- High-schooler Regan Smith was a breakout star at the 2019 FINA World Championships. She talks to SI about breaking Missy Franklin's 200 backstroke record, staying motivated and finishing high school.
For two years now, versatile, 22-year-old swimmer Caeleb Dressel has been touted as the heir to the throne vacated by Michael Phelps—and Dressel did not disappoint at the 2019 FINA World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea, winning six gold medals. But it was 17-year-old Lakeville, Minn., resident Regan Smith who asserted herself as the latest phenom. She swam just one individual race, the 200-meter backstroke, but she made it count, shattering Missy Franklin’s last remaining world record in the semifinal (in 2:03.35) and going on to win gold. Team USA coaches then tabbed Smith to lead off the women’s 4x100-meter medley relay later in the meet (while 100 backstroke world record holder Kathleen Baker watched from the stands), and she broke that record too, going 57.57 as the relay also set a world mark.
SI caught up with Smith after her record-setting week.
SI: You’re a little over a week removed from breaking your first world record. What has it been like for you?
RS: It hasn’t quite sunk in yet. This week is really flown by. We essentially went straight from Korea to Nationals. And then now that I’m finally going home, I think that over this next week is when I’ll start to think about everything that happened.
SI: I’m sure you’ve had tons of people reaching out to you. Has there been anyone that had you particularly starstruck?
RS: Definitely Missy [Franklin]. It was really, really cool and exciting. When she sent me those messages I was still in competition and still had the relay in front of me, so that really gave me motivation, too.
SI: You were 10 when Missy set the 200 back record at the London 2012 Olympics. Do you remember it?
RS: It’s crazy. I actually don’t remember it. I remember watching her make the team at Olympic Trials but I don’t remember watching at all, which is super sad. I’ve watched the race so many times since then.
SI: For so many people, she is such a legend in the sport. Was she someone who you looked up to growing up?
RS: I definitely did. As a girl growing up in the sport, you want a strong female figure in the sport to look up to, and she was just the perfect one. She was amazing. Such a great person, such a great personality, and was just so, so likable and just incredible. So yeah, I always looked up to her, especially because we swam the same strokes.
SI: Does taking out her last remaining world record come with any added emotions for you?
RS: I never really thought about that to be honest with you. Just the fact that it was a Missy record in general was really crazy. I knew her record—2:04.06—like I’ve known that for years, and ever since she broke it, I remember thinking, How on earth is anyone going to touch that? I remember a few years back when I was a 2:14 or something in the 200 back just being like, How is it even possible how fast she went? So to think that I was the one who did it is absolutely crazy to me. And if you told me that a year ago, I never would’ve never believed you and I still don’t really.
SI: Were there other swimmers that you looked up to growing up?
RS: I always loved Michael Phelps too. Since neither of my parents swam, I didn’t know a ton of other swimmers outside of Michael Phelps and Missy Franklin. I wish I knew more about the sport growing up, but my whole family, we just did not think about it. But it’s alright how it worked out.
SI: When you touched the wall at the finish of the 200 back your emotions were practically palpable. What your first thought was when you saw your time?
RS: I thought that the [touch]pad was wrong. I didn’t believe the time at all. I was like, No way, this has to be some sort of fluke or mistake. After that, it was just a mix of disbelief and shock. It was a crazy feeling, but it was just the coolest thing.
SI: You didn’t swim for the first week of the meet leading up to that race. How did you stay in the zone and what got you through that first week of just watching?
RS: I definitely think that swimming later actually was in my favor. Before the meet started, I was really nervous. I was like, Oh my gosh, I still have so much more time until I swim, I’m going to get so antsy. how am I going to wait this long? But I think waiting helped me. With each night that I watched Team USA perform, I got more and more excited for my race, like seeing all the other swimmers get in their routine and see how things work. So by the time my race came around, I was really comfortable and I knew exactly what the routine of the preliminaries would be, and I just knew what to expect. And then I also just felt extremely motivated after watching five days of really great racing.
SI: Given that you were the youngest athlete on Team USA, what was it like for you to travel with all of the veterans?
RS: Since I went through the same thing with Budapest in 2017, I think I knew a little bit more of what to expect. I still went into it really nervous, since I was the only one under 18, but everyone on Team USA is unbelievably nice and welcoming. And I just had so many great conversations with so many teammates and things just went a lot better than I was hoping they would. Everyone was so great. I think I made a lot of really great friends.
SI: Are there any traditions or pre-race routines that Team USA does or that you in particular like to do with the other athletes?
RS: We’re just really good at getting the team fired up for sure. Back in the team area, or in the warm up pool, we’re blasting music, we’re definitely the loudest team back there. We’re all having such a good time. Our coaching staff and our support staff just has so much fun. They really help to take all of the nerves away and just help us forget about all the pressure, if there is any, and just let loose and have fun, which I think helps a lot.
SI: Moving on to the 100 back and the relay record, having not raced the 100 individually, were you nervous to be put in that position on the relay?
RS: I was extremely nervous because it was my first relay with the big team. I did the medley relay at Junior Worlds, but never on the world stage like that. So being in front of three Olympians, I felt the pressure a little bit more in that race. I was really nervous and I wanted to start us off on a positive and good note, but I definitely think that I channeled the nerves in a good way.
SI: What were your conversations like ahead of the relay with three teammates as decorated as Lilly King, Kelsi Dahlia and Simone Manuel?
RS: Simone was like ‘It’s just swimming. Just have fun. You’re going to do amazing no matter what. Like it’s no big deal.’ And you know Lilly. She was like, ‘It’s fun. We like to win. You got this, let’s win.’ And then Kelsi, she’s very motherly, very mature. She’s married, and she was good at keeping a level head, keeping me very calm and collected. I think each of them brought a very different type of mood to the relay, which I think helped me out a lot.
SI: You’re now the fastest woman in history by well over half a second in the 200 back and about half a second in the 100. How do you see yourself staying motivated in this coming year?
RS: If I was going to ever break a world record, I’m very happy that I did it this year. Now I’m feeling more hungry than ever and excited to be back in the pool for this upcoming year and stay focused. The world record was a dream, and the Olympics is just the ultimate dream. That’s what I’ve wanted since I started this sport. I’m just going to keep that in the back of my mind every single day and never forget it. While this year was absolutely incredible, you can’t dwell on it. You have to move forward, because otherwise you’re just going to lose motivation, and that’s something that I never want. I can’t forget what’s in front of me. Hopefully I’ll be okay if I do that.
SI: You’re still in high school, so is life all about swimming for you right now, or do you find other ways to have fun?
RS: It’s not always about swimming. I’m really lucky that some of my best friends are on my club team at home. We have a lot of fun while we’re at the pool, but we love getting away from the chlorine when we can. We have a lot of lakes in Minnesota that we just like to hang out on a lot during the summer. And honestly, my whole friend group is really low key. We just love to hang out at each other’s houses and just chill. Mostly because we all understand each other’s schedules and swimming and everything. I never want swimming to be my life. That’s a great way to end up burning out.
SI: Will people at school will be similarly “low key” when you go back in the fall, or is there going to be a lot of attention on you?
RS: I guess I don’t really know what to expect. I’m lucky that school doesn’t start until the day after Labor Day because things will have died down a bit maybe. All I know is that my school friends are just insanely supportive. And even if they don’t entirely understand the sport, they’re still so excited.
SI: You still have a year of high school left and are committed to Stanford for the fall after the Olympics. But in swimming, opportunities to turn pro are increasing. Is that something that you’ve considered at all at this point?
RS: Definitely not right now. Stanford’s been my dream for forever, and the fact that I just recently was accepted seems absolutely surreal to me. I never thought that I’d be able to get in there. Stanford is definitely where I want to be right now. In a year? I’m not sure. But I know that right now it’s definitely the path that I want to take.
SI: Now that you’re finally heading home, how hard is it to grasp what you’ve just done in the past two weeks?
RS: I remember back in the early spring after I was able to get an American record [in the short course 100 and 200 back], that still hasn’t really sunk in. And when people would ask me questions about it even a month or two later, I would be like, ‘Wait, what?’ I don’t forget about it, but I guess I just don’t even realize that was me. I don’t know if the world record will ever sink in or not. I hope it does, because having that in the back of my mind is just really motivating. But I honestly just wonder if I just forget that I was even capable of doing that. Which sounds really weird. I hope that makes sense. It’s just very weird to think about.