Why Leanne Smith Had The Best 2019

By Cady Lowery | Dec. 28, 2019, 3:40 p.m. (ET)

Leanne Smith poses with one of three world championship medalsLeanne Smith swam to four medals, including three gold, at the 2019 World Para Swimming Championships in London. 

At the end of 2018, Leanne Smith had one goal. She just wanted to make the 2019 world championship team. But after she did that, she decided she wanted more.

Her second goal was to make the finals at the world championships in London.

And goal three? End up on the podium.

The now-world champion and record-breaking swimmer had never won a world championship medal, and while she knew it would mean endless hours in the pool and building her mental toughness, she also knew deep down that she could do it.

She just didn’t expect the year to go as well as it did.

“My vision in January compared to now is mind blowing for me.” Smith said. “I definitely underestimated myself in a lot of ways. I never doubted myself, but I never thought I’d be in this position of looking back and analyzing my year, journaling my accomplishments, only to realize that I exceeded my expectations.”

Smith had many high points of the year, but her shining moment came at world championships, where she won the first world title of her career in the women’s 150-meter individual medley, swimming up a class from SM3 to SM4 (2:56.49), setting a Pan American and world championship record in the process. She added two more gold medals and set two more Pan American records with titles in the women’s 50m breaststroke SB3 (57.24) and 100 freestyle S3 (1:36.49).

Even after swimming up a class in the 150 IM, Smith’s biggest shock came when she took the silver in the 50 backstroke.

“I was seeded seventh going into worlds, and it’s my weakest stroke,” Smith said. “Winning was one of my prouder moments just because I had proved to myself that I could do a lot more than I was giving myself credit for. I had the determination to get behind the blocks and compete to the best of my ability.”

While Smith was at world championships, she failed to show that she was also in immense pain, having swam through two injuries – ones to her ribs and wrist. She spent the summer prior to the meet training at half-speed, but the uncertainty both injuries brought only fueled her fire.

“I couldn’t train breaststroke all summer,” Smith said. “And that was an event I was planning to swim at worlds and was seeded first in. There was a big expectation to live up to because it’s a huge international competition. The nerves and pressure I felt to maintain those expectations and standards was really hard.”

Smith rose to the occasion at world championships and continued to fight through the remainder of the season, capping off 2019 with three national titles, but the accolades didn’t stop there. At the Team USA Awards, Smith was nominated for Female Paralympic Athlete of the Year, truly encapsulating the year she had.

“If I can turn out performances like I did in 2019 with injuries,” Smith said. “I need think about what I can do in the future when I’m healthy. That was my main takeaway from this year.”

Smith turns her focus to 2020, where she expects to represent the United States in Tokyo as a first-time Paralympian. After her stellar 2019 campaign, her goals and the stakes are even higher.