By Nate Ryan
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.”Follow @nateryan