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Her Monumental 2020 Upended, High School Senior And Olympic Swimming Hopeful Regan Smith Remains Upbeat

By Joanne C. Gerstner | May 28, 2020, 10:46 a.m. (ET)

Regan Smith poses for a photo at the Team USA Tokyo 2020 Olympic shoot on Nov. 23, 2019 in West Hollywood, Calif.


Regan Smith, the reigning world-record holder in the 100- and 200-meter backstroke, experienced pure bliss last week. After two months away from the pool due to COVID-19 restrictions, her Minnesota-based swim club returned for four days of socially distanced practices. 

The members at Riptide Swim Club in Apple Valley thought they had the green light from the state to reopen and resume their training.

And then, as quickly as daily swimming was feeling normal again … Minnesota shut down the facility to maintain public health rules.

“Oh man, that really sucked. A lot of tears were shed,” said Smith, 18, describing how her teammates reacted to the shutdown. “I personally felt really safe, because we were being so careful. One person per lane, we were socially distancing, only like a few people on deck.”

The pool issue is just another chapter in the ongoing twisty saga of Smith’s year. At the start of 2020, Smith’s path seemed very true: finish her senior year of high school in Lakeville, a southern suburb of Minneapolis; train hard to be ready for late June’s Olympic trials in Omaha, Nebraska; and more than likely compete for gold in the backstroke and relays at the Olympic Games in Tokyo.  

Then, when all that was over, she would move on to college at Stanford in the early fall. 

It was a 2020 to be filled with life-changing milestones and adventures.

And then the COVID-19 pandemic blew those plans to bits. 

High school will soon be over, but graduation will be virtual. The last day is Friday, and there will be no hugs, smiling and tearful selfies, or those epic last shared moments with childhood friends.

The Olympic trials and the Summer Games are scheduled to now take place, but next year. So Smith’s finely calibrated training schedule and tapers for the big competitions will be accomplished in a new order. Meanwhile, she is doing dry land workouts and concentrating on strength and flexibility with her personal trainer until the pools reopen.

“It was so weird at first,” Smith said, remembering how her year started changing in March with the pandemic shutdowns. “…It felt surreal. I did not feel like this was actually happening. It’s now hard to think that the trials would be starting in less than a month. I can’t imagine them happening.”

Not everything has been upended in Smith’s world. Matriculation to Stanford still is happening on schedule. She wanted to attend Stanford since she was a little girl and said she is beyond excited about that big step coming true. But even that dream came with a COVID-induced wrinkle: Smith needed to decide if she would spend her freshman year as a student on campus or take the year off to prepare for her first Olympics.

Smith decided she’s going to Stanford, confident that her personal coaches and Greg Meehan — the Cardinal women’s swim coach and U.S. Olympic women’s coach — will keep her in strong training for Tokyo.

“I did not want to miss out on anything,” said Smith, who won two gold medals at her world championships debut in 2019. “I missed stuff in high school, but I wasn’t too worried. I wanted to be in swim meets, travel the world and not be at high school. Wasn’t a hard choice to make.

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“But college is a different experience. It’s Stanford. I don’t want to miss out on anything, in any way. I trust them, and I am feeling very lucky that I can be part of the team. I feel like I am part of it, even though I am not there yet. All the girls are so great, so warm and kind, I have strong relationships with a lot of them.”

Studying from home wasn’t a new concept for Smith, as she has been blending her high school classes as in person and online to fit around her swimming career. The abrupt move to distance learning, when schools were closed nationally for public health in mid-March, came with some upside for her.

“It’s been a nice opportunity to be at home with my family more,” she said. “All of them are working from home, it’s awesome. Also, I get to see all my college friends who have come home. I’ve missed them so much. We meet in a parking lot and sit in the trunks of our cars and talk. It’s been good to talk to them, talk to my family, as we’re all going through something.

“Me, having the Olympics postponed, was really hard, but my friends had their freshman year of college cut short. My parents are working from home remotely, and it’s a big change and comes with difficulty. We all have shared hardships.”

Smith wants fellow seniors to stay in the moment right now, taking in the uncertainty, but also the moments of opportunity. 

“It’s the last summer before we really move on, like our first teeny tiny steps as adults,” she said. “Have fun this summer, actually enjoy it, and realize this could be the last time you get to do things like fun childhood activities. Really enjoy the summer, go with your group of friends, have fun, go to the lake. Take every opportunity to be with your friends before they all move on, and you never get to do that again. I am really going to try to do that.”

Joanne C. Gerstner has covered two Olympic Games and writes regularly for The New York Times and other outlets about sports. She has written for TeamUSA.org since 2009 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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Regan Smith