Regan Smith knew she was in the midst of a strong performance during last month’s 200-meter backstroke semifinal at the World Championships. So strong, in fact, that Smith was confident she was indeed going to hit her target mark of finally going under 2 minutes, 6 seconds.
When Smith touched the wall in South Korea and looked up at the board, she was in shock. She had indeed broken 2:06, and 2:05, and, shockingly, 2:04 — easily.
The time next to Smith’s name: 2:03.35 — smashing Missy Franklin’s 7-year-old world record of 2:04.05 by seven-tenths of a second.
The Lakeville 17-year-old made history.
“When I looked at the board and saw my time,” Smith said, “the first thing I thought was there was a malfunction or something, that it was wrong.”
Nothing was wrong — in fact, everything that week went right for Smith, who went on to win the 200 backstroke world title before setting two more world records, this time in the 100 backstroke (57.57 seconds) as the first leg of the United States’ gold medal-winning, world-record setting 4×100-meter medley relay team.
“Both of those swims were everything we could’ve asked for,” said Regan’s father, Paul Smith. “It was basically a 10 out of 10. She was dialed in and did exactly what she needed to do, and it was wonderful to see.”
'Here we go'
Smith’s semifinal start time in the 200 backstroke was around 6:30 a.m. Central for those 6,400 miles away back at Bluewater Aquatic Club in Apple Valley. That’s when Mike Parratto called his swimmers over for a break from their morning training session.
The Riptide Swimming head coach pulled up the NBC Sports app on his phone, and Smith’s club teammates gathered in close to get a good look at the race.
The plan was for Smith to swim fast in the semifinals to lock in a good seed for the final.
“There wasn’t anything said about let’s go really, really fast and break the world record,” Parratto joked.
After 50 meters, Smith was ahead of the world record split. Parratto knows that’s not rare, particularly at high-level international events. But when Smith still had Franklin’s mark bested at the 100-meter mark, Paul — who was in attendance — knew the record was in serious danger.
And by the time Smith hit the 150-meter mark, and was pulling away from Franklin’s record split, Parratto all but knew what was about to occur.
“Oh boy,” Paul thought, “here we go.”
“When she got to the last 15 meters,” Parratto said, “it was like, ‘Well, this is going to happen.’ ”
A feeling of joy overcame Paul Smith as he watched his daughter emerge from the water and realize what she had just accomplished. While Regan Smith didn’t realize it was possible to drop three seconds off her best time, those in charge of her training weren’t surprised. Parratto consistently sees the times Smith posts in sprint sets at the end of excruciating training sessions. There was no doubt that, when fully rested, Smith could fly. Parratto had been telling people that Smith’s breakthrough swim was coming. It arrived at the perfect time.
“Mike and I both knew she was capable of doing what she did, but there’s a difference in being capable of something and actually doing it,” said Paul, who co-directs the swim club alongside Parratto. “To see her actually do it was … just very heartwarming and rewarding.”
“She earned that swim,” Parratto said.
Smith’s instant love for swimming was born almost entirely out of success. In her first meet as a 7-year-old, she achieved championship-level time standards in all three of her events. She was hooked.
Kids like what they’re good at.
“That was a big part of it. I loved being the best, and that was just so fun for me,” said Smith, who is hyper-competitive with everything she does. “I just remember it didn’t even feel hard. I was just like, ‘This is really working out for me, this is cool.’ … So I think that definitely was part of it, and I think that when you start off on a good note like that, your motivation just skyrockets.”
But, over time, as Smith grew older and more mature, her relationship with the sport grew stronger, and deeper. No longer does she simply enjoy the thrill of winning. Smith appreciates the process. She’s addicted to the satisfaction that comes with the completion of a grueling workout.
“She’s determined to do what she’s doing, she’s dedicated to it, she wants to be good,” Parratto said. “That’s just a really great thing for a coach to walk on the pool deck and know this person is going to bring it today. Regardless of what the challenges may be on any certain day, she’s willing to meet those challenges. I think that’s the highest compliment you can give to someone on a daily basis.”
Paul Smith compared some of Parratto’s coaching techniques to “witchcraft,” joking that his practice plans are so unique and different, they resemble a calculus equation. There’s a method to the madness.
“There is an incredible intensity in what he asks of these athletes in the water, and Regan just feeds off of it,” Paul said. “And that’s what Mike will always say — you’ve got to feed her. She wants it, and you’ve got to feed her. If you’re not challenging her and pushing her and pushing her, she’s going to get bored.”
Smith is in the pool six days a week during the school year, from 3 to 5:30 p.m. every weekday, plus two dense morning sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 5:30 to 6:40 a.m. The week is capped by a three-hour workout on Saturday mornings, which start at 7.
“So it’s a lot,” Smith said. “You’ve got to go to bed early on Friday night when you’re done with school for the week. Monday night, I turn the TV off at like 8:15. Like I need to rest, (because) waking up at 4:50 is going to be hard.”
Like every teenager who has competed in any sport, there are occasional days when Smith thinks she hates swimming and doesn’t want to go to practice. But she knows she’ll never miss a day of it.
“Just because I can’t,” she said. “I wouldn’t like that. That’s just not who I am anymore.”
Smith is currently enjoying a roughly month-long, well-earned break from the pool, but she is already growing antsy to get back to work. This is why she’s the world’s best.
“The obsession with getting better and feeling tired and feeling like you’re making progress, I think that’s why I keep at it, and I think that’s what’s helped me keep getting better,” Smith said. “Some people can hit a wall and they’re not really there mentally anymore. But I’ve been lucky, I haven’t — hopefully, I’ll never hit that. It’s just a very addicting, like let’s keep going, and if I have a bad practice, that sucks, but we’re going to come back tomorrow and it’s going to be better.”
Smith said she walked into the World Championships as “a kid.” She’s been competing, and succeeding, on big international stages for a while now — racing at the U.S. Olympic Trials three years ago, taking eighth at the 2017 World Championships and claiming bronze at the Pan Pacific Championships last year.
She’s not foreign to big stages. But that doesn’t mean she’s immune to them. The backstroke events at the World Championships weren’t scheduled to start until Day 6 of the meet. So Smith spent the first four nights of the meet as a spectator.
She soaked up the atmosphere and energy firsthand, looked around at the massive facility and witnessed the fast swim times being posted. Then she started to doubt herself.
“I was like, ‘Well, I’m nervous, what if I just don’t do very well,’ ” Smith thought.
She wasn’t really pleased with that eighth-place finish in 2017, and feared a repeat performance. Those fears were calmed by a strong swim in prelims, which generated confidence heading into the semis.
Then came the record.
“That just put me in a completely different world,” she said. “I was just like, ‘Well, this is weird, this is not what I expected.’ ”
Smith has always had a security blanket at big events — she is usually the youngest one in the pool.
“I’ve always walked into it being like, ‘I have nothing to lose,’ ” she said. “If I do bad, it’s not unexpected, but it’s like, ‘She’s so young, good for her that she’s even there.’ And then if I do well, it’s just even better. So I guess at most every meet, I’ve never felt like there is pressure.”
That changed after the semifinal. Suddenly, she was the overwhelming favorite. Smith loves wearing the Team USA swim cap. Nothing motivates her more than swimming not just for herself, but her country. Which is part of the reason she was legitimately scared walking into the event final.
“Because I really wanted to win for Team USA,” she said. “I never want to think about all that pressure, because that’s when it can all just crash down. But at the same time, I was. I was like, ‘Well, shoot, I’m used to being the underdog, and now here I am sitting on top, expected not to fall.’ ”
You don’t really know how you’ll react to that type of pressure until you’re in it. This was Smith’s first experience in such a spot. She’d have been excused if it all proved too much for her. It wasn’t.
Smith set a blistering pace in her first 100 meters of the final en route to a time of 2:03.69, claiming gold by more than 2½ seconds.
“She left no doubt what was going to happen,” Parratto said. “By the 100, the race was over, she had such a nice lead. She was swimming just to see what she could do. … That approach and the ability to be able to have that approach is what’s impressive.”
Smith has one regret about that race — how she felt before it. It was the most nervous she’s ever been pre-race. As she was putting her tech suit on, her only thought was “I just can’t wait for this to be over.”
“Which is a terrible mentality,” she said. “Then it sucks because when it is over, you’re like, ‘Shoot, I wished I’d lived in that moment more.’ ”
Lesson learned. Heading into the 400 medley relay, Smith was again nervous but also “really, really confident … that I was going to do something great.”
Of course, she did.
The entire World Championship meet was a new learning experience, one in which Smith realized what she’s capable of not just physically, but mentally. This is the first time she’s admitted to feeling nerves and fear. She is quickly learning how to accept those emotions, harness them and use them to her advantage.
“You just have to channel that pressure into adrenaline, you just have to use it to your advantage instead of letting it crush you down,” Smith said. “I learned a lot about my mental capacity and what I can do with pressure and everything. I just think going forward it’ll be a meet that I always look back on when I’m nervous or feeling weird. I just think that was a really great thing that I was able to do. If there’s going to be pressure, it’s definitely there.”
It was a valuable, timely lesson to learn heading into 2020.
“I’ll be able to hopefully use that to my advantage, like I’ve done that before, I can do that again,” Smith said. “Going into next summer, there will be a lot of things at stake, kind of.”
“Got to keep the pressure low, right?” she joked.
2020 can wait
Smith is a self-proclaimed “worry wart.” Chief among her anxiety producers: school. The Stanford commit took three AP courses as a junior, and has two more on the docket for her upcoming senior year at Lakeville North High School.
That’s a challenging academic slate for anyone, never mind a world-class swimmer who takes half her courses online to help accommodate her swim-heavy schedule, which includes a healthy dose of travel required to get Smith adequate long-course training.
“I get really stressed out about school,” said Smith, who noted her gratitude for her accommodating teachers. “I’m a baby about it. I get really freaked out.”
When asked what area of study she might pursue in college, Smith dove into her options. Maybe something in nutrition or sports medicine. She hasn’t had a strong interest in marketing or business, but knows those areas present ample opportunities.
“I’m thinking way too far ahead,” she realized.
That’s never the case in the pool. As much as she thinks and worries about other aspects of life, Smith never stresses over swimming.
Perhaps that’s because her mental approach is so sound. Smith never looks too far ahead. She knows Parratto and her father will put together productive plans, and it’s her job to simply show up and execute them.
The moment Smith wrapped her incredible World Championship meet, the minds of those across the swimming world likely shifted to thoughts of what the teenager might accomplish at next summer’s Olympic trials, and the subsequent Tokyo games.
“I’ve talked to so many different media outlets over the last couple of months heading into these World Championships, and everyone has asked me, ‘Who’s the new bright, shiny star that we can look to 2020?’ ” NBC Sports swimming analyst Rowdy Gaines said after Smith’s record-setting semifinal. “Well, you just found her.”
But Smith is only focused on what is immediately ahead. She’s set to embark on her last campaign with her club team. There are many things she enjoys about the short-course season, from working on her other strokes — butterfly was her first love, and she’s a strong freestyle swimmer — to working with her teammates, who inspire her on a daily basis.
Soon, Smith will hop back in the pool, while also resuming her thrice-weekly strength training sessions with Alana Jensen that have helped take her to the next level.
“My coach always says take it day by day, don’t get too far ahead of yourself, which I think is really, really smart,” Smith said. “Because if I’m just constantly thinking about trials and hopefully the Olympics, I’ll just really miss out on this year, and I think I’ll look back and be like, ‘Shoot, I’m never going to have that again.’ I want to enjoy it.”
Smith was eating lunch at Chianti Grill in Burnsville recently when she was recognized by her waitress.
“She was so sweet and very congratulatory, and that was cool,” Smith said. “Just because it’s like it’s swimming, so it’s cool that people notice and care.”
Smith can expect a lot more of that in the coming year, as the anticipation, excitement and attention build toward next summer. The fact that she, like Michael Phelps, is a world-record holder, has started to sink in, but she makes a point to not think about it too often.
“I don’t feel different,” Smith said, “and I think that’s really important.”
Training, too, will remain the status quo.
“She knows what got her there, so we go back into training and we do the things that are necessary to try to improve. That’s all we did last year, that’s all we did the year before, that’s kind of what we do with everybody,” Parratto said. “There’s never any predictions here. It’s about going out and trying to be better. If you do that enough times in the training, you let the swim meets happen.”
That’s good by Smith, who never has been one to set goals for herself. Why put any limitations on what she can achieve?
“It’s worked for me so far,” Smith said. “I don’t know, I think that what I’ve been doing and my routine has worked really well for me, so far, and I just want to continue being on that wave of routine, positivity and good practices. So I’m just really excited to get back into it. I’m loving this break, but at the same time, I’m feeling a little bit lazy, so time to get back in.”