'It was worth it.' After a long year, Lakeville swimmer Regan Smith where she always wanted to be -- the Tokyo Olympics

·12 min read

Jul. 24—Team USA swimming's training camp in the weeks leading up to Tokyo took place in Honolulu.

There are worse places to prepare for the biggest meet of your life.

It's not as though there were ample opportunities to take advantage of the location, but the team did go on a catamaran on the 4th of July, and the view from Regan Smith's 23rd floor hotel room was stunning.

"As I'm talking to you right now, I'm staring out at the ocean and it's super blue. I've never seen water this blue before, which is amazing," Smith said two weeks ago. "Then if I look the other way, I see the mountains, I see the horizon, I see cool mountain peaks, tons of buildings. So I've been taking tons of photos from my balcony, and I think it's such a cool view."

As she ventured out on her long journey from her Lakeville, Minn.,home — which featured a pit stop in Hawaii before taking off for Tokyo — the 19-year-old star swimmer made a point to document everything.

She opens her Olympics at 5 a.m. Central time Sunday with a prelim round swim in the 100-meter backstroke, with the semifinals to follow at 9:53 p.m. Smith starts her 200-meter butterfly swims at 5 a.m. Tuesday.

The 2019 World Championships marked the best meet of Smith's career. She set world records in three events — the 100 backstroke, 200 backstroke and 4×100 medley relay — en route to becoming USA Swimming's breakout star. Yet she carried one major regret from that week — she didn't savor the moment.

"I just remember the whole time being so unbelievably nervous that I just wanted it to be over," Smith said. "Then when I got home and looked back, I just was like 'I didn't enjoy that experience at all.'"

The plan in Tokyo is to do the opposite. While athletes are severely restricted in what they can do in these mid-pandemic Olympics, Smith wants to enjoy every part of the stage she has worked so hard to reach.

The path to Tokyo was not an easy one.


Regan's father Paul said the last two years have featured equal parts of polar opposite emotions.

On one hand, it's been "a fantastic, interesting, fascinating, heart-warming experience."

But it's also been "deeply stressful, frustrating, at times frightening, disconcerting."

Regan was on top of the swimming world in 2019 after the world championships in South Korea. The then-17-year-old was the fastest female backstroker on earth, who was only improving leading up to the 2020 Games.

"Regan headed into the summer of 2020 in the absolute best shape you could possibly be in," said Paul, who also helps coach Regan with the Riptide Swim Team in Apple Valley alongside her primary coach, Mike Parratto. "She was as wired as any athlete could be. And I mean that literally, not hyperbolically. She was absolutely ready to go to Tokyo and kick the hell out of it."

Everyone knows what happened next. The COVID-19 pandemic rocked the world to its very core. Changes to swimming training programs don't even register as a speck in the grand scheme of this last year-plus. So you will not hear Smith complain about it.

But the virus and the subsequent lockdowns took Smith — who thrives under a routine, heavy workload — down to just 35 percent of her normal volume. It took her out of long-course pools for nine months. It also seemed to destroy her momentum and confidence. It caused her to defer the start of her college career at Stanford, originally slated for fall of 2021, by a year.

This all while she got to sit on the pressure of three world records for another year.

"During COVID especially, when we didn't know if the Olympics were going to happen at all after they got postponed, there were many, many months in there where I was just like, 'What am I doing this for?'" Smith said. "You sacrifice a lot for this sport. To get to the place that I am in the sport, you do have to sacrifice a lot. Definitely during the pandemic, and at other points in my swimming career, as well, when things aren't going super well and I'm not going as fast as I want to be going, it's hard to keep going at some points. It's very hard to stay motivated and stay driven and remember why I'm doing this in the first place."

With the lack of training, Smith's times dipped. Her backstroke felt so funky she was, at times, electing to do butterfly in practice instead. At what was essentially a virtual meet in November, Smith turned in marks far below her standards.

"It was very demoralizing, truthfully, because she did not feel like she was remotely in the shape she needed to be in. ... She was not even in the same zip code as she was 12 months earlier," Paul said. "Then her stroke started to feel funny, because then you start overthinking things. Then, all of a sudden, your backstroke, which has been as smooth as butter since you were 10, starts to feel like you're 75 years old with arthritis, and something is not right."

Paul said his daughter went through some "awful, ugly, sloppy meets." That's where he noted an athlete can look in the mirror and start to question themselves and think, "I'm in trouble." This is a swimmer who set age-group records all the way up the ranks. Smith's career to this point was a straight line of ascension. Now, in the year leading up to the most important meets of her career, she'd hit a major speedbump.

"It would be very easy to pack up your lunch box and go home, and start sleeping in and skipping practice and getting demoralized," Paul said.

But that's just not his daughter. Regan simply kept going. Parratto brought her back to the basics, and she again found her strokes as she rebuilt her stamina.

"She's amazingly dedicated and she's there all the time in training. All the time," Parratto said. "You're not going to have a perfect day every day. For me, she seems to have a lot of those. But there's always a day or two where something isn't going right, and her thought process is, 'Hey, I'm going to get this out of this practice today.' I'm going to get the most out of what I can today.

"It is a situation where you want to feel like your old self, you want to be who you are. She took all the right steps, did all the right training and got through all the mental barriers to get back to that."

That's awfully rare for a teenager to carry that kind of mentality.

"There's not a lot of Regans," Parratto noted. "It starts with ability, but it also goes much more than that. She's a dedicated person. She's very determined to be the best that she can be."

In the most difficult times, Smith reverts back to her roots.

"I started swimming because I liked it. Because I enjoyed doing it," Smith said. "So if I just remember that, then it helps me continue to push and keep going. So just remembering what I'm doing this for, remembering what I'm capable of and how talented I am and how hard I work. I don't want it to be all for nothing, so I want to do everything that I can to make the most of my career in this sport."


In the pool, Smith is still inching toward her pre-pandemic form. Outside of it, she's leaps and bounds ahead of where she was two years ago.

The Lakeville North grad won't say she's mentally "stronger," but certainly is more "mentally aware." The pandemic forced that out of her. Having to essentially sit on her hands while other countries such as Australia — home of new 100-meter backstroke world record holder Kaylee McKeown — continued to charge forward was not easy.

Given her 2019 breakout, Smith felt a pressure to continue to excel without, frankly, having any opportunity to do so.

"Just sitting on hold for a year with all the hype built for the Games was really, really hard to deal with," Smith said.

But she allowed herself to take the time to process those emotions.

"I think that two years ago, I really was not in tune with my mental health or how I was feeling emotionally at all, and I think I'm a lot more aware of myself mentally with how I'm doing," Smith said. "I'm trying to give myself mental check-ins now and just kind of stay on top of things emotionally and mentally. So I think that's where I've improved the most, honestly, just being more aware of how I'm doing and how things are going."

That, Smith noted, is a skill that she will take with her moving forward, well beyond her swimming career.

"I think that this sport has really helped prepare me for life in many, many ways," Smith said. "Being in tune with myself mentally is a really, really good thing and will take me far in life. This year was hard, but I think I got a lot out of it. That's how I'm trying to look at it, trying to look at it positively and think about how much I've learned and taken away from this year."

No, Paul Smith has no idea where his daughter gained such perspective so early in life.

"I'm so proud. I know it's cliche, 'I'm so proud of her,' but I mean genuinely," Paul said. "This kid has gone through a lot, and grown into a really fantastic young lady, and has earned everything she gets. It'll be tough if it doesn't go as well for her as she wants it to, but at the same time, that's life, right? And you learn from it, you grow, you move on and it is what it is."


Smith was disappointed with one specific aspect of her Olympic trials performance. No, it wasn't that she just barely missed out on qualifying in the 200 backstroke — one of her premier events — at the tail end of her busy trials schedule.

More so, it was her reaction after the 100 backstroke finals — a race she won.

"It was all relief and no excitement," Smith said. "I just feel like I wasn't as excited as I dreamt I would be, so I wish that I had realized in that moment, 'Girl, it doesn't matter what your time was. You won, and that's what matters. You're going to the Olympics.' Looking back now, I realize I'm super proud of myself and super excited."

This is a dream Smith has had since she was 10 years old. Watching the 2012 London Games, she admired all of the swimmers from Michael Phelps to Missy Franklin, and wanted to be like them.

Few fulfill their childhood dreams. Smith has.

"It's easy to get caught up in my performance in the moment and still be disappointed in myself, like I didn't perform as well as I wanted to. But I'm trying to just look at the big picture and be like, 'I made it,' " Smith said. "And 10-year-old me would be so proud no matter what."

She's entering the Games with the healthiest possible mindset. The greatest pressure was simply making the U.S. team. She has done that.

Now, she's enjoying everything, from the intense, yet inspiring training sessions with Team USA to the time spent with other members of the team, many of whom are now in her age range — a change from when Regan was on world championship teams as a 15- and 17-year-old. Her roommate is 21-year-old Erica Sullivan. Her fellow U.S. swimmers have become some of her best friends.

"They've had a blast," Paul said.

Smith could win both of her events in Tokyo and claim a relay gold, to boot. She could finish off the podium. This year especially — given everything athletes have dealt with over the last 16 months — the field is wide open.

There is one thing working in Smith's favor. Parratto and Paul Smith had lunch together this week, and as they were walking out to the parking lot, Parratto left Smith with a parting thought: "Happy swimmers swim fast."

Heading to Tokyo, above all else, Regan Smith is a happy swimmer. And that's what matters most.

"Now that I'm here, I'm like, 'Heck yeah, it was worth it.' " Smith said. "I want Tokyo to feel like a celebration of all my hard work and everything that I've done along the way to get here."

"I want to go into Tokyo with a good head on my shoulders and truly just have fun. I feel like all I say is 'I want to have fun,' but Trials was not fun. It was very mentally grueling. So, with the Games, I want to enjoy it. Because this is an extremely special and fun opportunity, and I know that I had so much fun watching it on TV growing up. So to be a part of it, I just want it to be everything that I dreamed it would be."

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