Leanne Smith competes in the final of the Women's 50m Breaststroke during the British Para- Swimming International meet on April 27, 2019 in Glasgow, Scotland.
The 50-meter backstroke is the stubborn B-plus on Leanne Smith’s would-be straight-A report card.
At April’s Para Swimming World Series in Lewisville, Texas, Smith was a 2-for-3 gold-getter. Her scorecard thus looked familiar while she was admittedly, in her words to TeamUSA.org, “facing the unknown” after a 14-month pause in international engagement.
Smith was peerless in the 50-meter breaststroke and 150-meter individual medley, just like at the 2019 world championships in London, where she also left everyone in her wake in the 100-meter freestyle.
Comparatively speaking, the 50-meter back was a silver sore thumb there. It was the same in suburban Dallas at the final competition before June’s U.S. Paralympic Team Trials for Swimming in Minneapolis.
But as she takes this month to refine her before, during, and after approach to every event in her class, Smith is selective about the details she dwells on. There is too much to appreciate and too much to keep honing to let her “weakest stroke” rule her regimen.
“It’s definitely an area that I would love to continuously improve,” she said. But she will take care not to overcommit to one area, lest she “hinder my performance in the 150 IM.”
Hindrances meet a hard bargain when they try to test Smith. The New Englander who took up swimming in her mid-20s is in her element in the pools of the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center (USOPTC) in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Reached from there, the site of her competitive breakout in 2017 and several Jimi Flowers Classic record razers, she credits the Rocky Mountain atmosphere’s premium oxygen rates for pushing her into elite shape.
“The advantages of altitude training is that the muscles get a natural boost when there’s more oxygen available at lower altitude competitions,” Smith said. “There are some disadvantages, though, as we can’t always train as hard at high altitude even though the training may feel difficult.
“I try not to put too much emphasis on this mentally, though.”
Instead her focus is how “I’m able to kind of push my body … even better than at sea level.”
In January 2020, Team USA set what everyone thought was their Tokyo tone. At that month’s Jimi Flowers Classic, eight Americans combined to revise 17 world, Pan American, or U.S. records.
Smith set nine of those high-water marks, singlehandedly eclipsing her teammates.
February 2020 witnessed a tougher push at the Para Swimming World Series in Australia, where Smith finished fourth in the 150 IM. The events of March 2020 need no introduction at this juncture, but their consequences set off a trying sidetrack for Smith.
With the USOPTC dark and locked, Smith resorted to a rowing machine to productively pass the shutdown through cross-training. A mishap led to a hernia and torn abdomen that required emergency surgery and nearly two months of inpatient rehab.
Perhaps toughest of all, Smith noted, “my coaches, family, and friends could only show their love and support from outside the hospital. COVID meant no visitors.”
As it happened, that steady, confined road back enveloped Smith’s 32nd birthday. But back gulping thin air between strokes with her teammates by July, restored to “strong stability in the water” before autumn, and since plunging into 2021 “stronger and better than ever,” she spent her 33rd in the better buildings of Colorado Springs.
“It did take me aback a little bit to realize how far I have come,” she said. “To have a concrete date like that and to celebrate in two different ways.”
And there was more to celebrate than not when the Americans reset their tone in Texas. As usual, gold outnumbered silver among Smith’s souvenirs at the Lewisville World Series.
Granted, restrictions were still in place around the pool and the menu of events was abbreviated, making the aura fall short of a full-fledged international meet. But after two months of recuperation and therapy, then nearly a year of video and analysis sheet study and intramural fine-tuning of stroke tempo, reaction time, and finishes, Smith said, “it does feel great to see some of the other countries,” of which there were 14.
It whet the appetite for a Paralympic Games passport all the more. If all goes according to plan, Smith will ace enough of a full slate of events June 17-20 (the 50-meter freestyle is back on the table) to score another atmospheric upgrade.
“I am looking forward to Trials and being back on the big stage,” she said.
Of the World Series, she concluded, “I’m happy with it, but I’m eager to really get out there and see what I can do at the end of the summer.”