There’s a familiar narrative that those of us who write about Olympic athletes have seen (and occasionally perpetuated): “Teenage Olympic hopeful skips high school prom to train for sport!”
It has become a shorthand way of saying “Olympians! They’re different than the rest of us!”
Regan Smith is familiar with this narrative. At the 2019 World Championships, the then-17-year-old broke three world records while swimming in just two events: 200m back, 100m back (as part of the 4x100m medley relay), 4x100m medley relay. She then returned home to Minnesota for her senior year of high school at Lakeville North. And while it was COVID-19 – and not swimming – that ultimately upended her final semester of high school, Smith still received a few prom-related questions.
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In an interview with the NYTimes in May, Smith reflected, “I’ve grown accustomed to missing out on school-related functions. I think I’m really lucky that my personality type has allowed me to accept that and understand that this is the life I chose. I know I’m not missing out. I don’t feel sad if I can’t go to a football game or I can’t go to a dance or something.”
Six months later, Smith – now a high school graduate – feels the same way about missing out on these “traditional” high school experiences. At the same time, though, the 18-year-old credits the one-year Olympic delay with allowing her to “just be a kid for once.”
Early in the summer, she and a few of her club teammates formed a pandemic “pod.” At the time, COVID-related restrictions meant they were practicing just six times a week (instead of eight), leaving Smith with “a lot more time on my hands.”
“[Normally] I spend most of my summers traveling or away at swim meets, not having a ton of time to tan in the sun or play beach volleyball or stuff like that. So that’s what I did… I really think it helped me regain an appreciation for the sport.”
Midway through the summer, Smith decided to take a gap year, deferring her freshman year at Stanford. “I decided to defer this year because there are too many uncertainties with my training if I were to go out to school because of COVID-19,” Smith told SwimmingWorld in July.
These days, the self-described “homebody” has been enjoying an extra year of her parents’ cooking and “lazy Sundays” often spent getting her nails done. She’s kept herself busy by taking online classes in statistics and psychology through a community college. “I wanted to keep a structured routine,” she explains. “I thought I’d just go crazy if all I did was go to practice and then lay in bed and scroll through Tik Tok all day.”
She has also had to adjust to being the oldest member of her Riptide Swim Club training group. After doing eight practices a week for the last few years, she decided to increase to nine earlier in the fall. “I thought, you know, I’m older now, it’s time to rev things up a little… I’m just so thankful that I’ve been able to go above and beyond where I was pre-quarantine.”
Smith is also looking to deepen her competitive program. While backstroke has long been her “bread and butter,” she credits the two-month quarantine-induced break from the water with helping her become a stronger butterfly swimmer.
“When we were out of the water, I was a little stressed at first. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m out of the water. I’m not training. How can I compensate for this?'”
With no pool access, she was forced to focus on dryland training. “I was running a lot more, I was taking strength training really seriously… I do really feel like I’m a lot stronger and butterfly is definitely a strength stroke,” she explains.
While Smith has raced in a few mini meets against her own club teammates, this week’s U.S. Open will be her first “real swim meet” since the spring. She’s on the start list in five events: 100m back, 200m back, 100m fly, 200m fly, and 200m IM.
“If all goes well, I think that butterfly is going to be a big focus going into next year, right up there with backstroke.”
The one thing Smith hasn’t practiced recently? Getting into a tech suit.
“It’s been like eight months since I put one on… I’m [bringing] extra suits in case I rip one.”
Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC