After returning from her Paralympic Games debut in Rio last year with silver and bronze relay medals, Lizzi Smith gifted her Team USA ring to her biggest fan.
She had it specially sized and engraved with her grandfather’s name, John.
While Smith — one of eight children — is extremely close with her grandfather, to this day he has yet to see her compete at a Para swimming meet in-person.
That will change this week when she competes in the fourth stop on the World Para Swimming World Series in Indianapolis, just 50 miles from her hometown of Muncie. It will be an early birthday present for John, who turns 98 later this summer.
The world series is new for the sport in 2017, bringing together five of the biggest competitions on the international calendar from March through July. Swimmers’ results are calculated using a standardized points system via an online virtual competition platform to ensure the overall world series winner is the best-performing athlete over the duration of the series.
“It’s really great that they’ve started it this year, because I know the year after a Games it can be hard to still stay engaged because you get so burnt out after something so big,” Smith said.
Smith will compete in the 50-meter freestyle, 100 free and 100 butterfly S9 events in Indy.
For almost a decade now, Smith has known she’s wanted to be a Paralympian.
After being born without her left forearm due to amniotic band syndrome — a condition in the uterus in which blood is cut off to a baby’s limb — Smith’s doctor said her best sport would probably be soccer.
It was one of Smith’s older brothers who took to the pool first.
“I was a real quiet, real reserved kid,” Smith said. “I think a lot of that was because growing up with one I arm, I was shy and insecure. I’d always watch my brother swim, but I was too scared to join. But then my parents bribed me with pizza to join the swim team.
“Soon after, I became obsessed with how fast I could get, when I could start leading in my lane and when I could start making a big cut in a race.”
Coincidentally, around the same time, Smith saw a special on the Disney Channel starring now-23-time Paralympic medalist Jessica Long. It inspired her to look up all the American records in the sport.
“I’m going to get these records one day,” she started telling all her friends.
In retrospect, Smith says, “That was a very bold move of me as an 11-year-old to say that.”
Bold as it was, Smith couldn’t have been more right. After years of hard work, she now holds numerous American records in her sport.
“I was 11 when I decided I wanted to be a Paralympian. It took me nine years to get there,” Smith said. “My swimming career has followed a natural progression. In 2008, I learned about the Paralympics. In 2012, I missed making the team. In 2016, I made the team but missed winning an individual medal. Now, I’m looking forward to getting my individual medal in 2020.”
Smith fell one-tenth of a second short of making the Rio 2016 podium in the 100 fly S9 — her signature event — and is now adjusting her goals for the first two years of this next Paralympic cycle to attend to that.
After graduating high school, the 20-year-old took last year off to work as a swim trainer in San Francisco, and will now spend a year traveling and training before returning to the classroom to study either interior or graphic design.
In the pool, she’s working on her athleticism, dabbling in CrossFit and other cross-training programs in order to match the strength of her biggest competitor, Spain’s six-time Paralympic medalist Sarai Gascón Moreno.
“I admire the heck out of her,” Smith said, having traded the 50 fly S9 world record back and forth with Gascón over the last few years.
Competing in front of her biggest fan in her favorite pool of all time this week may be just what Smith needs to find her way to the individual podium when she swims at the world championships in Mexico later this year.
“I’m so hungry, and it’s going to be so satisfying to finally get that individual medal,” she said.
Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.