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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Japanese pair edges Americans for historic Grand Prix Final figure skating title

Riku Miura, Ryuichi Kihara
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Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara won the biggest title ever for a Japanese figure skating pair, taking the Grand Prix Final and consolidating their status as the world’s top active team.

Miura and Kihara, last season’s world silver medalists, barely outscored world champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier in Turin, Italy, in both Thursday’s short program and Friday’s free skate to win the six-pair event that is a preview of March’s worlds.

The Japanese totaled 214.58 points, distancing the Americans by a mere 1.3 points after Frazier erred on both of their side-by-side jumping passes in the free skate. Italians Sara Conti and Niccolo Macii took bronze.

“We had a very late start to our season than initially planned, so as we have been performing at each event, I see us getting stronger, improving things,” said Frazier, who with Knierim had their best short program and free skate scores of the autumn.

Knierim and Frazier didn’t decide to continue competing together this season until July.

“I feel a little personally disappointed tonight just for myself for my jumps,” Frazier continued. “I was a little all over the place and, normally, I can execute better, so I feel a little bad, but I’m very proud of us overall. We’ve done a great job of improving each competition and looking forward to the second half of the season where we can start tapping into our best skating.”

GRAND PRIX FINAL: Results | Broadcast Schedule

Miura and Kihara, who partnered in June 2019 and train in Ontario, both waited with trepidation for their final score to be posted, worried that each’s separate mistake on jumps might cost them the title. When they learned they won, both burst into tears.

“This was the first time in eight years that I made a mistake with a Salchow, so I thought we might not get a good score, and it would be my fault,” Kihara said.

Miura and Kihara entered the competition ranked No. 1 in the world by best scores this season ahead of Knierim and Frazier, who in March became the first U.S. pair to win a world title since 1979.

Last season, Miura and Kihara became the second Japanese pair to make a Grand Prix podium and to earn a world championships medal. Their ascension helped Japan win its first Olympic figure skating team event medal in February (a bronze that could be upgraded to gold pending the Kamila Valiyeva case).

In Grand Prix Final history, Japan had won 11 gold medals and 40 total medals, all in singles, before this breakthrough.

Knierim and Frazier, already the first U.S. pair to compete in the Grand Prix Final since 2015, became the first U.S. pair to win a Grand Prix Final medal. The Final has been held annually since 1996, though it was canceled the last two seasons due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Miura and Kihara and Knierim and Frazier ascended to the top of the sport while the top five teams from the Olympics from Russia and China have not competed internationally since the Winter Games.

All Russian skaters are ineligible for international competition due to the war in Ukraine. China’s pairs, including Olympic champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, didn’t enter last March’s worlds and did not compete in the fall Grand Prix Series.

Later Friday, world champion Kaori Sakamoto of Japan led the women’s short program with 75.86 points, 1.28 ahead of countrywoman Mai Mihara. American Isabeau Levito, the 15-year-old world junior champion, was fifth of six skaters in her Grand Prix Final debut.

Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier topped the rhythm dance with 85.93 points, edging Americans Madison Chock and Evan Bates by .44. Both couples are bidding for the biggest international title of their careers. None of the Olympic medalists competed internationally this fall.

The Grand Prix Final ends Saturday with the men’s and women’s free skates and free dance, all live on Peacock.

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A Winter Olympic medal still being decided, 10 months later

Fanny Smith, Daniela Maier
It's still unknown whether Fanny Smith (green) or Daniela Maier (blue) is the Olympic ski cross bronze medalist. (Getty)
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There is a second Winter Olympic medal result still in question, 10 months after the Games.

While the figure skating team event results are still unknown due to the Kamila Valiyeva case, the bronze medal in women’s ski cross is also in dispute.

Originally, Swiss Fanny Smith crossed the finish line in third place in the four-woman final at the Winter Games in February. Upon review by the International Ski Federation (FIS) jury, she was minutes later demoted to fourth place after making contact with German Daniela Maier near the end of the course. Maier, who originally was fourth, was upgraded to bronze.

“I tried to be OK with the fourth place. I was very disappointed, I have to say, [then] the jury was like this,” Maier said then. “I am really sorry for Fanny that it’s like this right now. … The jury decided like this, so accept it and be happy with the medal.”

Smith and the Swiss ski federation appealed. FIS reinstated Smith as the bronze medalist nine days after the race and six days after the Closing Ceremony. A FIS appeals commission met four times and reviewed video and written documentation for several hours before deciding that “the close proximity of the racers at that moment resulted in action that was neither intentional or avoidable.”

But that wasn’t the end. The case ended up reportedly going to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), whose rulings are usually accepted as final. The CAS process is ongoing, European media reported this week.

CAS has not responded to a request for comment. A FIS contact said Friday, “There is currently no update to provide in regards to the bronze medal in ski cross. Should there be any update, we will inform you.”

Smith said there should be news soon regarding the case, according to Blick.

Maier still has the bronze medal at her home and enjoys looking at it, according to German media, which also reported that the German ski federation expects Maier to win the case and keep the medal. Smith and Maier spoke extensively about it in recent training sessions and cleared things up. Maier said the best outcome would be bronze medals for both of them, according to the report.

For now, FIS lists Smith as the bronze medalist. The IOC lists Maier as the bronze medalist.

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