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

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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, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app air Knoxville finals coverage Friday and Saturday at 6:30 p.m. ET. USASwimming.org 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 Swimswam.com, 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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Mondo Duplantis, Sandi Morris miss attempts at pole vault records

Mondo Duplantis
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Sweden’s Mondo Duplantis and U.S. athlete Sandi Morris took turns attempting world records in the pole vault Wednesday at the Meeting d’Athlétsime Hauts-de-France Pas-de-Calais meet at Arena Stade Regional in Liévin, France, but both were unable to clear the bar.

Duplantis, aiming to set the world record for third time in February, had no misses leading up to his record attempts. U.S. vaulter Sam Kendricks, who has won the last two world championships, cleared 5.90m but dropped out after one attempt at 5.95m. Duplantis passed on that height, then cleared 6.07m to warm up for his shot at 6.19m, just shy of 20 feet, 3 3/4 inches.

Morris’ attempt to tie Jennifer Suhr‘s world indoor record of 5.03m from 2016 was more of a surprise. Morris holds the U.S. outdoor record at 5.00m but had never done better than 4.95m indoors. She won Wednesday’s competition with a clearance of 4.83m and asked to go immediately to 5.03m, or 16 feet, 6 inches.

Yelena Isinbayeva still holds the outdoor record of 5.06m, set in 2009. Morris is second on the all-time list and is the only athlete other than Isinbayeva or Suhr to clear 5 meters either indoors or outdoors.

In the men’s pole vault, Duplantis’ clearance of 6.18m Feb. 15 in Glasgow is the best vault indoors or outdoors.  Sergey Bubka still has the highest clearance outdoors at 6.14m. Bubka also held the indoor record of 6.15m for more than 20 years, finally losing it to Renaud Lavillenie in 2014. Duplantis cleared 6.17m Feb. 9 in Poland, then added another centimeter last week in Glasgow.

READ: Duplantis raises record in Glasgow

Duplantis, Lavillenie and Bubka are the only vaulters to clear 20 feet. Kendricks cleared 6.06m, or 19-10 1/2, last summer, the highest outdoor clearance by anyone other than Bubka.

Duplantis grew up in Louisiana and attended LSU for one year, setting the NCAA indoor (5.92m) and outdoor (6.00m) before turning pro, though he was upset in the NCAA final by South Dakota junior Chris Nilsen.

Also at Wednesday’s meet:

Ronnie Baker ran 6.49 seconds in the 60m semifinals and lowered that to 6.44 in the final, second only to Christian Coleman this season. Demek Kemp finished second and tied his personal best of 6.50.

Nia Ali and Christina Clemons finished 1-2 in the women’s 60m hurdles with identical times of 7.92. Ali is the reigning world champion and Olympic silver medalist in the 100m hurdles. She also won world indoor titles in 2014 and 2016.

Two Ethiopian runners set the fastest times of the season Samuel Tefera in the 1,500m (3:35.54) and Getnet Wale in the 3,000m (7:32.80). Wale was fourth in the 3,000m steeplechase in the 2019 world championships.

Pascal Martinot-Lagarde, racing in his home country of France, won the 60m hurdles in 7.47, second this season to Grant Holloway‘s 7.38 last week.

The World Athletics Indoor Tour ends Friday in Madrid. The world indoor championships originally scheduled for March in Nanjing, China, have been postponed a year due to the coronavirus outbreak.

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Susan Dunklee extends decade of surprises for U.S. biathletes

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When Susan Dunklee‘s time held up for second place in Friday’s 7.5km sprint, she became the first U.S. biathlete to win two world championship medals in her career and earned the sixth medal for the U.S. in world biathlon championship history.

Four of those medals have come in the past eight years.

First was Tim Burke, who had gained some fame among biathlon fans with his three World Cup podiums in the 2009-10 season and his relationship with German biathlete Andrea Henkel, who would win two Olympic gold medals and eight world championships before retiring and marrying Burke.

In that season, Burke led the World Cup briefly but faded and didn’t do well in the Olympics. But in 2012-13, he finished 10th in the World Cup overall and ended the American drought in the world championships, finishing second in the individual behind dominant French biathlete Martin Fourcade, who won his 11th non-relay world title Wednesday in the individual.

In 2017, Dunklee became the first U.S. woman to win a non-relay medal, taking the lead in the mass start after quickly knocking down all five targets in the last shooting and holding on for second. She didn’t come out of nowhere, having taken a few World Cup medals. That season, she ranked 10th overall in the World Cup.

Then came the stunner. Lowell Bailey, who had just one World Cup podium in a long career coming into the 2016-17 season, had bib 100 in the individual, a spot usually reserved for non-contenders. But he hit all 20 targets, always important in a race that penalizes athletes one minute per miss, and gutted it out through the last lap to keep a 3.3-second advantage and win the first world championship for a U.S. biathlete.

Like Dunklee, Bailey earned his medal in the midst of a strong season. The individual was won of his four top-10 finishes in the world championships, including a fourth-place finish in the sprint. He wound up eighth overall in the World Cup.

Bailey and Burke each stuck it out to compete in their fourth Olympics in 2018, then crossed the finish line together in their final race at the U.S. championships.

This season is their first in management. Bailey, also a bluegrass musician, is now U.S. Biathlon’s director of high performance. Burke is director of athlete development.

Dunklee, on the other hand, isn’t done. Her results slipped a bit after her 2017 breakthrough, but she has had some top 10s. When she shoots clean, as she did Friday, she’s a contender.

The first U.S. medal was in the first women’s world championship in 1984, when Holly Beatie, Julie Newman and Kari Swenson bronze in 3x5km relay. Swenson also finished fifth in the individual that year and returned to compete in the next two world championships after a harrowing experience in which she was abducted and shot, a story that inspired a film starring Tracy Pollan.

The only other U.S. medal in the world championships before Burke, Bailey and Dunklee was Josh Thompson‘s individual silver in 1987. The only athletes other than Burke, Bailey, Dunklee and Thompson to have World Cup podiums (excluding relays) are Jeremy Teela in 2009 and Clare Egan, who was third in a mass start last spring and is competing in the world championships this year.

U.S. Paralympians broke through with two gold medals on the first day of competition in the 2018 Paralympics.

READ: Kendall Gretsch, Dan Cnossen take gold

Wednesday saw another surprise finish for a U.S. biathlete. Leif Nordgren, whose career-best finish outside the relays is 16th, was the only athlete to go 20-for-20 on the shooting range and placed eighth in the individual.

The championships continue through through Sunday with the single mixed relay on Thursday, the men’s and women’s relays on Saturday, and the men’s and women’s mass starts on Sunday.

WATCH: World biathlon championships TV schedule

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