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.
“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.”
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.”
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: Arizona State under Bowman, or Florida.
Smith never even spoke to the Florida coaches. She set up a call with Bowman, and from that first talk, she was sold.
“It just aligned perfectly with what I wanted,” she said.
Wearing a white Arizona State swim cap, Smith reached for the finish in the 200-meter backstroke at the 2023 world championship trials. She had gone 2:03.80, not quite her best time of 2:03.35, but her first time under the 2:04 barrier since 2019. When she saw her first-place time on the scoreboard, her face glowed with elation and perhaps a bit of relief.
In her eyes, the swim was symbolic of refinding her place in the sport.
“It was a very long and grueling road, but I finally feel like I’m at that level again,” she said. “I’m that swimmer again. I’m me again.”
Smith credits Arizona State with helping her get there. Training has gone well, and she likes the dynamic within the pro group and college swimmers, with whom she’s grown close. Though Smith can’t compete in NCAA meets, she still feels welcomed by the collegiate swimmers at Arizona State. Smith also hopes to start taking classes at the school after the Paris Olympics.
In the water, she has full trust in Bowman. She appreciates that he is direct and doesn’t over-complicate practices. Some swimmers like knowing the science behind the training they’re doing, but Smith prefers simply following her coach’s instructions.
“He has a big swim brain, and I don’t even try to understand it,” she said. “I just do what he tells me, and I go. It’s almost like I’m a puppet, but not in a bad way.”
Smith’s resurgence means there’s potential for a titanic battle in both backstroke events at the 2024 Olympics. McKeown, who has dominated the backstroke events since Tokyo, will be formidable, and Smith acknowledges she thinks about racing the Australian star a decent amount. But she no longer avoids looking at McKeown’s meet results like she used to.
“I now look at the things she’s been doing this year, and I really use it as motivation because I know I have that same level of talent in me and I put in the work as well,” Smith said.
Added her dad: “Regan, I think, relishes it because she loves that the target is on Kaylee’s back, and she loves that she’s got one more year under Bob to continue to build back into the kind of shape she wants to be in.”
That doesn’t mean there haven’t been roadblocks. Smith felt great about her swims at the U.S. Open in late November and early December, where she swept the two backstroke events and the 200-meter butterfly, but she tested positive for mononucleosis shortly after. As she has worked through her sickness, intrusive thoughts have once again found their way into her mind. Some days, she feels good about her goals. On other days, she worries her time out of the water will prevent her from getting back into peak shape.
“It’s been really hard to stay positive when I’m not able to be at my best, knowing that Paris is only seven months away,” she said. “It’s honestly an ongoing battle.”
Overall, though, she’s in a better space than she was at Stanford. When she moved to Arizona, she began journaling what sets she did at swimming practices, in part because of how creative and fun she found them. Some days, she adds a note about something she did well.
The pages remind her that she’s put in the work. That when her body hits the water, all she has to do is swim.
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(Top photo of Regan Smith with her gold medal from the 200-meter butterfly at this month’s U.S. Open Championships: Jacob Kupferman / Getty Images)