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. women’s basketball team, statistically greatest ever, rolls to FIBA World Cup title

FIBA Women's World Cup
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The revamped U.S. women’s basketball team may have been the greatest of all time.

The Americans completed, statistically, their most dominant global championship ever by routing China 83-61 in the FIBA World Cup final on Saturday in Sydney — giving them 60 consecutive wins between the Olympics and worlds dating to 2006.

It marked the largest margin of victory in a World Cup final since the event converted from a fully round-robin format in 1983.

For the tournament, the U.S. drubbed its opponents by an average of 40.75 points per game, beating its previous record between the Olympics and worlds of 37.625 points from the 2008 Beijing Games. It was just off the 1992 U.S. Olympic men’s Dream Team’s legendary margin 43.8 points per game. This U.S. team scored 98.75 points per game, its largest at worlds since 1994.

“We came here on a mission, a business trip,” tournament MVP A’ja Wilson said in a post-game press conference before turning to coach Cheryl Reeve. “We played pretty good, I think, coach.”

Since the U.S. won a seventh consecutive Olympic title in Tokyo, Sue Bird and Sylvia Fowles retired. Tina Charles ceded her national team spot to younger players. Brittney Griner was detained in Russia (and still is). Diana Taurasi suffered a WNBA season-ending quad injury that ruled her out of World Cup participation (who knows if the 40-year-old Taurasi will play for the U.S. again).

Not only that, but Reeve of the Minnesota Lynx succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach, implementing a new up-tempo system.

“There was probably great concern, and maybe around the world they kind of looked at it and said, ‘Hey, now is the time to get the USA,'” Reeve said Saturday.

The U.S. response was encapsulated by power forward Alyssa Thomas, the oldest player on the roster at age 30 who made the U.S. team for the first time in her career, started every game and was called the team’s glue and MVP going into the final.

Wilson and Tokyo Olympic MVP Breanna Stewart were the leaders. Guard Kelsey Plum, a Tokyo Olympic 3×3 player, blossomed this past WNBA season and was third in the league’s MVP voting. She averaged the most minutes on the team, scored 15.8 points per game and had 17 in the final.

“The depth of talent that we have was on display,” Reeve said. “What I am most pleased about was the trust and buy-in.”

For the first time since 1994, no player on the U.S. roster was over the age of 30, creating a scary thought for the 2024 Paris Olympics: the Americans could get even better.

“When you say best-ever, I’m always really cautious with that, because, obviously, there are great teams,” Reeve said when asked specifically about the team’s defense. “This group was really hard to play against.”

Earlier Saturday, 41-year-old Australian legend Lauren Jackson turned back the clock with a 30-point performance off the bench in her final game as an Opal, a 95-65 victory over Canada for the bronze. Jackson, who came out of a six-year retirement and played her first major tournament since the 2012 Olympics, had her best scoring performance since the 2008 Olympics.

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2022 FIBA Women’s World Cup schedule, results

FIBA Women's World Cup
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The U.S. women’s basketball team won its fourth consecutive title at the FIBA World Cup in Sydney — and eighth global gold in a row overall when including the Olympics.

A’ja Wilson, a two-time WNBA MVP, and Breanna Stewart, the Tokyo Olympic MVP, headlined a U.S. roster that, for the first time since 2000, included neither Sue Bird (retired) nor Diana Taurasi (injured).

The new-look team had nobody over the age of 30 for the first time since 1994, before the U.S. began its dynasty at the 1996 Atlanta Games. The Americans have won 60 consecutive games between worlds and the Olympics dating to the 2006 Worlds bronze-medal game.

The U.S. beat China in the final, while host Australia took bronze to send 41-year-old Lauren Jackson into retirement.

Nigeria, which played the U.S. the closest of any foe in Tokyo (losing by nine points), wasn’t present after its federation withdrew the team over governance issues. Spain, ranked second in the world, failed to qualify.

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2022 FIBA Women’s World Cup Schedule, Results

Date Time (ET) Game Round
Wed., Sept. 21 8:30 p.m. Puerto Rico 82, Bosnia and Herzegovina 58 Group A
9:30 p.m. USA 87, Belgium 72 Group A
11 p.m. Canada 67, Serbia 60 Group B
Thurs., Sept. 22 12 a.m. Japan 89, Mali 56 Group B
3:30 a.m. China 107, South Korea 44 Group A
6:30 a.m. France 70, Australia 57 Group B
8:30 p.m. USA 106, Puerto Rico 42 Group A
10 p.m. Serbia 69, Japan 64 Group B
11 p.m. Belgium 84, South Korea 61 Group A
Fri., Sept. 23 12:30 a.m. China 98, Bosnia and Herzegovina 51 Group A
4 a.m. Canada 59, France 45 Group B
6:30 a.m. Australia 118, Mali 58 Group B
Sat., Sept. 24 12:30 a.m. USA 77, China 63 Group A
4 a.m. South Korea 99, Bosnia and Herzegovina 66 Group A
6:30 a.m. Belgium 68, Puerto Rico 65 Group A
Sun., Sept. 25 12:30 a.m. France 74, Mali 59 Group B
4 a.m. Australia 69, Serbia 54 Group B
6:30 a.m. Canada 70, Japan 56 Group B
9:30 p.m. Belgium 85, Bosnia and Herzegovina 55 Group A
11:30 p.m. Serbia 81, Mali 68 Group B
Mon., Sept. 26 12 a.m. USA 145, South Korea 69 Group A
2 a.m. France 67, Japan 53 Group B
3:30 a.m. China 95, Puerto Rico 60 Group A
6:30 a.m. Australia 75, Canada 72 Group B
9:30 p.m. Puerto Rico 92, South Korea 73 Group A
11:30 p.m. China 81, Belgium 55 Group A
Tues., Sept. 27 12 a.m. USA 121, Bosnia and Herzegovina 59 Group A
2 a.m. Canada 88, Mali 65 Group B
3:30 a.m. Serbia 68, France 62 Group B
6:30 a.m. Australia 71, Japan 54 Group B
Wed., Sept. 28 10 p.m. USA 88, Serbia 55 Quarterfinals
Thurs., Sept. 29 12:30 a.m. Canada 79, Puerto Rico 60 Quarterfinals
4 a.m. China 85, France 71 Quarterfinals
6:30 a.m. Australia 86, Belgium 69 Quarterfinals
Fri., Sept. 30 3 a.m. USA 83, Canada 43 Semifinals
5:30 a.m. China 61, Australia 59 Semifinals
11 p.m. Australia 95, Canada 65 Third-Place Game
Sat., Oct. 1 2 a.m. USA 83, China 61 Gold-Medal Game