At the 2019 FINA World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea, Regan Smith was nervous — and understandably so. The 17-year-old’s breakthrough, world-record-setting 200-meter backstroke landed her the lead-off leg on the women’s 4x100-meter medley team, swimming alongside a trio of Olympic champions in Lilly King, Kelsi Dahlia and Simone Manuel.
The one thing that made her feel more relaxed? Dancing to “Old Town Road” with King before they went to the ready room.
“It just it calmed my nerves so much — and that is my biggest memory from that race,” said Smith, a senior at Lakeville North High School in Minnesota. “These veterans, they got me through that race, and I just, I'm so thankful for them. ... It was such a great race.”
In the pool, the American women would set a world record for the relay, and Smith set an additional world record for her 100-meter backstroke split time — a distance she did not compete individually at the meet. The two-in-one record-setting performance marked a defining moment in the meet, which King said had a “rough start” for Team USA.
“It was hard to get back into the groove,” King said. “But I think the resilience and the greatness of this team helped us end the meet with one of the greatest relays that’s ever happened.”
The feat earned Smith and her teammates the award for Relay Performance of the Year at the 16th annual Golden Goggles Awards held Sunday in Los Angeles. When the women accepted the award, King thanked Smith — her “little squirt” — for the three-second lead she provided. Manuel also gave Smith a high-five, something she claimed many people had commented on her missing following the race.
“I feel like I really just learned so much this past summer,” Smith said, while accepting the award with the team. “I feel like before this summer I was really just a little kid who had no idea what was going on in swimming ... and kind of just enjoying the ride. And I still am. But I feel like after this summer, I have a new perspective in swimming.”
In addition to the Golden Goggle for her relay performance, Smith won a pair of individual awards for Breakout Performer of the Year and Female Race of the Year (for her winning 200-meter backstroke semifinal in Gwangju). The only other athlete to win multiple individual awards was Caeleb Dressel, who also walked away with two.
Smith’s performance in the 200 backstroke was particularly notable, as she lowered her own personal best by 2.66 seconds and eclipsed one of the sport’s most hallowed world records, which had been set by Missy Franklin at the Olympic Games London 2012.
While Smith’s big splash at the FINA World Championships made her a swimmer to watch as the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 approach, she held the momentum when she competed later that week on U.S. soil at the 2019 Phillips 66 National Championships, where she won the 200-meter butterfly, showing she has high-end abilities in other strokes.
“Getting on an international flight, hopping off a plane, getting right back into meet mode was interesting and I'm not used to that,” Smith said. “It makes great practice for the next time I have to do that, and I have that under my belt now, and I'll be ready for the next time it happens.”
In June, Smith, the No. 1 women’s recruit in the U.S. for her class, verbally committed to Stanford, a long-held dream of hers.
“I was drawn to it in every aspect,” Smith said. “I was born in the Bay Area, and I always wanted to go back home. That was what I always said when I was younger, and then, once I got older, I just I realized how much I loved the team culture there and the team atmosphere and the camaraderie ... you get that gut feeling you know, when you visit ... there was just no doubt in my mind: that is the place for me.”
Smith’s commitment to the Cardinal will mark her long-awaited return to the Bay Area as well as a coaching change to Greg Meehan. Former Cardinal swimmers who are no longer a part of the college program but continue to train under Meehan include Olympic gold medalists Katie Ledecky, Manuel and Lia Neal.
But for now, Smith plans to keep things the same as she finishes high school.
“I want to keep my head down and keep working hard,” Smith said. “This past summer was a great summer, and I want to remember it, but I also, at the same time, don't want to let it get to me.”
She’ll continue swimming under Golden Goggles award-winning Coach of the Year Mike Parratto at Riptide in suburban Minneapolis as she eyes her Olympic debut in Tokyo.
“I want to be able to train like I've been training, and not change my training plan,” she said. “I think what I've been doing for a long time has really worked for me, and I just want to continue to do what I'm doing. And I think that things are really going to pay off if I keep training how I have been training, and I'm excited.”
Hillary Jackson is a writer based in Los Angeles, who has covered the last four Olympic Games for various media outlets. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.