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The Journey of Regan Smith: Overcoming Obstacles on the Road to the Olympic Spotlight

Editor’s note: This article is part of our “Origin Stories” series, focusing on the backstories of athletes and topics around the Summer Olympics.

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — After the 2022 World Aquatics Championships in Budapest, Regan Smith returned to her home state of Minnesota feeling broken. She hadn’t enjoyed her first year at Stanford, her dream school. At swim competitions, her times had stagnated. And she was, in her dad’s words, “grotesquely disappointed” by her performance at worlds, where she won two gold medals but also missed the podium twice. She felt sad. Stuck.

“I was just so over swimming,” she said.

Regan’s father, Paul, could tell she was struggling. He and Regan’s stepmother, Bonnie, had decided on the flight back from the world championships that they wouldn’t force a conversation with Regan, but they’d be prepared to offer guidance if she expressed concern about continuing at Stanford.

That happened on a quiet, sunny morning at their house in Lakeville, Minn. Regan was in the wine room with the family dogs, and she began to talk to Paul and Bonnie about being disappointed with her swimming performances and struggling to feel motivated. She said she didn’t feel like herself at Stanford.

Paul agreed.

“This person that I’m looking at right now is a shell of who you are,” Regan remembers him saying that morning.

In Palo Alto, Calif., the fit was off from the beginning. None of that was the university’s or swimming program’s fault, Smith and her dad say. It just wasn’t the right place for her. Regan wanted more of a community based around the swim team, but Stanford preaches mixing athletes and non-athletes on campus. She lived with a random roommate who was up until the early hours of the morning doing homework by flashlight, whereas Regan had to go to bed early and be up at 5:30 a.m. for swimming.

“We were just keeping each other awake all the time,” Smith said.

Smith, who emerged as a star with two gold medals and two world-record swims at the 2019 world championships as a 17-year-old and two years later won two silver medals and a bronze at the Tokyo Olympics, grew up with high-yardage practices and little rest between sets. At Stanford, the team swam lower yardage than she was used to, and her body wasn’t responding well.

“I’m glad I figured that out,” Smith said. “Swimming isn’t one-size-fits-all.”

Smith didn’t think she could leave, though. This was Stanford, after all, a world-renowned university with a historic swimming program. The conversation with Paul and Bonnie helped dispel her fears.

That conversation was Smith’s first step on a path that has reignited her passion for swimming and once again made her look like a gold-medal contender at the 2024 Olympics in Paris. She decided to forgo her remaining NCAA eligibility and left Stanford.

Now 21, she’s training with Arizona State’s pro group under Bob Bowman, a former U.S. Olympic head coach best known for his work with Michael Phelps. She has no doubts it was the right decision.

“I just love what I do now,” she said during an interview outside the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, where she trained for most of November. “It’s just a very good environment to be in. I don’t even have to think about feeling motivated.” Regan Smith competing at the 2023 world championships. “I just love what I do now,” she says of her training under legendary coach Bob Bowman at ASU. (Yuichi Yamazaki / AFP via Getty Images)Wearing pink goggles and a black-and-white swim cap, 7-year-old Regan Smith lined up in a middle lane for a mock meet at Foss Swim School. When the coach blew a whistle, she propelled herself forward with smooth, powerful strokes throughout a 50-yard butterfly race.

After Smith’s turn — which was not as advanced as her stroke — a coach standing in the water turned toward her father, her mouth agape.

“Paul!” she said, pointing at his young daughter. “She’s fast!”

Indeed she was. The other girls had half a lap left by the time she finished.

“I realized after that how much I love to win,” Smith said, laughing.

Regan’s older sister, Brenna, had joined a local club swim team, and Regan wanted to follow in her footsteps. Paul wondered about the time commitment, but after weeks and weeks of arguments with Regan, the parents relented.

Needless to say, the return on investment has been good.

“I owe it to my oldest sister, for sure, because I just wanted to copy her, like every younger sibling does,” Regan said.

Smith continued to play other sports and didn’t put all her energy into swimming until she was 13, when she switched clubs to Riptide Swim Team. That’s when she began training six days a week under coach Mike Parratto, who previously coached 12-time Olympic medalist Jenny Thompson. Parratto quickly saw Smith’s talent. Early in their time together, the coach told Smith’s father that her first American record would come in the 200-meter backstroke and then she’d break the 100-meter backstroke mark.

Those predictions proved accurate. Smith had her breakout at the 2019 world championships, her third major international meet. At 17, she set a world record in the 200-meter backstroke en route to gold, then led off the 400-meter medley relay with a world-record 100-meter backstroke time.

“So many have asked me, ‘Who’s the new bright, shiny star that we can look to (for) 2020?’” commentator Rowdy Gaines said on the NBC telecast after watching Smith’s 200-meter backstroke. “Well, you just found her.”

Everything was lining up perfectly. She was peaking heading into the Olympics. Her dad compares her now to Secretariat: She had blinders on. Seemingly nothing could stop her.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

Smith wasn’t training well during the pandemic — “Obviously, no one really was,” she said — and she found it hard to motivate herself for the shorter-than-normal pool time she had access to. She was expected to be an Olympic star after her monster 2019 summer, but she felt vulnerable.

The Olympics got pushed back a year, and when Smith returned to competition in fall, 2020, she wasn’t herself. Physically, she hadn’t built up as much of a training base as she normally would have. Mentally, her confidence was sapped.

“Having that world record in the 100 and 200 back with a bull’s-eye on her back and knowing she was not in shape to defend it, I think it ate her alive,” her dad said.

Smith still made her first Olympic team, qualifying in the 100-meter backstroke and 200-meter butterfly. But the 200-meter backstroke was notably absent from her schedule. She finished third in the event at the Olympic Trials, missing the team by three-tenths of a second, and was more than three seconds slower than her then-world-record time.

Though Smith won three Olympic medals in 2021, the Tokyo Games brought more swims not up to her standards. She was thrilled with her silver-medal swim in the 200-meter butterfly, but her 100-meter backstroke didn’t go how she wanted, both in the individual event and the 400-meter medley relay final.

“I just completely crumbled under that pressure,” she said. “I think I was too young and too ill-equipped to deal with that at the time.” Regan Smith went into the Tokyo run-up as a gold-medal favorite after her performance at the 2019 world championships. She left with a silver and a bronze in her two individual events. (Tom Pennington / Getty Images)
Meanwhile, Australian sensation Kaylee McKeown swept the backstroke events in Tokyo. She now owns the 100- and 200-meter backstroke records that once belonged to Smith.
Two years removed, Smith calls the Tokyo Games “a wonderful lesson.” But she struggled in the immediate aftermath. Her trajectory had seemed clear after her 2019 worlds, but suddenly it was off.
“I can be so bitter sometimes,” Smith said. “I had it so perfect. I set these two world records, I was the Olympic gold-medal favorite in two events and a relay favorite for a gold medal in a third event, and then COVID happened and just f—ed everything up.”
The year at Stanford brought further struggles. And after the pandemic and Olympic disappointment, she refused to look at swimming news or the times McKeown was putting up for Australia.
“I didn’t want to know because it scared me,” Smith said.
Smith’s self-belief was at a low when she and her dad and stepmother had their heart-to-heart that led to her leaving Stanford. When deciding where to go next, she started with two options: Hanover, N.H., home to Dartmouth’s swim team, and Tempe, Ariz., home to Arizona State and Bowman. She chose the latter.
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