Regan Smith, formerly in fear of the wall, is history’s best backstroker (and 17 years old)


On the surface, there is this about 17-year-old swimmer Regan Smith: She broke three world records in two events at the world championships last July. In the 200m backstroke, and in the 100m back leading off the fastest 4x100m medley relay of all time.

Smith is a headliner at this week’s Tyr Pro Series meet in Knoxville, Tenn. She is entered in two events per day from Friday through Sunday. The busy slate will help prepare her for June’s Olympic trials. NBCSN, and the NBC Sports app air Knoxville finals coverage Friday and Saturday at 6:30 p.m. ET. streams Sunday’s finals session at 6:30.

Smith’s father, Paul, said she took to swimming at age 7 like a fish to water. But her ascension to become the greatest backstroker in history before her senior year at Lakeville North High School outside Minnesota’s Twin Cities wasn’t so streamlined.

It began with Brenna, her older sister by five years. Brenna joined the middle-school swim team, and then a club team. Smith wanted to tag along.

“Regan really begged us,” said her mom, Kristi, who like Paul never swam competitively. “It was a big time commitment. We were a little bit unsure about that. We finally said OK.”

When Smith was 7 and still in the lessons stage, an informal mini meet was organized.

“She was going crazy, beating the girls who were several years older than her,” Kristi said. “The teachers were looking at us like wow. I guess that was maybe the first inkling.”

At 10, Smith broke four national age-group records in one meet. It was 2013. She was interviewed on camera by the swimming news website, which has since published more than 500 posts tagging her.

By 13, Smith changed clubs to the nearby Riptide Swim Team. Smith became the youngest student in recently transplanted coach Mike Parratto‘s senior class of about 30. Parratto often is asked how Smith compares to his other famous pupil — 12-time Olympic medalist Jenny Thompson, whom Parratto began coaching when she was 12.

“There’s this great intensity in both swimmers; they wanted to be good,” Parratto said. “You could see Jenny’s intensity. She wore it out on her sleeve. Maybe for Regan, not so much. It’s a little bit more subdued, but it’s there, without a doubt.”

This is where Smith’s story shifts. The success under Parratto — from the youngest 2016 Olympic trials semifinalist to making the 2017 World team at 15 to her world records — is mixed with a leveling off, self-doubt and a bit of misfortune.

“I hit a little plateau in my early teens,” she said. “That was just after I had switched clubs over to be with Mike Parratto, which was the greatest decision I’ve ever made. But it was a really tough transition because Mike didn’t know how to train me. He got me when I was 13. I had already been swimming for a long time, so I was kind of his guinea pig.”

Parratto said Smith had never doubled (practicing twice in one day) before joining his more experienced group. Even so, she recorded times to qualify for the Olympic trials at age 13 in her first summer with Riptide.

“Having a 13-year-old swimmer join your group is a challenge,” Parratto said. “You want to be careful about how you’re developing. From my side of it, it was about learning about her and what’s good for her in preparation for a swim meet.”

They were still playing around with that formula when Smith did a two-week high-altitude training stint in spring 2016, aiming to peak at the Olympic trials. At 14, Smith wasn’t among the favorites to qualify for the Rio Games, but she wanted to make the Junior Pan Pacific Championships roster for swimmers age 13-18.

Smith swam a personal best in the 100m back to make the trials semifinals, but she was edged for a spot on the Junior Pan Pacs team by .01.

Then in her trademark event, the 200m back, Smith was disappointed to swim 1.59 seconds slower than she had a month and a half before trials. At the U.S. Open a month after trials, Smith lowered her personal best by 1.2 seconds.

“She underperformed in her 200m back, which really, honestly, upset her, and I think probably lit a fire every day going forward in both the 100m back and 200m back to do what she’s accomplished now,” said Paul, who worked in consulting in Silicon Valley before immersing himself in swimming after his daughters signed up, becoming the program director at Riptide.

Smith, one of eight trials swimmers born after 2001 out of more than 1,800 qualifiers, knew few people at the meet. None of her teammates were there. Parratto missed the start to watch daughter Jessica qualify for the Olympic team in diving. So Smith spent time studying Michael Phelps and Kelsi Dahlia as they warmed up.

“That meet was a completely great experience from seeing the world and being up close,” Paul said, “and, honestly, watching competitors vomiting in garbage cans, seeing panic and fear and anxiety. You’re surrounded by it because of the intensity of the trials competition. It’s brutal.”

The next year, Smith finished second in the 200m back at nationals (31 spots better than at trials) to become the youngest U.S. swimmer to race individually at a worlds since Elizabeth Beisel in 2007. (In that span, the only younger U.S. swimmer to race at an Olympics was Katie Ledecky.)

Smith swam a world junior record in the 200m back to place second in her semifinal at the 2017 Worlds. In the final, she swam .23 of a second slower and was bummed to look at the scoreboard and see “USA” in last place.

“I left 2017 really disappointed with a chip on my shoulder,” Smith said. “I was like, ‘I’m not letting this happen again.'”

Qualifying for the July 2019 World Championships took place in summer 2018. Smith again made the team solely in the 200m backstroke, but Parratto noticed something special in training in the months leading into worlds in South Korea. In a spring meeting in Colorado Springs, he told USA Swimming officials to expect a breakthrough.

“I don’t know when it’s going to happen, but it’s going to happen soon,” he said. “I said to [Smith] before she left the camp with Team USA and then onto the meet, ‘You really earned the right to be as confident as you want to be.'”

Smith had to wait until the sixth day of the eight-day world championships for the preliminary heats of the 200m back.

On the fifth day, Parratto texted Smith some coaching advice. Don’t do anything radical in the preliminary heats. Just place top 16 to get into the semis. Then in the semis, try to qualify in the top three or four to get a middle lane in the final. Parratto didn’t suggest to aim for any specific times (Smith dislikes goal setting, believing it can be limiting).

Smith, meanwhile, prepared by watching a video of Missy Franklin‘s world record swim from the London Olympics before going to sleep. “Purely out of inspiration,” she said. “Not like I’m going to get this tomorrow. It was more just like, wow, she’s amazing. Like, she’s so inspiring. I just want to be great like her.”

The next morning, about 15 minutes before Smith’s prelim swim, she texted Parratto to say she was heading to the ready room.

“Just to be able to hold your phone and actually text that, it was kind of just like a regular, local swim meet,” Parratto said. “If you can minimize the levels of these meets, and you don’t think about it in an extreme way, you just do what you practice to do.”

Smith swam the fastest time of the preliminary heats by 2.33 seconds, lowering her world junior record to 2:06.01.

Ten hours later, Smith marched in fear to the ready room for the semifinals. “I was the top seed … and I’m scared I’m not going to final,” she remembered. “I’m going to do even worse than I did in 2017.”

That quiet intensity kicked in after Smith strode to her starting block, shunning the practice of listening to music. She prefers the goosebumps from feeling the crowd’s energy.

Smith had the fastest reaction time and hit the first wall at 50 meters a half-second under world-record pace. This for a swimmer formerly afraid of backstroke because she might hit her head on the wall.

Smith ended up lowering Franklin’s seven-year-old world record by .71 of a second. She swam 2:03.35, which was 2.66 seconds faster than in the morning prelims. Parratto watched his predicted breakthrough from Minnesota, gathering his club swimmers on the pool deck before 7 a.m. to follow a stream on his phone.

“Nothing hurt [in the race], which is not normal. … I felt like super girl,” Smith said. “I remember, vividly, touching the wall. My goggles were a bit blurry, and I see a 2:03 on the scoreboard, and I’m like, that’s fake. Like, that’s not correct. First of all, my goggles are blurry. So, I take off my goggles to make sure what I’m seeing is true. And then it says 2:03, and I remember thinking that there was a timing error. The pad was wrong. And it took me a long time to realize that wasn’t a fluke.”

Smith’s parents watched from the stands. As soon as Smith’s hand touched the wall, the preparation began for requests and opportunities out of the pool in the Olympic year for an amateur swimmer who is committed to Stanford. “Suddenly the world quote-unquote changes,” Paul said. “The USA Swimming media people are running up to you and saying, ‘This is what’s going to happen.'”

Before the next night’s final, Parratto texted Smith to “swim to win.” The time wasn’t important, he said. Sounds good, she texted back.

Smith went out nearly a second faster than her own world-record pace from the night before. She ended up clocking 2:03.69, the second-fastest time in history. She won by 2.57 seconds, the largest margin at worlds since 1991.

The day after that, Smith found herself in the ready room again, chosen by U.S. coaches to swim the 100m backstroke leg in the medley relay final. There wasn’t much left for Parratto to text this time after the success of the 200m back. Get after it, he typed. Yep, I’ll do that, she replied. The fear returned moments before the race.

“I just remember thinking, I just don’t want to blow it,” Smith said of leading off a quartet that included Olympic champions Lilly King, Dahlia and Simone Manuel. “What if I slip on my start? What if I miss my turn? Thinking stupid things like that when I do it [correctly] a million times.”

Paul said that she’s blessed with a demeanor that, although she may feel nerves, she doesn’t process them like golfers who get the yips or wide receivers with alligator arms.

And so Smith led off the relay by swimming the fastest 100m back in history, 57.57 seconds, taking .43 off the world record. It was the greatest amount of time taken off the 100m back record in a single swim in 17 years.

Smith flew back to the U.S. Parratto picked her up at the airport. Congratulations, that was great, he told her. Thanks, she said. And they drove to Stanford for the U.S. Championships, a meet that most world team members skipped. Smith swam the 200m butterfly and won, topping the world bronze medalist in a personal-best time.

She finally returned home to Minnesota. Her first stop off the plane was the University of Minnesota’s pool, which was hosting the state club championships. After 10 minutes of congratulations from Riptide teammates and others, things calmed down.

“It was like, all right, I’m Regan, and I’m on Riptide,” she said. “I’m just cheering for my team right now.”

She has just two teams: USA and Riptide. Smith may be a high school senior, but Minnesota rules stipulate that swimmers on high school teams must practice regularly with those teams. Smith can’t do a full slate of practices with her club team and with the high school team. Other recent high school stars, like Franklin and Katie Ledecky, were able to swim for their high schools.

“It’s extremely detrimental to her development,” Paul said. “It’s just not possible.”

What Smith does have in common with Franklin and Ledecky is the load of prize money that she cannot accept because she intends to swim collegiately after the Olympics. Yahoo Sports reported that Smith earned about $140,000 from worlds, including world-record bonuses, but kept about $41,000 due to amateur rules.

“It’s a bummer,” Smith said. “I know that I’m young and I’m in high school and things are paid for by my parents anyways, but it’s like, dang, I earned it. Where’s it going? Who’s it going to?”

Smith’s longest-running obstacle has been those Minnesota winters. Thankfully, her mom had an all-wheel-drive SUV when Smith was growing up. Kristi often woke up around 3:30 a.m. to prepare Smith’s meals for the day and drive her to and from practice, all while working as an internal consultant for General Mills.

One morning, the plows had not come through after a big snowfall. Smith had to wade through a few feet of snow to get to the pool doors, which sometimes frost over.

Last year, one polar front canceled school from Monday through Thursday. Riptide practice was not canceled.

“I’m scared of driving in the snow,” said Smith, who got her license in March 2018.

Smith jokes that her only obvious natural gift is double-jointed elbows. Once she started swimming regularly, she lost all her coordination to play soccer. “I’d run up to kick the ball, and I would kick the dirt instead,” she said. She took piano lessons, but hated it and didn’t practice. And even though she’s headed to Stanford, Smith believes many of her high school friends are smarter.

A defining outward characteristic is footwear, the pink Crocs that she has worn at meets dating to at least the 2016 Olympic trials.

Which brings Smith’s story to this week in Knoxville. She’s swimming two events per day for the three-day meet, getting ready for this June’s Olympic trials. The plan is to race at least the 100m and 200m backstrokes and the 200m butterfly at trials. That would mean six straight days of racing in a bid to race eight straight days in Tokyo.

“It feels like she was just born to do this,” Paul said. “She has been on a big stage since she was very little.”

MORE: Australian swim star issues plea after hometown hit by fires

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David Quinn returns as U.S. men’s hockey head coach

David Quinn

David Quinn will be the U.S. men’s hockey head coach for a third consecutive global tournament, returning for May’s world championship after guiding the team to the quarterfinals at the 2022 Olympics and to fourth place at the 2022 World Championship.

Quinn was named San Jose Sharks head coach last July 26. The Sharks are in last place in the Western Conference, so their season will end before worlds start on May 12, co-hosted by Finland and Latvia.

As usual, worlds take place during the Stanley Cup playoffs. NHL players whose teams get eliminated in the playoffs are sometimes added to national teams during the world championship.

Quinn is the first person to be the U.S. men’s hockey head coach at three consecutive global tournaments since Scott Gordon did so at worlds in 2010, 2011 and 2012.

The last person to coach three consecutive tournaments that included an Olympics was Peter Laviolette in 2006. The last person to coach the U.S. at four consecutive global tournaments was Dave Peterson from 1985 through 1988.

Last year, the U.S. men lost a world championship semifinal for an 11th consecutive time, again missing out on a first gold or silver finish since 1950.

The U.S. has lost all 11 of its semifinals at worlds since the IIHF reinstituted a bracketed playoff round in 1992. Its last silver medal at a standalone worlds was in 1950. Its last gold was in 1933.

While the NHL didn’t participate in the last two Olympics, rosters at the annual world championships include NHL players.

This year’s U.S. roster has not been named yet.

Last year’s world team had three 2022 Olympians: goalie Strauss Mann and forwards Ben Meyers and Sean Farrell.

The most notable NHL veterans on last year’s team were five-time All-Star defenseman Seth Jones and forward Alex Galchenyuk.

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Mikaela Shiffrin talks grief, victory, resetting records in Alpine skiing


All season, Mikaela Shiffrin reached heights that exceeded expectations and imaginations. Shiffrin won 14 World Cup races to reach 88 victories, breaking Inegmar Stenmark’s career record. An encore of Shiffrin’s record-breaking 87th World Cup win airs on NBC on Sunday from 12-1 p.m. ET.

The double Olympic champion discussed what the season meant, how she’s still wrestling with grief and lessons learned on and off the slopes.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

OlympicTalk: All season long, there has been so much hype around you breaking the record and reaching 87. It’s interesting because it seems like that’s not what has mattered most to you all season. You compete because you genuinely love skiing. How were you able to keep your focus on your love for the sport rather than reaching 87 all season, when that’s the narrative around you?

Mikaela Shiffrin: Thank you. That’s a really thoughtful way to ask the question. It’s been a little bit challenging because everybody has been talking so much about the record. The last few weeks, especially leading up to the actual moment when I did reset it, I felt a lot of noise in my head that was sort of outside what I wanted to be focusing on.

But when I’m skiing, the feeling that I get is something I can focus on because I love it so much. Making a really strong, powerful fast turn is kind of hard to explain, but it’s like you step on the accelerator of a really nice car, and you’re just like, whoa. … It’s just a cool feeling. If I really hyper focus on that, then everything else kind of falls away.

You’ve talked about how those winning moments in reality are actually a blur, just two minutes of your life. You’ve heard from Ingemar Stenmark, and then you’ve had Paula Moltzan, your brother and sister-in-law, your mom, and your boyfriend, Aleksander Aamodt Kilde, by your side during some of these amazing milestones you’ve achieved this season. Can you sum up how that’s added to those moments? 

Shiffrin: When these record-setting moments happen in my career, I feel like I’m not able to really process it. People have asked, has it sunk in yet? And it never has, even my first Olympic medal back in 2014 in Sochi, that never actually sunk in. What helps me to process things is the experience surrounding it and who is there.

For that 87th race, my brother and his wife came to Sweden from Colorado and surprised my mom and I there in Sweden. That moment was more meaningful than the race itself, but it also gave me something — like almost a vessel to tie the race to — in my own mind. That helps me process it, and it helps me put a little bit more emotion or more meaning to the actual race because if it was just 87 on its own, with nothing else going on, then it would never sink in, I guess.

Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup - Women's Slalom



You said people “equate winning with being OK and failure with being not OK” and how in reality that has nothing to do with how fast you came down the mountain. So how are you doing now? Are you OK?

Shiffrin: I am doing well, on most days. Really terrible on some days, and OK on all the rest. I think it’s pretty much how life is. I don’t know. Some days I feel overwhelmed. Some days I miss my dad so much I feel like it’s the day after he died and that none of this time [that has gone by] since then even ever happened. Sometimes I feel positive and psyched and happy.

But everybody around me, the whole team I work with, my coaches, my mom, who’s one of my coaches, Aleks, my boyfriend — being able to work with a really incredible group of people is something that keeps me positive every day, and they’ve actually made it possible for me to have more really good days — mostly really good days.

Thank you for sharing that. You said, “When you fail, it feels like the end. When you succeed, it feels like the beginning.” Do you feel like you’ve turned a page from those dark days, and if so, what is this the start of for you? If you were to give this next season of life that you’ve walked into a name, what would it be?

Shiffrin: I don’t know. … I think we talk a lot about difficult times or darker moments in life, and we want to move past it. We want to get over it and just have it in the rearview and think now we’re good, that’s behind me. But I think there’s plenty of dark days that are ahead of me still. There’s a lot that can happen in life that derails you right when you’re feeling good. I feel like right when I’m having a great time, something bad really happens. It’s kind of a constant feeling of wondering when the other shoe is going to drop.

I don’t feel very fearful of it. I just know that at some point, something’s going to go wrong. It might be next season. I mean, this season was incredible, but you don’t really sustain that kind of consistent level of success. Most people don’t even sustain it through a single season, let alone for multiple seasons.

I don’t see it as if now that I have this great season, I know all the answers, and I’m going to be good for the rest of my career. I expect that next season, a lot of the women I was competing against are going to come back with faster skiing, and it’s going to be an even harder fight than it has been. I might not win as many races, I might not win any races. I am going to work to try to fight for wins and podiums, but we just don’t know how it’s going to go. It’ll be a season of unknowns.

For the past six months, I felt like I’ve been riding a wave, and at some point, the wave is done — you’re done. Like, that’s it, you’ve ridden the wave, and now it’s over and you have to paddle back out and try to catch a new wave. I guess next season, or whenever it is, I’ll be looking out for the next swell, basically.

There’s a powerful quote that says, “You’ve changed, so even if you could go back, you wouldn’t belong.” Does that resonate with you? When you think back to those hard seasons — the trauma of dealing with your dad’s passing, the sleepless nights that came after, the Beijing Olympics — all of those hard experiences shaped you into the Mikaela Shiffrin that’s sitting in front of me. How would this Mikaela handle those experiences?  

Shiffrin: I think I would probably handle them the same. I learned so much from everything that’s been happening the last several years. But I don’t necessarily have a better capacity to deal with the pain of losing my dad, or the disappointment of the Olympics and facing sort of the backlash through media or all of the challenges.

There’s this idea that when we we learn and grow through life that would help us handle things better or be less uncomfortable when things go wrong. I don’t think I would be less uncomfortable. I would probably still react the same way and learn the same lessons.

I’ve learned to handle difficult situations better. I have more perspective on what’s really, really important to me in life. Disappointment, failure and challenging experiences, they don’t change. They just are, and they happen and I don’t know that you just kind of move through it, I guess. Hopefully you handle it with grace, but it doesn’t always go that way, either.

Do you think this was this a season that made every bump in the road that you’ve experienced on your ski journey (obviously, with the exception of your dad’s passing) worth it? If not, what would make it worth it?

Shiffrin: I do. One thing I tell my teammates, especially if they have a tough race, is when you get your first podium, or when you have your first top 10 or top five, or have a good race again, this moment is going to matter to you a lot less. It’s really hard right now, but you will have another best result. You’re going to keep working, and you’re going to have really great races again, and then you’re going to look back on this moment and feel like this was just laying the groundwork for the more successful periods. It’s just peaks and valleys, basically, but the peaks make the valleys worth it.

Like you said, there’s definitely some exceptions there, but if we just focus on my career in the sport, you will not win every single race. When you do win, it does make everything else worth it, or when you have those races that feel truly spectacular, it does make it worth it. I guess that’s the only reason I’m still doing it is because it is worth it. When I finally feel like it’s not worth it, then I’ll probably retire.

Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup Finals Andorra 2023 - Day 5 - Women's & Men?s Slalom & Super L.

You’ve talked about struggling with intensity and duration of focus over the last two seasons due to grief and trauma, which in turn impacted your memory and ability to remember the course. What specific work have you done to help regain that focus?

Shiffrin: Some of it is time. There’s basically no substitute for time and how that can heal certain things. I don’t heal from losing my dad, but parts of the chemical changes that happened in your brain from that trauma, from the grief, you do start to heal some of those bits and pieces. It’s kind of like there’s a scar, but the scar becomes less sensitive a little bit. So with my memory and those things, a lot of it is just addressing that.

For the first season leading up to the Olympics, I talked with a sports psychologist, and it was really helpful, but I feel like it was sort of missing the point of what I really needed, which was more like an overall psychologist and maybe more specifically grief counseling. Basically trying to uncover what happens in my brain when I lost my dad and the trauma of all that — everything that goes along with it.

Sometimes I feel like I haven’t done anything to improve, but then on other days, so much of it is just acknowledging what I feel, why I feel that way, what the challenges have been. Sometimes it’s going easy on myself and sometimes it’s holding myself accountable.

Just to even be able to admit that there’s an effect, it took talking with somebody who was able to tell me [what I’ve been experiencing] is a legitimate thing that happens when you experience grief. It’s certainly not a linear path, but there is an actual impact on your brain and your memory. After hearing that for the first time, it made a lot of sense because I’ve been feeling that — so just making that connection was helpful. It was realizing that you don’t have to go through life saying that there’s no problem, and I’m fine. You don’t have to be fine all the time.

Grief comes with so many different emotions. It comes in waves. Which emotions have been the strongest for you, and how have you let it out?

Shiffrin: I think my strongest, strongest emotion has been anger. I’m not naturally a very angry person, but that’s been what I’ve experienced the most. I don’t like feeling angry or sad. I prefer to be happy and laughing and just around the people that I love, but sometimes I get kind of in a little bit of a spiral of feeling angry. It’s sort of satisfying.

I can go down the rabbit hole a little bit with that, and that’s been something I’ve been working on trying to understand and just admit to that, when I started to feel angry, and overwhelmingly sad, that the rest of the things in life that I care about seem to go out the window, and that’s when I start to lose a lot of motivation. Especially at races, I feel like I don’t want to be here, and I really don’t care about this race. When it happens when I’m around family, I am less loving and empathetic towards them as well.

It takes a lot of presence of mind to be able to set that aside and say no, I have my family here. They are still here, and I do love them. It takes a lot of presence of mind to be able to say I do care about this race, and it’s OK to care about this race, even though sometimes it feels silly in the grand scheme of things. It’s OK to have things that I care about in life and to want to work towards that. I go through this whole process in my mind, step by step, to address it so that I get out of this cycle of anger because I don’t feel good when I’m angry. But somehow it’s satisfying and I can kind of let it take over a little bit.

Thank you for sharing that. Switching gears, I know you’re already excited to get back to work. What are you looking forward to most about working with your new coach Karin Harjo?

Shiffrin: I am really excited about her passion, thoughtfulness, kindness and attention to detail in the program. One of the first things she said to me was that I’m never going to be questioning where her commitment is. Right up front, she’s there, and if anything ever changes, she’ll be the first one to be upfront and honest with me. So I never have to question, “Are you good to still be doing this?” Because the program that I do comparative to any other athlete on the World Cup, it’s more time. It’s more stress, it’s more physical work, and also mental work.

It’s a tall order, and my coaches really have to be fully committed and know what they’re signing up for. [Harjo] was like, I know what I’m signing up for, and I am fully committed, and if that ever changes, I will let you know. I won’t let it get past the point where we can actually do this work together. So I’m so excited because I can feel the energy she’s going to bring to it, and I think I can feed off that.

You haven’t been home since September. What’s the first thing you’re going to do when you walk into your house?

Shiffrin: Hmm. I’m probably going to make some popcorn.

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