April 4, 2016

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Even a casual observer can tell University of Virginia swimmer Leah Smith is a rare talent, and it’s not necessary to see her in the water. The record board inside UVA’s Aquatic and Fitness Center provides a snapshot of her swimming prowess. One of her coaches, though, has a perspective that gives him a special appreciation for Smith’s latest feats.

At the University of Arizona, Cory Chitwood won three consecutive NCAA titles (2010, ’11 and ’12) in the 200-yard backstroke. Now a UVA assistant coach, Chitwood watched last month in Atlanta as Smith, a 5-10 junior from Pittsburgh, repeated as NCAA champion in the 500-yard freestyle and the 1,650-yard freestyle.

“I remember my best friend, after I finished my swimming career, he asked me which [NCAA title] was the hardest to win, and I had no problem in saying the last one,” said Chitwood, who works with UVA’s distance group.

“It’s easy to come in when not everyone’s looking at you or expecting anything. It’s easy to come in and sort of give it a big swing and see what you’ve got. But when people start putting expectations on you, that can be tough, and it takes a special type of athlete to be able to deal with expectations like those and to know that it’s sort of an honor to have those expectations put upon you, that all of your hard work and the things that you’ve accomplished in the past are the reasons you have those.”

Smith has handled such expectations with aplomb this year. And now, with four individual NCAA titles, she holds the UVA record for a student-athlete in any sport.

The ACC freshman of the year in 2013-14, Smith did not leave the NCAA championships satisfied that season. She placed third in the 1,650 free and helped Virginia to a fifth-place finish in the 800-meter free relay, but she was ninth in the 500 free and 17th in the 200 free.

Her emotions when she broke through at the NCAAs as a sophomore were different, Smith said, from those she experienced last month.

The 2015 meet, Smith said, “was a lot more exciting, because I’d never done it. This one was kind of filled with pressure just to repeat. And if I hadn’t, everyone would have been like, `Well, she failed to do what she did last year.’ So that was hard. But definitely when I touched the wall both times I was really, really happy.”

After finishing a program-best fifth at the NCAA championships in 2015, the Virginia women ended in the same place this year. The Cavaliers had set their sights on a top-four finish, so “that was kind of sad, to have to realize that one of our big team goals wasn’t going to be attained,” Smith said.

“But we all have had time to reflect on it now, and I think we all kind of decided that if we’re a little bit disappointed with a fifth-place finish, then how we define success has really changed.”

Courtney Bartholomew, a 13-time first-team All-American, is out of eligibility, but she was the only senior to score for the Wahoos at the NCAA meet this year, and so they figure to be among the nation’s elite again next season.

“We’ll never truly replace Courtney,” Smith said, “but we can try, and I feel like a lot of people will realize it’s their time to step up.”

Bartholomew retired from competitive swimming after the NCAA meet. Smith’s training sessions at the AFC continue. Her goal is to compete this summer at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and to qualify she must perform well at the U.S. Olympic Trials, which begin June 26 in Omaha, Neb.

Some swimmers choose to take leaves of absence from their college teams to train for the Olympic Trials, Smith said, but “I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to swim with my team. But now that the NCAAs are over, I can really, really focus.”

At the 2012 Olympic Trials, she placed 12th in the 800-meter free and 14th in the 400-meter free. That experience should help prepare Smith for what awaits her in Omaha.

“It can be one of the happiest meets or the saddest meet you’ve ever been to in your life,” said Chitwood, who competed at the Olympic Trials in 2008 and in 2012,

“There is a mixed bag of emotion going on at that pool, and that’s what makes it so special. I know Leah will handle that pressure in a healthy way. We talk about it a lot. It’s not a subject that we shy away from. These past three years she’s been on the biggest stages in the world, and we’re lucky enough that she gets the opportunity to race one of the best, if not the best, female swimmers” — Katie Ledecky — “to ever take a lap in the pool in this world.”

In August 2014, Smith earned a gold medal at the Pan Pacific Championships in Australia. In the women’s 4×200-meter freestyle relay, she swam the third leg for a United States team that also included three Olympic gold medalists: Ledecky, Missy Franklin and Shannon Vreeland.

Smith gained more international experience last summer, representing the United States first at the World University Games in South Korea and then at the FINA World Championships in Russia.

“When you’re selected for meets like that, it does unbelievable things for young people’s confidence,” Virginia head coach Augie Busch said. “You can’t say enough about representing the Stars and Stripes and what that does for people in their careers.”

In Gwangju, South Korea, Smith won two gold medals: one in the 400-meter free and the other in the 4×200-meter free relay. In Kazan, Russia, she teamed with Franklin, Ledecky and Katie McLaughlin to win the 4×200-meter free relay.

Her coaches say Smith continues to improve as a swimmer, especially in her tactics during races.

“I think her first year, the biggest hurdle we had to get over was sort of the mental side of things,” Chitwood said.

“This year it’s been more about race strategy and trying to teach her the best way to go about distance racing and how to race certain people. She’s gotten much, much better at that, just the mental side of racing, because especially in distance swimming it can be a bit of a chess match.

“When you’re in a mile and you’re having 15 minutes to swim, there’s times when you need to make moves and there’s times where you need to sit back, and maybe there’s times where you need to step on it and really break people’s wills from the beginning.”

Busch said Smith has “learned that she can sit on the front end of races and have the confidence to know that she can either catch people if need be or pull further away from people if need be. So she’s restructured how she looks at her race plans. The biggest thing she’s done is just sitting on the front end, being really long in distance per stroke in the first half of her races, and then having the confidence in her training to bring it home.”

Smith, who comes from a family of accomplished athletes, holds NCAA, ACC and UVA records in the 500-yard free, 1,000-yard free and 1,650-yard free. She aspires to more than collegiate success, though, and that drive is among the qualities that make Smith special.

“Each and every day she’s a hard worker,” Chitwood said, “and she couldn’t be in a better spot heading into Olympic Trials.”

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