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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

U.S. men look to fill Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte void at swim worlds

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With Michael Phelps retired and Ryan Lochte suspended, the superstars at the world swimming championships clearly lie on the women’s side.

But the men’s events will include world-record chasers, a stinging rivalry and, perhaps, the emergence of Phelps and Lochte’s successor as leading U.S. man.

Caeleb Dressel came through in Rio under arguably the most pressure of any swimmer, starting off the U.S. 4x100m freestyle relay team in his very first Olympic splash with a personal-best time.

Dressel, a 20-year-old who nearly quit swimming three years ago as the No. 1 recruit in the nation, has nine events to choose from at worlds in Budapest starting Sunday.

He qualified in four individual events — 50m and 100m butterflies and freestyles — and is eligible for all five relays (two mixed-gender).

In the last 15 years, only two U.S. men have raced in four individual events at a single Olympics or world championships — Phelps and Lochte.

Dressel is in the medal mix in all of his individual events, ranking No. 1 in the world this year in the 100m fly, No. 3 in the 50m free, No. 4 in the 100m free and No. 5 in the 50m fly. He is also almost guaranteed medals in any relays that he enters given the unmatched U.S. depth.

Dressel has never been to a worlds and raced just one individual event in Rio. He’s the potential breakout star on a U.S. team, surrounded by more proven names.

SWIMMING WORLDS: TV Schedule | Men’s Preview | Women’s Preview | Event Schedule

Ryan Murphy, who swam for the same Jacksonville, Fla., club team as Dressel, swept the backstrokes in Rio and broke the 100m back world record leading off the medley relay. That dominance has not quite carried over so far in 2017. Murphy ranks third in the world in the 100m and 200m backs this year.

Chase Kalisz, a longtime Phelps training partner in Baltimore, has followed up his Rio Olympic 400m individual medley silver medal well this year. He chopped two seconds off his personal best in the 200m IM and goes into Budapest ranked No. 1 in the world in the 400m IM by nearly a half-second.

The U.S. boasts more medal threats including Nathan Adrian (sprint freestyles), Townley Haas (200m free), Cody Miller and Kevin Cordes (breaststrokes), but nobody is a clear favorite.

The surest bets are world-record holders Adam Peaty and Ippei Watanabe in the breaststrokes and Italian Gregorio Paltrinieri in the 1500m free. Paltrinieri could challenge a five-year-old world record held by Sun Yang.

Speaking of Sun, the mercurial Chinese superstar is set to renew his rivalry with Australian Mack Horton. In Rio, Horton memorably called Sun “a drug cheat,” in reference to Sun’s three-month suspension in 2014 for using a banned stimulant.

Horton then went out and beat Sun in the 400m freestyle, dethroning the Olympic and world champion. Horton and Sun could face off in four individual events in Budapest.

Key men’s finals:

Sunday, July 23
400m freestyle — Sun has been two seconds faster than Horton this year
4x100m freestyle relay — Olympic silver medalist France won’t defend world title; U.S. favored

Monday, July 24
100m breaststroke — Peaty has the eight fastest times ever and fastest by .95 this year

Tuesday, July 25
200m freestyle — Haas the only man within .64 of Sun in 2017
100m backstroke — Rio silver medalist Xu Jiayu was .01 shy of Murphy’s WR in April

Wednesday, July 26
200m butterfly — Japan and Hungary lead the post-Phelps-era world; Chad le Clos ranks 8th in 2017
800m freestyle — Italian Gabriele Detti fastest in 2017 by six seconds, but slower than Sun’s winning times in 2011, 2013, 2015

Thursday, July 27
200m individual medley — Phelps, Lochte won the last 12 Olympic/world titles
100m freestyle — Reigning Olympic and world champions’ absences open door for Adrian, Dressel

Friday, July 28
200m backstroke — U.S. won 14 of the last 15 Olympic/world titles, including Murphy in Rio
200m breaststroke — Watanabe broke WR in January; surprise Olympic champ Dmitriy Balandin ranks No. 127 this year
4x200m freestyle relay — U.S., without Lochte, Phelps, looks to take world title back from Great Britain

Saturday, July 29
50m freestyle — Reigning Olympic and world champions’ absences open door for Adrian, Dressel
100m butterfly — Joseph Schooling eyes Phelps’ WR, but Dressel ranks No. 1 in 2017

Sunday, July 30
400m individual medley — Kalisz ranks No. 1 in 2017, but time is .94 slower than Kosuke Hagino in Rio
1500m freestyle — Sun holds WR of 14:31 but hasn’t broken 14:55 since 2014
4x100m medley relay — Great Britain will lean on Peaty to challenge U.S.

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MORE: Michael Phelps not itching to return like in 2013

Katie Ledecky eyes more history as women to star at swimming worlds

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The year after the Olympics isn’t always known for it, but there should be fireworks in the women’s events at the world swimming championships in Budapest next week.

Katie Ledecky could match Missy Franklin‘s record of six gold medals at a single worlds by swimming one more event than she did at the 2015 Worlds and 2016 Olympics. Judging by Ledecky’s times at the U.S. Championships last month, the rising Stanford sophomore is in her usual dominant form.

Hungarian Katinka Hosszu, swimming in front of her home fans, could try to equal Ledecky with four individual golds in backstrokes and individual medleys.

Swede Sarah Sjostrom could do the same in the 50m and 100m butterflies and freestyles, where world records are under threat.

Ledecky, Hosszu and Sjostrom are all bidding to become the first women to three-peat in an individual event at worlds.

Then there’s the return of the greatest rivalry in swimming. After their memorable Rio duel, King and Yulia Efimova rank Nos. 1 and 2 in the world this year in all three breaststrokes.

Spain’s Mireia Belmonte and American Leah Smith have never won an individual world title, but they could be the busiest swimmers of all next week.

Belmonte could race 7,4000 total meters if she makes every event final. Smith could get up to 7,000 meters. Both would outdistance Ledecky and Hosszu in mileage.

SWIMMING WORLDS: TV Schedule | Men’s Preview | Women’s Preview | Event Schedule

The women’s program could have been even more loaded if not for two notable absences. Australian Cate Campbell, the 100m freestyle world-record holder, is sitting out world champs.

Australia beat the U.S. in the 4x100m free relay at the 2015 Worlds and 2016 Olympics, but without Campbell, the Americans are about even with the Aussies. Ledecky’s bid for six golds could hang on this race on the opening night.

Ledecky also greatly benefits from Sjostrom’s decision to skip the 200m freestyle. In Rio, Sjostrom was the closest swimmer to Ledecky in her individual events, coming .35 shy in the 200m free while outsplitting Ledecky in the final 50 meters.

Key women’s finals:

Sunday, July 23
400m freestyle — Ledecky hasn’t lost a 400m free since the 2012 Olympic Trials
4x100m freestyle relay — Showdown with Campbell-less Australia crucial for Ledecky’s six-gold bid

Monday, July 24
100m butterfly — Sjostrom’s only competition is her world record of 55.48
200m individual medley — Nobody has been within a second of Hosszu this year

Tuesday, July 25
100m backstroke — Kylie Masse was .09 off the longest-standing women’s swimming world record at Canadian Champs
1500m freestyle — Ledecky is 25 seconds faster than anyone else this year
100m breaststroke — Efimova is .13 faster than King this year

Wednesday, July 26
200m freestyle — Ledecky’s toughest individual event made easier by Sjostrom’s absence

Thursday, July 27
200m butterfly — Olympic champ Belmonte eyes first world title; Nos. 2, 3, 4 from Rio absent
4x200m freestyle relay — China is strong, but Ledecky is the U.S.’ ace in the hole

Friday, July 28
100m freestyle — Heavy favorite Sjostrom .02 off the world record in June
200m breaststroke — Efimova is two seconds faster than second-ranked King this year

Saturday, July 29
200m backstroke — Kathleen Baker can inherit throne from retired Maya DiRado 
800m freestyle — Likely Ledecky’s sixth and final event, could match Franklin’s gold record

Sunday, July 30
50m freestyle — No. of sub-24-second times this year — Sjostrom: 6; Rest of World: 0
400m individual medley — Hosszu, after breaking WR by two seconds in Rio, slower this year
4x100m medley relay — U.S. should gap Australia, China on breaststroke leg

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MORE: Michael Phelps not itching to return like in 2013

*Correction: The integrity of a Lilly King quote attributed to Agence France-Presse in earlier version of this story has been called into question and was removed.