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Leah Smith reflects on Rio, eyes racing Katie Ledecky at NCAAs in Q&A

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By Nate Ryan
NBC Sports

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Leah Smith’s goal next year will be trying to dethrone a singular talent in phenom Katie Ledecky.

So it might have seemed appropriate that during Smith’s recent trip to a NASCAR race, she was approached by an auto racing parallel to Ledecky.

Jimmie Johnson, who recently tied Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty with his seventh championship, introduced himself to Smith before a pre-race drivers meeting. A triathlete who has swam at the Mecklenburg Aquatic Center favored by many Charlotte-based Olympians, Johnson didn’t have any inside tips on how to beat a generational superstar – but he did have some thoughts on the intersection of the pool and the pavement.

“He likes to swim after the sitting in the car for a long time,” Smith said. “It helps him to feel relaxed. I thought that was really cool, because it’s something that we share. You’re kind of alone looking at the black line when you swim, too. There are people on the sidelines cheering you on, but it’s just you, and you have to tune a lot of stuff out.”

In her Olympic debut in Rio, Smith showed plenty of mettle and focus. She gold-medal 4x200m freestyle relay team with Ledecky, Maya DiRado and Allison Schmitt, and she earned bronze in the 400m freestyle (an event in which Ledecky set a world record).

Smith is a senior at the University of Virginia, and the Pittsburgh native was the 2016 NCAA champion in the 500-yard freestyle and 1,650-yard freestyle. In March, she and Ledecky should go head-to-head again in an NCAA pool that has different parameters than the Olympics (25 yards versus 50 meters).

NBC Sports caught up with Smith before the Martinsville race about the Olympics afterglow and what’s ahead.

          Q: Has it been a life-changing experience as an Olympic medalist?

          Smith: “Yeah, I’d say my training and everything, and just how I approach the sport, has never really changed for the past four years or so since I’ve been in college. I’m just as excited for my college season as I was for the Olympics. I am excited about my last year of college swimming, but I’d say things have changed … it’s weird to accept that people would look at me and know who I am. That’s cool for me. It’s just weird to go from I’m at these swim meets and look at all the older Olympians, and I’m looking at them like impressed, and there’s little kids looking at me like that, and that’s just really weird to me, but it’s a role that I’m excited about, and it’s really crazy to see the different people you can inspire.”

           Q: So you’ve noticed a change in how people respond to you since Rio. Are you recognized around Charlottesville now?

          Smith: “For sure. It’s cool. It also just shows me how much people really watch the Olympics and how much they paid attention. Swimming isn’t really a sport that people watch all the time. So for people to come up and tell me (that). I went to a swimathon at a local club in Charlottesville yesterday, and the little kids knew my place in the 800m (free), which I didn’t even medal in, and they knew my times and stuff, and so that was just really cool for me.”

          Q: When you’re in an aspirational role like that, how does that affect your ability to inspire youth?

          Smith: “There was actually this little girl at the swimathon. The proceeds were being donated to the children’s hospital at UVA, and there was a little girl there who has heart problems who’s 6, and it was her wish to meet me. So I went to the swimathon, and her mom was just so thrilled and said that because she has the heart condition, she can’t do impact sports. So swimming is really her only option for sports that aren’t a danger to her, so she was really inspired by watching me in the Olympics. I honestly was inspired by her. She’s 6 and has had two open-heart surgeries. It’s amazing to meet people like that and see the effect you can have on them, because she was just so excited to be around me. I showed her my medals and stuff, and it was a really rewarding experience.”

           Q; What was the reception like in Pittsburgh, a parade or homecoming?

           Smith: “I think they wanted to do a parade, but I don’t really get to go home very often because I have to train all the time, and where I train is in Charlottesville. But I did go to the Steeler game last weekend, and I got to go on the field. I met Antonio Brown. He had been tweeting me during the Olympics. Just all the Pittsburgh support, the Steelers had been tweeting me during the Olympics. USA Swimming knew that I was a huge fan of Antonio and the Steelers, so they helped me send him a cap with the American flag on it and his name. We sent him that during the Olympics, and he supported us all throughout, which was great, and I got to meet him last weekend. It’s been cool to be back in Pittsburgh. I’ve only been back twice since Rio. But it’s cool to be home.”

             Q: So now your attention turns to your final college season?

            Smith: “Yes, so we have NCAAs in March, and that’ll be the end of my NCAA season. Right after that, I’ll turn professional and I can accept sponsorships and prize money. So I’ll start swimming as a career at that point.”

            Q: Is it fair to say you are Katie Ledecky’s greatest domestic rival?

           Smith: “Yes, I swam this summer at trials in the 400m freestyle, and that was the closest anyone had been to Katie in a very, very long time (1.67 seconds behind). And she dominated the Olympics, but I was closer in the 400m freestyle to her than the other girls were close to me. So I would say I’ve closed the gap more than other girls. Katie is in a class of her own. She is the Katie Ledecky.”

           Q: A lot of NASCAR drivers talk about Jimmie Johnson with the same reverence, much like the Michael Jordan era in the NBA, there are great drivers who might not win championships because of him. It sounds as if there are parallels to Ledecky?

            Smith: “Exactly. I think I went the third-fastest time ever in the 400m freestyle (ranked behind only Ledecky and Federica Pellegrini), which I was so excited about, but when you have someone that’s next to you break the world record, it’s just you don’t even … you might not see my race, but I was just excited to even be in the race. So yeah, I don’t hate it at all that I (am competing against) a once-in-alifetime talent because I don’t know if everyone in women’s distance swimming would be as good without her. Because she just raises the stakes so much, that there’s something to chase always, and everyone wants to be better. It’s cool that I even just get the chance to race against her. I don’t think it would be fun if I was just winning everything. I get to race against a world-class talent all the time.”

           Q: So will the game change against her in an NCAA pool?

           Smith: “There are three different formats of pools, and this feeds into how college is more exciting. It’s called short-course yards. So it’s a 25-yard pool, and it’s shorter, it’s more exciting, there’s more turns. You go faster because of the turns. So it’s short-course yards, but then in the summer, it’s long-course meters. It’s different, but certain people are very, very good at short course. And certain people are not and vice-versa. There are people that I might lose to at NCAAs because I’m not as good at short course in the shorter distances, but I’d beat them in the Olympic format, which is 50 meters. This will be the first time I ever get to race (Ledecky) in the short-course yards format.”

            Q: Does that give you an edge?

            Smith: “It might, actually. Maybe not an edge, but I might catch up just a little bit more. I won’t be ahead by any means. She definitely has enough experience racing short course, but the one thing you underestimate in the NCAAs is that nothing prepares you for racing at NCAAs. I had so much experience going into my first year with short-course swimming, but the experience of the meet itself, I had no experience for that. It’s just a crazy meet in general. You can’t really put it on the same scale as any other meet. It’s just college sports. Sometimes, they’re crazy.”

          Q: Are there any weaknesses of hers that you could exploit?
Smith
: “I’ve won the NCAA championship the past two years, and I think that it would be wrong for me to just say I’m going to lose this year. If every girl who races Katie Ledecky just immediately accepted they were going to lose, there wouldn’t be a point be to swimming. Everyone wants to race to be the best they can be. If you’re diving in, and you’re predicting your place, you shouldn’t really be in the sport. I’m going to race this year putting everything I have on the line just because it’s my last year, and I want to do as best as I can. And if that ends up being the best, then that’s great. But I’m not going to go into the race saying I’m going to get second or I’m going to get third. I’m going to go into the race saying I want to go best times for myself, and I’ll be happy if I just try my best.”

         Q: With the controversy in Rio involving USA Swimming, has anything changed in the aftermath?

          Smith: “The way we approached it is ultimately they are our teammates. And we were very worried for them, just their safety. We were really concerned and hoping they would all return, because I’d never wish anything bad upon them. And I can’t really speak to their actions, but the way I see it is everybody makes mistakes. I’m friends with the guys who are involved in the incident, and I know a lot of people have different opinions about it, but it’s in the past now. We weren’t really addressed like, ‘This is a blemish. We want to cover this up,’ or anything. It was just like, ‘This kind of thing happens,’ and it was more of just learning for both parties.

“I’m 100 percent sure they learned from it, but also just like it was more of a wakeup call. A reminder that we are USA Swimming. We don’t like to act in that way. And we are a very respected body. We always talk about how USA Swimming is very highly respected, and we’re only in this spot once every four years, and we’ve got to make it count. So we were talked to about that before just that people love swimming and love to watch it when the Olympics are on. I think it was just a reminder that this is our chance to show the world what we’re all about. I have a hopeful outlook. I think that everybody learned, and I think that I learned stuff from it.”

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Several women’s players spurn worlds inquiry from USA Hockey

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As sports organizations and notable hockey figures express support of the U.S. women’s team, several players say they rejected overtures from USA Hockey to serve as replacements for the upcoming world championships.

Two players told The Associated Press on Friday that USA Hockey reached out to them to gauge their interest for the worlds, which begin next week in Plymouth, Michigan.

Brittany Ott, a goaltender for the Boston Pride of the National Women’s Hockey League, and Annie Pankowski, a junior forward at the University of Wisconsin, said the email from USA Hockey was not an invitation but rather an inquiry about their availability.

“I responded to that email and I said I’m not willing,” Pankowski said.

A third player, goalie Lauren Dahm, told the AP on Saturday she also turned down an invitation. Dahm plays for the Canadian Women’s Hockey League Boston Blades.

The U.S. team has said it plans to boycott the worlds over a wage dispute with USA Hockey, which confirmed Thursday it would begin reaching out to potential replacement players. Several players posted messages on social media saying they support the national team and would decline or have declined any outreach from USA Hockey.

“From a personal standpoint I have never been invited to a USA Hockey series or camp or anything like that and I would honestly love to be invited to something like that,” Ott said by phone. “However at the current time, this is a fight that I believe in and I’m definitely going to stand up and help fight as much as I can.”

Many players posted a version of a Jerry Rice quote on Twitter on Friday: “Today I will do what others won’t so tomorrow I can do what others can’t. I said no to USAH & will not play in the 2017WC.” Not all players who tweeted that message were asked by USA Hockey if they could play.

On Saturday, NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith joined the chorus of support for the players, saying on Twitter the organization stands behind their pursuit of fairness and equality.

“These women understand inequality when they see it and are expressing their right to be treated fairly as athletes and workers,” Smith tweeted. “Of course, they have the NFLPA’s support in daring to withhold their services until a fair agreement is reached.”

Philadelphia Flyers coach Dave Hakstol posted his support on Twitter, calling players competitors and role models.

On Friday, the NHL Players’ Association and Major League Baseball players posted messages of support. The NHLPA posted on Twitter that it supports players and panned USA Hockey’s bid to stock the team with replacements, adding that the decision “would only serve to make relations, now and in the future, much worse.”

The MLBPA encouraged all female hockey players to stand united behind their national team colleagues.

Players are seeking a four-year contract that includes payments outside the six-month Olympic period. The sides met for 10-plus hours Monday, but players have called USA Hockey’s counterproposal “disappointing.”

USA Hockey said Thursday its priority was to have all the players selected for the national team on the ice March 31 when the tournament begins. But the organization added that it informed players’ representatives it would begin reaching out to potential replacements with the tournament coming up.

Star national team forward Hilary Knight said last week she wished USA Hockey luck putting together a suitable team of replacements to defend the gold medal because the player pool was united in the dispute. Ott and Pankowski said they had not heard from any players expressing a willingness to play in worlds.

“It’s a very unified front,” Ott said. “It’s a tight-knit community that we have in women’s hockey here. This is definitely a big opportunity for us to make a big change and have a big impact on our sport and have it grow. We’re all standing together.”

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World Figure Skating Championships pairs preview

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Volosozhar and Trankov couldn’t do it. Neither did Shen and Zhao. Nor Gordeeva and Grinkov.

Canadians Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford can win a third straight pairs world title next week, a feat not seen since Irina Rodnina and Alexander Zaitsev of the Soviet Union won six in a row from 1973 through 1978.

But they don’t feel like favorites.

“We’re coming in a little more under the radar,” Radford said.

They lost their two most recent international competitions — third at the Grand Prix Final in December; second at the Four Continents Championships in February.

Duhamel and Radford are seeded fifth by best international scores this season going into the world championships in Helsinki (broadcast schedule here).

“Sometimes it feels like worlds last year was so long ago,” Radford said.

Last year in Boston, Duhamel and Radford had the performance of their seven-year partnership in the world championships free skate. They tallied a personal-best 153.81 points, more than seven points clear of their previous best.

It was easily enough to overtake Chinese short-program leaders Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, who were relegated to silver behind the Canadians for a second straight year.

This season, Duhamel and Radford haven’t come within 13 points of their 2016 World Championships total. Duhamel went through “an unforeseeable circumstance” in her personal life in November that she chooses not to reveal.

They implemented the throw triple Axel, but Duhamel fell three times in a four-event stretch this fall. They lost by nearly 13 points at December’s Grand Prix Final, which ended with a Duhamel backstage meltdown.

“We never fell like that at home [in practice],” Duhamel said on the IceTalk podcast. “It started to shake us up a little bit.”

They replaced the throw triple Axel in their program. Without it in February, both skaters had trouble with jumps at Four Continents at the 2018 Olympic venue and finished nearly 13 points behind Sui and Han.

“We kind of went back to square one, to the drawing board after Four Continents, reassessing what’s gone on this season, why are we underperforming, why are we not succeeding in competition the way we are training,” Duhamel said.

They made program changes, notably on their throw and jump entrances and overhauling the footwork in their short program.

Duhamel adopted a rescue dog from South Korea. Radford, who had surgery over the summer to remove a cyst from his ankle bone, leaned on a sports psychologist.

“I personally feel a lot more relaxed and seemless,” Radford said. “That feeling has come a little bit later this season.”

Five pairs could take gold in Helsinki in perhaps the most wide-open event.

Germans Aliona Savchenko and (French-born) Bruno Massot won both of their fall Grand Prix events but missed the Grand Prix Final after she tore an ankle ligament. They returned to take silver at the European Championships in January with the best score of their two-year partnership.

Young Russians Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov stepped up to win the Grand Prix Final, the second-biggest annual competition, and then the European Championships. But free-skate struggles have dogged them this season.

Another Russian pair, Olympic silver medalists Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov, are perhaps the biggest wild card. They missed the fall season due to Stolbova’s left leg injury, but then beat Tarasova and Morozov in their season debut at the Russian Championships. Stolbova fell on their throw triple flip in both programs at the European Championships in January, and they finished fourth.

Then there are Sui and Han, looking to break through for a first senior world title in their sixth try (though Sui is just 21 years old, and Han 24). They missed the fall season after Sui underwent right ankle and left foot surgeries last spring. They returned at Four Continents and posted personal-best free skate and total scores, ranking only behind Tarasova and Morozov for the season.

U.S. pairs Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim and Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier have both missed significant time due to injury in the last two years. They are behind the top pairs from Canada, China and Russia.

The U.S. hasn’t put a pair in the world championships top five since 2006, and that doesn’t figure to change next week.

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NBC Sports researcher Sarah Hughes contributed to this report.