INDIANAPOLIS — Regan Smith raced to the top of the swimming world while still in her teens.
She didn’t really get a chance to enjoy the view.
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Smith struggled to cope. She came up short of a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics. One of her best events became her biggest nemesis. The expectations from all that early success proved a bit overwhelming.
“It was really cool to be young and be as talented and great as I was,” Smith said, breaking into a nervous laugh when she recognizes that bit of braggadocio. “To do that when you’re young, you don’t feel any pressure. No one expects anything out of you, so you can just go and have fun.”
Finally, Smith is having fun again.
After moving to Arizona to work with Michael Phelps’ former coach, Bob Bowman, she rediscovered her love of the sport. The 21-year-old Smith heads into the world championships at Fukuoka, Japan, with her star on the rise after some rocky times.
“It’s not like I’m at the end of my career,” she said recently during the national championships at Indianapolis. “I still have a lot left to give. I knew I wasn’t done fighting. I knew that I was capable of more than I was putting out the past few years. It was hard for sure, but I’m really proud of how I came back.”
Smith recently won the 100- and 200-meter backstroke as well as the 200 butterfly at nationals in Indianapolis, making her one of a handful of U.S. swimmers who will compete in three individual events at Fukuoka.
More importantly, her times are starting to sink toward where they were four years ago, when Smith set world records in both the 100 and 200 back at age 17.
“I allowed the pressure of my world records to just build on me,” Smith conceded. “I wasn’t training like I was supposed to. Everyone was expecting greatness in the backstroke out of me since I was the current world record holder. I really let that get to me and affect me. Just having those world records and knowing I wasn’t that swimmer anymore was hard.”
Bowman knew that Smith needed a confidence boost when she joined his training group in Tempe.
“The program we run is a very good fit for her,” the coach said. “She’s a worker through and through. She just needs that level of intensity. and we have a group that will do that. She just kind of thrives in that environment. I think that’s been the difference.”
Smith’s most impressive performance at nationals came in the 200 back, long considered her best event but the one that has been her most perplexing. She held the world record for more than 3 1/2 years but didn’t qualify for it at either the Tokyo Olympics or the 2022 world championships.
This past March, Australia’s Kaylee McKeown — who already overtook Smith’s 100 back world record in 2021 — claimed the mark in the 200 back with a time of 2 minutes, 3.14 seconds.
The American really didn’t mind giving up her spots in the record book.
In a way, it’s freed her up psychologically.
“I have such a rocky relationship with my backstroke, as people know by now,” Smith said. “Honestly, the world record for the longest time just felt like a target on my back. All I wanted was to get it off of me.”
In Indianapolis, Smith was under world-record pace through the first three laps and touched in 2:03.80 — her fastest time since 2019 and fourth-fastest in history. Usually reserved, she pounded the water in celebration.
“I was so nervous about it,” Bowman said. “It’s been a long time since she’s really done a good one, and we wanted to break that mold of her not being able to make an international meet in it. It’s been since 2019 since she swam it (at worlds), and she’s one of the best ever.”
Smith is eager to keep the momentum going in Japan.
But she’s not putting too much pressure on herself this time.
“No matter what happens, I’m gonna be proud of myself,” Smith said. “I’m still competing in this race after everything I’ve been through. I’m starting to love it again, which is the most important part.”