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Late Surge Propels Smiddy To Youth Olympic Gold

By Amanda Manci | Aug. 18, 2014, 12:46 p.m. (ET)

Clara Smiddy poses atop the podium after the women's 100-meter backstroke final at the Nanjing 2014 Youth Olympic Games on Aug. 18, 2014.

NANJING, China -- “I was dying to hear our national anthem play.”

Those were the words of Clara Smiddy, and her wish came true Monday night after a thrilling come-from-behind win in the women’s 100-meter backstroke final.

Sitting in fourth place after the turn, the Miami native surged in the last 50 meters to capture Team USA’s first swimming gold medal of the 2014 Youth Olympic Games. Known for her closing speed, Smiddy clocked in at 1:01.22 to out-touch Great Britain and New Zealand for the top podium spot.

“I was really nervous beforehand and ran through the race in my mind several times, focusing on the finish,” Smiddy explained. “I tried to kick it into another gear and wasn’t expecting to win. I thought to myself, ‘I just have to get my hand on the wall.’”

Watching intently was U.S. head coach Jeri Marshburn, who served as an assistant manager for Team USA at the London 2012 Olympic Games. Having coached Smiddy at previous international events, Marshburn was one of the few left unsurprised by the results. “I knew Clara was going to pull it out, because it’s her,” said Marshburn. “She may not get out as fast as some of the others, but when she starts that last 50 meters she nails it. She has such a smooth stroke and a great kick – she goes for it.”

A backstroke standout among U.S. youth, Smiddy made a statement at this year’s junior world championships, where she earned three bronze medals (50 backstroke, 4x100 medley, 4x100 mixed medley) and finished fourth in the 100 backstroke. She is the Florida state champion in the 100 backstroke and owns the state record in her signature event, along with a junior national title. 

True to her upbeat personality, Smiddy exuberantly hugged and congratulated her competitors after the race, and when the victory ceremony concluded, she asked the second- and third-place finishers to join her atop the podium for photos. Always eager to defer the spotlight elsewhere, Smiddy’s “team-first” mentality has rubbed off on the other U.S. swimmers in Nanjing, China, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“Clara is a team leader. She has helped the other swimmers understand the balance of, ‘Yes, we are having a good experience, but when the time comes we need to take care of business,’” said Washburn. "She brings the rest of the team together. She’s never over-confident and is very much a teammate. That is her all the time.”

For a woman who joyously ran around her house after learning she was named to the 2014 U.S. Youth Olympic Team, the excitement has only increased for Smiddy after her race Monday night.

“It’s amazing. Winning a gold medal for Team USA is unbelievable,” said Smiddy. “It’s bigger than me. There’s nothing like representing the United States.”

Smiddy’s promising future will continue at the University of Michigan this fall, where she will swim alongside and room with fellow Youth Olympic Games teammate Hannah Moore.

While Smiddy may have begun swimming at age 3, her journey is far from over. With one gold medal under her belt, she’s on track to stand on many more podiums, and potentially an Olympic podium in 2016. At this point in her career, if anyone is surprised by her future success, it will only be Smiddy.

Nearly joining her for a second U.S. podium tonight was Patrick Mulcare, who finished fourth in the 200 individual medley. He also added a pair of eighth-place finishes in the 100 backstroke and 200 freestyle.