Leanne Smith competes in breaststroke at the 2020 U.S. Paralympics Team Trials – Swimming. (Photo: Joe Kusumoto)
Leanne Smith’s photo on Instagram showed an empty pool on the University of Minnesota campus, with her swim cap, goggles, and credential for the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials in the foreground.
To accompany it, Smith wrote: “A dream written down becomes a goal. A goal broken down into steps becomes a plan. A plan backed by action becomes reality. Today my goal for the past 4 years, well 5 thanks to COVID becomes a reality! U.S. Paralympic trials for Tokyo 2020ne are about to get underway! This is the last to my ultimate goal though of not only representing Team USA but standing atop that podium!! Best of luck to everyone competing this weekend!”
By the end of the weekend, the 33-year-old from Salem, Massachusetts, would have her spot on the Paralympic team. She’s among the 34 swimmers who will represent the U.S. in Tokyo beginning on Aug. 24, and it was years in the well-designed and thought-out making.
Smith, you see, is very much a planner.
She was still relatively new to Para swimming back in 2016, having made her first national team two years earlier, so when the goal to make the Rio team fell she started thinking toward 2020. That meant mapping out the milestones she felt she needed to reach in order to ultimately get to the big show in Tokyo.
“For me it was all about breaking it down into smaller compartments and focusing on what meet each year I wanted to make, whether it was the Parapan (American Games) or Para Pan (Pacific Championships) or world championships,” she said. “Those were all important meets that would allow me to be able to judge where my performance was at, what I needed to continue to work on, if there was something I was missing and just how to really grow and develop as an athlete in the pool, out of the pool, mentally, physically.”
Guided by her coaches, she wrote everything down in her planners. With her strategies and intentions all laid out in front of her from year to year, she went about the business of doing all she could to become a Paralympian.
There were plenty of highlights along the way: gold in the 50-meter backstroke at a World Para Swimming World Series meet in Indianapolis in 2017, setting the American, Pan Am and world record in the S4 50-meter butterfly at the U.S. Paralympic Swimming World Championship Trials that same year, and others.
Her biggest breakthrough, however, came in 2019 when she went to the world championships for the second time and medaled for the first, in a big way. Smith won gold in the 50-meter breaststroke, 100-meter freestyle and 150-meter individual medley and also won silver in the 50-meter backstroke.
It was the perfect lead-in to the Paralympic year, and then 2020 happened.
Smith suddenly had to scrap six months from her planner and start over, tacking on another year.
“That was a little stressful,” she admits. “But I planned it out to the best of my ability and really tried to execute it that way.”
Her only real benchmark by which to judge her progress before trials this year was at the World Para Swimming Series meet in April, where Smith won gold in the 50-meter breaststroke and 150-meter IM.
Coming into the trials, Smith wasn’t 100 percent physically and didn’t know whether or not she’d be able to swim the full schedule she planned, competing in her four signature events. A few solid pain-free days of practice leading up to the first day of trials reassured both Smith and her coach that she was ready to go, however, and on the first night she was just two seconds off her personal-best time in the 50-meter breaststroke set at the 2019 world championships.
Smith, who has a rare neurological muscle disease called dystonia, competes in the S4, SB4 and SM4 classifications. It’s one of the lower mobility range classes, and at the trials that meant that Smith was often swimming by herself.
Even though that meant racing against the clock rather than other athletes in the pool, it was still nerve-wracking, she said.
“Just the anticipation and being in the call room all alone,” she said. “Once I dive in and have my eyes on getting to the other end as fast I can, that’s the goal and I don’t need external factors to drive that. But I wish I had someone in the call so it wasn’t such a ghost town feeling, or a limelight moment when I’m on the block all alone.”
After all the hard work, all the planning, then the year-long delay and even more planning and hard work, Smith said actually making it to the trials seemed a bit surreal. It was the last steppingstone, but also the biggest. It also made it feel even more real that Tokyo was, in fact, just around the corner.
Three days after posting the photo of the empty pool, Smith posted another. This time there was a shot of her swimming, with a shot on the medal stand, and the words “Leanne Smith, 2020 Paralympic Team, Tokyo Bound.”
Right on schedule.