and training philosophies. Smith thrives on volume. Bowman’s workouts are very straightforward, albeit difficult. Smith got into contact with Bowman, and he quickly put the wheels in motion to have Smith come down to Arizona State to train with his group.

Her life is currently centered on swimming — “This is my job,” Smith noted — and she’s thoroughly enjoying it.

“I’m just doing what I love to do,” she said.

A big reason for that is she likes the group of people she works out with every day. Smith had that sense of camaraderie with swimming friends when she was 17, as well. But her pandemic-induced gap year ahead of the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo wasn’t as enjoyable after those same friends had moved on to college or whatever their next steps were.

“So it wasn’t that fun for me. So it was way harder to do that,” Smith said. “And then going to ASU, I’m with a group of 30 people who have the same exact goal as I do, who work just as hard as I do, and you have a really good attitude about it.”

Their attitudes have rubbed off on Smith. She attacks practice on a daily basis and is in a good mental headspace. As has always been the case with her, positivity leads to speed in the pool.

“It just goes to show that your training doesn’t have to be perfect. I do think it’s primarily about like how you feel inside and how your life is going,” she said. “I feel like I’m extremely lucky to be in such a good place right now. I know that may not last forever, because everyone goes through ups and downs through life. But I’m very thankful to be in such a positive place right now.”

She admits it’s a relief to be back to this spot. Because she wasn’t sure she would get here again. Smith overcame a difficult year of training leading into those 2021 Olympic Games to win two silver medals and a bronze. She was proud of that performance, but couldn’t help but wonder if she had “peaked.”

“But I always knew deep down, I know how talented I am, I know what I’m capable of and I know how hard I work every day. I knew I could get back there, but I just felt like I didn’t know how,” Smith said. “I don’t feel like I’ve cracked the code or anything, because you can’t force happiness in life, but it is just cool to know, ‘OK, I was right. I am capable of being the swimmer and person who I was a few years ago.’ Yeah, it is cool to be able to feel that way again.”

The 21-year-old heads into the World Championships simply excited to compete. The fields within which she’ll swim are stacked. Smith embraces the difficulty of the test.

“I think the events I’m in are so unbelievably talented, I’ve never seen a field like it before. On one hand, that makes it like, ‘Shoot, that makes winning difficult,’ ” she said. “But on the other hand, it’s like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I’m in the mix.’ That’s really cool. I would love to win one thing or a few things, and I’m ready to face that challenge, because I know it’s a very, very big challenge, especially this year. But I want to compete and leave everything in the pool and walk away from every race knowing that I executed as well as I could and I gave it my all, and I wasn’t afraid of the competition.

“Because sometimes when the going gets tough in big meets like these, it can be really easy to kind of cower and back down, and that’s something I’ve done in the past, and I’m ready to not do that, because it’s just swimming, it’s not that serious, and it’s a really cool opportunity to go against amazing people. … But no matter what, I want to leave it all in the pool, and we’ll see what happens from there.”

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