Leah Smith celebrates after winning the women's 400-meter individual medley at the 2017 Phillips 66 National Championships at Indiana University Natatorium on June 29, 2017 in Indianapolis.
INDIANAPOLIS — Leah Smith is not used to swimming in front.
The 21-year-old known as a distance freestyler is more accustomed to swimming in Katie Ledecky’s wake. In the 200- and 800-meter freestyles at the 2017 Phillips 66 National Championships, part of the Team USA Summer Champions Series, presented by Comcast, she was twice runner-up to Ledecky.
But on Thursday night, in the 400 individual medley — an event she rarely swims and this time with Ledecky cheering with her Stanford teammates from the stands — Smith won her first national title. Her time of 4:33.86 was a personal best, dropping over three seconds from her prelim time — and almost 10 seconds from her previous best time in the 400 IM, set in June at the Charlotte Ultraswim.
“We train IM threshold once a week, and we do an IM set for warmup every day, so I have enough IM training in me,” said Smith, when asked if she thought of herself as an IMer now. “But I was definitely shocked about the time. I didn’t really have any expectations for that event going into this meet.”
So why did she enter the 400 IM?
“I talked a lot of smack to my coaches,” she said. “’I can be good at this event, just put me in it.’ Eventually, they were like, ‘OK, if you’re going to say that you can be good at this event, then you should do it.’”
In the past 10 years, she has only suited up to compete in one other 400 IM — the Charlotte Ultraswim in early June. But the lack of pressure to perform helped her at nationals.
This is the third individual event that Smith will swim at the 2017 FINA World Championships next month in Budapest, Hungary. She has already wrapped up qualifying spots in the 200- and 800-meter freestyles. And she will compete in the 4x200 freestyle.
Smith is also aiming to qualify in the 400 and 1,500 freestyles. If she qualifies for those events, she will compete in as many events as Ledecky at world championships.
Behind Smith, the rest of the 400 IM was rattled with controversy. Stanford’s Ella Eastin, 20, initially finished second behind Smith, with three-time Olympian Elizabeth Beisel — 24, who won an Olympic silver medal in the 400 IM at the Olympic Games London 2012 — coming in third.
Beisel swam over to Smith and Eastin to congratulate them and tell them that they are the future of the 400 IM in the U.S.
“I literally looked at Leah and was like, ‘Welcome to the club!’” said Beisel. “Who ever knew that Leah Smith was the future of IM swimming?! But dude, 4:33 is no joke!”
Then she looked at the board and saw a DQ next to Eastin’s name. The Stanford swimmer and NCAA 400 IM champion was disqualified for “swimming more than a quarter of the race in the style of backstroke.” In other words, she had done a poor turn and come off the wall on her back.
This meant that Beisel moved up to second place and earned the second world championship berth in the 400 IM.
“That’s not something I would ever wish upon anybody,” she said. “Yes, I’m excited to be going to Budapest. But those are not the circumstances that I would have ever wanted.”
Now Beisel has a chance to redeem her disappointing finish at the Rio Games, where she took sixth in the 400 IM (while Maya DiRado won silver for Team USA).
But this world championship will likely not be about medals. She just returned to training two months ago, after taking an extended break post-Rio. It was the first break that she has taken from swimming since she first made the national team when she was in middle school.
During the eight-month break, her motto was to say yes to everything. She traveled the world with Allison Schmitt and visited friends around the country. She also tried sports reporting for a local TV station near her home in Rhode Island.
“I just did things that I would never have been able to say yes to had I been training heavily,” she said. “That was something foreign to me because I have never not been training heavily. Honestly, this was the happiest year of my life. It was great.”
The break helped her reset, and she returned to the pool energized.
“My eight months off really made me appreciate everything about swimming that maybe I had taken from granted for a lot of years; I’m in a great spot right now,” she said.
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But it would be a long climb back to a world-class level of swimming. She competed in the Santa Clara Arena Pro Swim Series meet in June, finishing second in the 400 IM.
Beisel — a three-time national title holder in the 400 IM — came to Indianapolis without expectations. She dropped the 200 backstroke and decided to put all her eggs in the 400 IM basket.
“I’m a one-hit wonder now!” she joked.
She qualified for the 400 IM final with a 4:38.78, then came back for the finals and swam 4:38.55. (Her best time, set in London, is 4:31.27.)
“I’ll be the first to say that I am not in shape enough to do two good 400 IMs right now,” she said. “I’m very happy with two 4:38s.”
She now has a few weeks to train hard before competing in her 12th international meet — the longest streak of any U.S. swimmer.
“I have the longest streak,” she said with a laugh. “If I’m good for something, it’s that! I have longevity.”
This will be Beisel’s sixth trip to world championships—and perhaps her last. She has glimpsed life beyond swimming and likes what she sees. Her trophy cabinet contains a bronze medal in the 200 backstroke from the 2009 world championships and the world title in the 400 IM in 2011, then another bronze in 200 back in 2013.
But this time, she does not think she will be a medal contender.
“I think I bring more leadership to the team than medals, and that’s what I’m excited for,” Beisel said. “I have one more chance to show these young guns what to do.
“I don’t know what the future holds in swimming for me. I don’t know if I’ll be in Tokyo. So if I can really guide them into the right direction and get those new leaders coming up and have them lead the team to the most successful Olympics ever, that means more to me than winning a medal.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.