Leah Smith was not necessarily looking to set any records in the Olympic 4x200m freestyle relay in Rio. As she swam the second leg last night at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium, Smith realized her job was to keep the United States within striking distance of Australia and China, close enough to give the world’s best female swimmer, Katie Ledecky, a chance to pull ahead of the competition in the anchor leg. And that’s exactly what happened.
The Americans finished the race in 7:43.03, good for the gold medal, Smith’s first of the Olympics.
By the time the Oakland Catholic High School alum completed her leg, the U.S. team trailed the Australians by just 0.31 seconds, setting the stage for Ledecky, who put the hammer down in leg 4 to give the U.S. a victory margin of nearly two seconds. Joining Smith and Ledecky on the podium were Allison Schmitt and Maya DiRado.
Smith now joins the ranks of swimmers like Michael Phelps, the man she grew up idolizing, as Olympic gold medal winners. And Phelps was rooting for her.
“It was a really cool moment after my 400 free (in the U.S. Olympic trials),” said Smith. “He congratulated me and I was pretty excited because I’ve looked up to him my whole life for what he’s done.
“He’s very down to Earth, a pretty good leader for the team. I feel like in maybe some other sports the stars could go off and do their own thing. But he’s just one of us and trains the exact same way that everybody else does.”
Smith said the training it takes to become a world class swimmer is more of a grind than just about any other sport.
“A lot of the reason why swimming is so hard is you have your face in the water for a very long time. And you can’t really swim with music and sometimes you can’t hear anything that anyone’s saying because you just have to be swimming. And so you don’t really get that motivation you might with a sport where you can be above ground the whole time.”
But her Olympic experience in Brazil is proving to be quite a payoff for the years of isolation and punishing work in the water. In addition to last night’s gold, Smith also won a bronze medal in the 400-meter freestyle event. She finished third with a time of 4:01:92, more than a full second off her personal best of 4:00:65 which she achieved last month in the Olympic trials. Ledecky took gold in the same race, finishing 5 seconds ahead of the pack.
Clearly the crawl stroke, as freestyle is also known, is Smith’s favorite. But it wasn’t always that way. When she began to swim competitively as a child, she would only do the backstroke because she didn’t want to put her face in the water. But eventually she grew to like the crawl and even developed her own style.
“My stroke is similar to a wind mill in that I kind of straight arm the whole thing which is pretty uncommon for a distance swimmer to do,” said Smith. “But it helps me get a lot more distance out of my arms than other people would. And so my coaches always say that I swim tall, like taller than I am.”
Today Smith begins her quest for a third medal in a qualifying heat for the 800m freestyle event. The final is tomorrow night.
Other Pittsburgh area Olympic athletes competing in Brazil include rower Amanda Polk who will participate in the women’s eight finals on Saturday, and Pine-Richland High School graduate Meghan Klingenberg, a defender on the U.S. women’s soccer team which takes on Sweden in the quarterfinals at noon Friday.