Swimmer Leah Smith grew up knowing she had impressive athletic achievements in her family tree.
Great uncle Billy Conn was the world light heavyweight boxing champion and her great grandfather, Jimmy Smith, won the World Series with the 1919 Cincinnati Reds.
So where do Olympic gold and bronze medals stack up?
“I’m not sure, honestly – I haven’t asked around,” Smith said. “What I mainly hoped to do when I was little and I was making different goals was I just wanted to contribute to my family’s legacy. I have lots of little cousins that are doing different sports and I would be so happy if they were inspired by what I’ve done in the pool.”
Smith won her gold medal in the 4x200-meter freestyle at the Olympic Games Rio 2016, and also captured the bronze in the 400 free. At the world championships last summer in Budapest, Hungary, she won a medal of every kind: gold in the relay, silver in the 400 free and bronze in the 800 free.
While her great uncle is known for fighting Joe Louis for the world heavyweight title in 1941, Smith contends with a heavyweight in her own sport: Katie Ledecky, who is considered one of the best female freestylers of all time.
“It’s pretty inspiring to see what she’s been able to do, and to be able to be in races with her is awesome,” Smith said. “I’m just fortunate that I have the opportunity to race her.”
If not for Ledecky, Smith would be the top mid to distance freestyler on Team USA.
Smith is racing at this week’s TYR Pro Swim Series in Mesa, Arizona, where her seed time is more than 11 seconds faster than the rest of the field in the 800 free and more than 6 seconds better than the other 400 freestylers.
But Smith, who will turn 23 on April 19, said she never wishes she’d come into her prime in a non-Ledecky era.
“I wouldn’t say I ever think if it as, ‘Oh, wow, if only this was different,’” Smith said, “because I think that would be me taking away from what I’ve been able to do.
“I’m just happy that I get to be in races with her and fight for medals with her. It’s cool going into a race with Katie knowing that she’s probably about to throw down something awesome. When we’re on the international stage, that’s something that motivates me, ‘OK, I know Katie’s going to do something awesome in this race, and represent our country really well, so I want to see if I can do that, too.’ She’s really raised the stakes for everyone in women’s distance swimming.”
A Rivalry Benefitting Both Smith And Ledecky
Ledecky’s long-time coach, Bruce Gemmell, said the rivalry has helped both swimmers.
“You can be absolute fierce competitors,” he said, “and at the same time be teammates and the best of friends and making each other better all the way.”
In Budapest, Ledecky won the 400 free with a championship record time of 3 minutes, 58.34 seconds, while Smith swam 4:01.54. Li Bingjie of China was third in 4:03.25. The race marked the first 1-2 finish for Team USA since the first worlds in 1973.
Ledecky also won the 800, with Li edging Smith for the silver. On the gold-medal winning 4x200-meter team, Smith swam the lead-off leg and Ledecky anchored.
But Smith also had an event in which Ledecky was not competing: the 400-meter individual medley. Smith was the surprise champion in the 400 IM at the U.S. nationals, and was the top American at worlds, placing sixth.
“I’ve never raced Katie in IM,” Smith said. “I know she has done it short course. That would be pretty exciting to race her in that, too. That might be something where we have different strengths, just based on what strokes we’re good at. I wouldn’t say I have enough experience in IM to know what I’m capable of, but I am pretty excited for the future – being that I haven’t put all my eggs in that basket.”
At the University of Virginia, Smith won a school-record four NCAA individual titles while majoring in media studies and minoring in history. After graduation, she followed her coaches cross-country to Tucson, Arizona, where she trains with the University of Arizona team.
“I decided to start a new adventure,” Smith said.
Fun In The Sun
The hot, dry Arizona climate suits her. “I have asthma, so swimming outside in fresh air is really awesome for me,” said Smith, who also has done a lot of hiking in the area with her boyfriend. “It’s nice to have a change of scenery going into my professional career. It’s been refreshing and new. Obviously, I miss my teammates at UVA so much, but’s been really cool to get invested in another team that I didn’t swim for and get to know a whole new group of people.”
And she has the best tan of her life. “I’m Irish, so I have a good bit of freckles,” Smith said. “I usually get them in summer but now I have them all the time. I like them – it’s a new look for sure.”
This week, Smith signed one of her first sponsorship deals as a professional athlete with Barings, an asset management company which was attracted to her because of her adaptability and teamwork.
Not only has the move to Arizona been a huge change for Smith, but she also had to adapt in college to a new set of coaches who came in after she signed with the school, and then to the pressures of NCAA swimming.
“My first year of college, I was seeded first going into NCAAs in the 500,” Smith said, “and I had really gotten in my own head and kind of psyched myself out. I got 11th in the morning and I was supposed to be first. After that I made the changes to be a stronger swimmer mentally and bounced back the next year to win the NCAA title.”
While some swimmers redshirt the year before the Olympic Games so they can focus on the pool instead of school, Smith said, “I just couldn’t give up racing with my team. That’s the environment that I personally thrive in.”
That’s also why she chose to train as a professional in a collegiate setting instead of going with an exclusively pro team.
Smith, who overcame shoulder issues earlier this season, is entered in the Mesa meet in the 100, 200, 400 and 800 freestyles, as well as the 200 butterfly and 200 IM. However, she probably won’t swim all of those events.
Right Frame Of Mind For Swimming
Smith said she is such a good mid to distance freestyler because of her mindset.
“I’ve always had sort of a grind-it-out attitude,” Smith said. “I think I can train really well and a huge part of my confidence comes from my training.”
Her father was a pole vaulter and her mother was a ballerina. Two brothers played baseball, so Smith tried softball, without much success. “I was not very good at it,” she said, “and would sit in the outfield playing with my friends. I was really social.”
All of her cousins swam, as well as her two older siblings, so Smith gave that a try and was hooked.
The only drawback to her new life is that she travels too much to get a dog. This summer, the U.S. national championships in Irvine, California, will determine the team going to the Pan Pacific Championships in August in Tokyo, as well as next year’s world championships in Gwangju, South Korea.
The Pan Pacs will be a warm-up meet for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. “It will be really cool to travel to the city where the Olympics are and get a taste of what that might be like,” Smith said.
The top three in every event qualify for the Pan Pacs compared to only two for the Olympics and worlds. Once at the meet, anyone can enter any event (though the number of athletes per country are limited to two in the semifinals and final).
“It’s more of a fun atmosphere,” Smith said, “and you can swim anything you want.”
And against anybody – heavyweight or not.