STANFORD, Calif. – Regan Smith showed a different side of her swimming Wednesday.
The world’s premier backstroker flipped over and won the 200-meter butterfly for her first senior national title.
Smith, 17, clocked a personal best time of 2 minutes, 7.26 seconds at the 2019 Phillips 66 National Championships, which is part of the Team USA Champions Series, presented by Xfinity.
Four days ago, Smith was a backstroke sensation. She won two gold medals at the recently completed FINA World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea, setting three world records in the process.
Smith obliterated Missy Franklin’s seven-year-old world record in the semifinal of the 200 back with a time of 2:03.35, then went on to secure the gold medal.
She also led off the 400 medley relay for Team USA, setting a world record of 57.57 seconds as the relay posted the fastest time in history.
“That meet was such a high in Korea,” Smith said. “And it’s so weird that we came straight from there to here and it already feels like it didn’t happen – if that even makes sense. It’s just so weird how it was such a long time that we were there, but at the same time it happened so quickly and it is over already.”
And yet Smith is constantly reminded of what happened, even if she says she still can’t fathom that she really swam that fast.
“When I touched the wall (in the 200 back), the reaction was totally real,” Smith said. “I was so shocked. And I still don’t really believe it. It still really hasn’t sunk in. So when people tell me, ‘Congratulations on your world record,’ I’m like, ‘What?’ That’s like so crazy, so it’s really cool.”
Smith knows people might do a double take when they see that she’s the national champion in the 200 butterfly – an unusual second stroke for a backstroker – or figure it must be a typographical error.
“I’ve really loved fly for a long time,” Smith said. “It used to be the better of my two strokes between fly and back and I’ve just been training really hard in that stroke for a long time. I love racing it.”
She emerged from a tight field, with Lillie Nordman second (2:07.43) and Dakota Luther third (2:07.76). Katie Drabot, who swam the event at worlds, was seventh.
Smith posted a mark of 2:07.42 at last year’s national championships, placing third.
“And so, I hope that it wasn’t out of the blue,” she said. “I hope that I’ve made my presence in fly for a little while.”
When she was little, Smith was afraid of doing flip turns in backstroke because she feared hitting her head on the wall. Once she was confident on her turns, at age 10 or 11, she realized she was better at backstroke.
But she didn’t forget her first love “just because I felt really cool and strong doing butterfly because it’s like the hardest stroke.”
Smith is also excited about swimming the 200 freestyle Thursday, but said there will be no individual medley for her here.
“My breaststroke is unfortunately very weak and it’s something that I hope to fix,” Smith said. “I’ve been saying that for a very long time. But hopefully in the future…”
She’s leaving Stanford on Saturday morning so wouldn’t be able to do the 200 IM anyway.
“I’m going home,” said Smith, who is from Lakeville, Minnesota. “I want to go home.”
She came into nationals focused on simply having fun after swimming in the biggest meet of the summer. She even had her nails done, replacing the red, white and blue of Team USA with neon green and hot pink.
“I really just wanted to come in with no pressure, just have the best time that I can,” Smith said.
At this same pool several years ago, Franklin also emerged as an Olympic contender at nationals.
“It’s funny that we’re following kind of a similar path,” said Smith, who plans to swim collegiately for Stanford. “I know every swimmer has their own unique way that they make their way up, but it’s really cool that I’m doing similar things as Missy because I’ve just looked up to her for so long. She’s such an icon to me.”
Smith said she never really thought she’d be in the position that she is in.
She came into the 2019 worlds hoping to simply place higher than she did in 2017, when she was proud to make the final for Team USA, but disappointed to finish eighth in Budapest, Hungary.
“I just remember thinking if I can place higher and maybe squeeze in there for a medal for USA, that would be incredible,” Smith said. “It still doesn’t feel like I’m at the level where I’m at, which is really crazy. But also, I really like where I’m at and I don’t want to lose the mentality … because I just feel like things could maybe go downhill if I lose that strong head on my shoulders.
“I want to stay hungry for sure.”
While Smith always felt she belonged on the world scene, “I still didn’t feel like I was really that strong of a force to be reckoned with on that scene,” she said. “Now coming away from it, I feel really, really confident going into next summer.”