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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.”

MORE: For Katie Ledecky, starting college means riding a bike

Nick Goepper opens Olympic qualifying on podium; contenders crash out

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BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. — U.S. Olympic men’s ski slopestyle qualifying is underway with Sochi bronze medalist Nick Goepper delivering the first blow.

Goepper finished second at Dew Tour Breckenridge, taking the early edge in Olympic qualifying.

With a victory at any of the remaining selection events, Goepper would be looking good for one of up to four spots on the team for PyeongChang.

“I was really hoping to ski my best today, and I think I skied 98 percent,” Goepper said. “The Olympic selection podium is a bonus and eases the pressure a little bit for the next couple, but the pressure wasn’t really there. I’m just thinking of these as individual events [instead of Olympic qualifiers].”

Alex Hall (fifth place) and Sochi silver medalist Gus Kenworthy (sixth place) also got their Olympic qualifying attempts off to a decent start, but in order to be automatically nominated to the Olympic team, skiers need a minimum of two top-three finishes among five selection events.

Goepper was the only U.S. skier able to crack the podium in Breckenridge.

Sweden’s Henrik Harlaut (first place) and Norway’s Oystein Braaten (third place) played the role of spoiler for the rest of the U.S. team. Harlaut and Braaten are both considered medal contenders for PyeongChang.

Crashes took their toll on several U.S. Olympic hopefuls.

McRae Williams, the reigning world champion, was forced to drop out after crashing on his first run. Colby Stevenson and 2014 Olympian Bobby Brown also did not finish the contest after taking spills of their own.

The contest also missed the reigning Olympic gold medalist. Joss Christensen sat out the event as he rehabs from a torn ACL but plans to return in January for the final four selection events.

On the women’s side, Maggie Voisin remains on track for a nomination to the U.S. Olympic team.

She finished fourth, best among Americans, in the Olympic qualifier at Breckenridge on the strength of a run that featured three 900s.

Voisin won the first qualifier for women’s slopestyle, which was held last season.

She still needs one more top-three finish at any of the three remaining selection events to be eligible for an automatic nomination, but she has consistently been the top performer among the U.S. women.

With two-time X Games gold medalist Kelly Sildaru sidelined with a knee injury this season, the field looks wide open for PyeongChang.

Voisin, then 15, was slated to make her Olympic debut in Sochi as the youngest American in any sport but was injured just days before the competition.

As long as she stays healthy, she will be a medal contender in PyeongChang, as will Norway’s Johanne Killi and France’s Tess Ledeux.

Killi narrowly edged out Ledeux, who recently turned 16, for the victory in Breckenridge. Sarah Hoefflin of Switzerland rounded out the podium.

Four U.S. selection events remain for the men, and three events remain for the women. Olympic qualifying resumes in January with a series of contests in Aspen, Colo., and Mammoth Mountain, Calif.

U.S. Olympic Qualifying Standings
Ski Slopestyle 
(women through two of five events; men through one of five)
1. Maggie Voisin — 150*
2. Devin Logan — 82
3. Darian Stevens — 81
4. Taylor Lundquist — 52
5. Nadia Gonzales — 28

1. Nick Goepper — 80*
2. Alex Hall — 45
3. Gus Kenworthy — 40
4. Bobby Brown — 32
5. Cody LaPlante — 29

**Has automatic qualifying minimum of two top-three results.
*Has one top-three result.

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MORE: List of athletes qualified for U.S. Olympic team

Maame Biney, J.R. Celski join U.S. Olympic short track team

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Maame Biney will become the second African-born athlete to compete for the U.S. at the Winter Olympics and the first black woman on a speed skating team.

J.R. Celski, a three-time medalist, is going to a third Winter Games.

Biney, Celski and Aaron Tran qualified in short track at the Olympic Trials in Kearns, Utah, after the 500m on Saturday.

The team is now at five skaters — John-Henry Krueger and Lana Gehring qualified on the first night Friday.

Three more skaters will qualify Sunday after 1000m races — two men and one woman.

One of Katherine Reutter-Adamek and Jessica Kooreman, the top U.S. women at the last two Olympics, is guaranteed to miss the PyeongChang team.

Neither could keep up with the 17-year-old Biney, who moved to the D.C. area from Ghana with her father at age 5, on Saturday.

Biney swept the 500m finals, taking leads from the start and holding off more experienced women. She actually fell — while celebrating after crossing the finish line in the last race.

Afterward, NBC Sports’ Andrea Joyce told Biney that eight-time Olympic medalist Apolo Ohno believes Biney doesn’t know how good she is.

“People have been telling me that forever, and I think right now I’m kind of seeing it, but I feel like I have a long ways to go, but thanks Apolo,” said Biney, who won a junior world championships bronze medal last season.

Celski did not win the men’s 500m, where he is the world-record holder. Krueger did, with Tran in second.

But the fact that Krueger finished in the top two in Friday’s 1500m and the 500m means that Celski gets on the team via his second-place finish in the 1500m.

Celski won two bronze medals at the 2010 Olympics and another relay silver in Sochi.

He took a full season off after Sochi — undergoing hip surgery — and overcame further knee and back injuries the last two years to return to the World Cup podium this season.

Celski is the only American to earn an individual World Cup medal this season (a bronze) in 24 total races.

Celski won’t be able to race the 500m in PyeongChang if Thomas Hong makes the Olympic team on Sunday.

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MORE: U.S. Olympic short track skater gets 4-year doping ban

U.S. Olympic Short Track Trials

Day Time (ET) Events Network
Friday 6:45-8 p.m. 1500m rounds STREAM LINK
8:30-10 p.m. 1500m finals NBCSN | STREAM LINK
Saturday 12-1:45 p.m. 500m rounds STREAM LINK
2:30-4 p.m. 500m finals NBC | STREAM LINK
Sunday 10:15 a.m.-12:15 p.m. 1000m rounds STREAM LINK
1-3 p.m. 1000m finals NBC | STREAM LINK