By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Nobody will be surprised if University of Virginia swimmer Leah Smith represents the United States in the Olympics one day. Even if she reaches that milestone, however, Smith won’t automatically be the most accomplished athlete in her extended family.
Her paternal great-grandfather, Jimmy Smith, won a World Series title with the Cincinnati Reds in 1919. One of her great-uncles was light-heavyweight fighter Billy Conn, the subject of one of legendary sportswriter Frank Deford’s most acclaimed stories,The Boxer and the Blonde.
Many other relatives, if not rising to that level of prominence, still distinguished themselves in their respective sports.
Smith’s paternal grandfather played minor-league baseball. Her father, Dan, is a former UVa pole vaulter, and most of his siblings were Division I athletes as well. Her sister, Aileen, swam at Columbia, and her brother, Daniel, plays baseball at Williams College.
Her family is so athletic, Smith said, “that I often feel like everything I do can’t even compare to what they do.”
Six weeks into her second year at the University, Smith already has done plenty. The ACC freshman of the year in 2013-14, she holds school records in the 500-yard freestyle (4:33.65, also a conference record), 1,000-yard free (9:30.19) and 1,650-yard free (15.42.04) and ranks second all-time in the 200-yard free (1:44.14), behind a former Olympian, Lauren Perdue (1:42.51).
“It was an awesome experience,” said Smith, who was born and raised in Pittsburgh, for generations her family’s hometown. “I loved my first year. I wish I could do it again, because I’m kind of jealous of the first-years who have four whole years left. I was pretty happy with my swims in the pool, because I had been coming off of a year that was really disappointing for me.”
The summer brought more success for the 5-10 Smith, an alumna of the JCC Sailfish program in Pittsburgh. In August, she earned a gold medal at the Pan Pacific Championships in Gold Coast, Australia. In the women’s 4×200-meter freestyle relay, Smith swam the third leg for a U.S. team that also included three Olympic gold medalists: Shannon Vreeland, Missy Franklin and Katie Ledecky.
On that stage, in that company, failure was not an option for Smith.
“I knew the other three would step up,” she recalled recently at UVa’s Aquatic and Fitness Center. “Not only do you feel pressure to perform for those three girls, and you just want to do everything you can do to hold your place or get a better place, you also feel the pressure of the whole team. And not only the whole team, but you know everyone back home is watching this relay, and you can’t let them down.”
Smith, who is likely to major in media studies at UVa, also swam the 200 free, 400 free and 800 free in Australia, which she was visiting for the first time. In 2012, she had represented the United States at the Junior Pan Pacific Championships in Honolulu, Hawaii, where she won gold in the 400m free and 800m free.
“That was my first meet ever wearing the American flag on my suit and cap,” Smith said. “So that helped prepare me a little bit [for Australia].”
Likewise, Augie Busch said, Smith’s experience at the Pan Pacs should pay dividends for her as a college swimmer.
“The best athletes in any sport are the most confident ones,” said Busch, who oversees UVa’s swimming and diving programs, “and wearing a United States cap and representing the United States at what is probably, outside of the Olympics and world championships, the most high-profile swimming competition, it’s injected a lot of confidence into a girl was who was already pretty confident.”
Smith collected another honor early this month when USA Swimming named her and UVa junior Courtney Bartholomew to the national women’s team roster for 2014-15.
Smith was selected in the 200m free, 400m free and 800m free, Bartholomew in the 200m backstroke. (Former UVa great Matt McLean, an Olympic gold medalist in 2012, was named to U.S. men’s team in the 200m free and 400m free. McLean, like Smith, won a gold medal at the Pan Pacs in Australia this summer.)
In addition to the athleticism for which her family is known, Smith has other attributes that make her especially suited to swimming.
“There seems to be a natural buoyancy to her, which really varies from individual to individual in my experience,” Busch said, “and with that comes just a natural ability to ride high in the water and to get really clean pulls.
“Her angles are so good in terms of reaching out over the water and getting out over the water. It’s natural buoyancy, it’s a natural rhythm and balance that she has, it’s the motor that she’s got.”
And then there’s her work ethic.
“She’s the type who doesn’t know how to not give you 100 percent all the time,” Busch said. “She gives you everything she’s got, every single day. She doesn’t know another gear. So just her competitiveness in training, it defensively raises the level of the distance group, guys and girls, and really the whole team. And her personality, it’s kind of raw and unfiltered, and it’s really awesome to have a little bit of that in your team dynamic.”
In an otherwise stellar freshman season, Smith did not perform as well as she expected at the NCAA championships in Minneapolis. “NCAAs was interesting, because it was a lot of ups and down,” she said.
Smith entered the meet as the No. 1 seed in the 500-yard freestyle, with Franklin (Cal) and Brittany MacLean (Georgia) among those seeded below her, but she failed to qualify for the A final in that event.
“I went into the meet the first day of prelims with such high nerves, and I couldn’t even think during my race,” Smith recalled. “Everything went wrong, and I added like five seconds. I was watching everyone as I swam, worrying about what they were doing, and that’s never the way I swim my races.”
Smith regained her form that evening in the B final of the 500 free, finishing in 4:33.65 to take ninth place overall. Her 500 time was the third-fastest at that NCAA meet and eighth-fastest ever by an American female.
“In that, I swam exactly how I always swim a race,” Smith said, “and I was really happy with that, because after my morning race I was really scared for the rest of the meet, but then I bounced back and I stopped being scared.”
Also in Minneapolis, Smith placed third in the 1,650 free with a school-record time of 15:42.04 and helped UVa’s 800 free relay team to a fifth-place finish. She placed 17th in the 200 free.
Smith’s experience at her first NCAA championships was not unusual, Busch said.
“I’ve seen the top recruits fall on their face and not score a point at NCAAs,” he said.
The challenges facing swimmers at that meet are many. “First of all, you have to be ready to go in the morning,” Busch said. “That’s what makes NCAAs unique. Even at a conference meet, for a really good swimmer like Leah, she knows she doesn’t have to throw down her best effort [in the prelims] to easily make it back top 8.
“I can’t even express to you how different that mindset [must be at NCAAs], to know that it all depends on prelims in the morning, how difficult that is, just because, OK, it’s early in the morning, and it’s just harder to be ready to go, to swim fast, to have your competitive edge on point. So that, I think, is what she and many other freshmen learn or learned last year: just how competitive it is in the morning. It’s not like your average meet.”
The UVa women placed 11th at the NCAA championships last season. Their highest finish, seventh, came in 1988. That record could fall in March.
“We’ve already talked about being the best team in the history of our program,” Busch said. “I think we can do that.”
On a loaded roster, Smith will be among those leading the quest in 2014-15. Then, after her second year at Virginia ends, she’ll compete next summer at the World University Games in South Korea and the FINA World Championships in Russia.
“I think the next level for her is the elite level, and the Olympic level,” Busch said. “So she’s thinking about that. I’d be shocked if she doesn’t knock it out of the park this year in everything she does.”
GOLDEN SUMMER: Smith wasn’t the only UVa swimmer to compete on an international stage in August. Freshman Brendan Casey won a gold medal at the Junior Pan Pacific Championships in Maui, Hawaii.
Casey, who’s from Santa Monica, Calif., finished the men’s 10k open-water event in 1:58.00.00, one second ahead of runner-up Jon McKay of Canada.
In his other events, Casey placed ninth in the 800m free (8:22.77), 10th in the 1,500m free (15:35.89), and 11th in the 200m back (2:06.12).