Former Swimming Phenom Regan Smith Is Finally Embracing the Chase for Glory

In 2019, a 17-year-old Smith set two backstroke world records before newfound pressure “ate her alive.” Pushed by an Australian rival, Smith reclaimed one of her records Tuesday and seems primed for an epic Olympics in Paris.
Regan Smith reacts after winning the 100-meter backstroke final while setting a world record Tuesday, June 18, 2024, during the fourth day of competition for the U.S. Olympic Team Swimming Trials
Regan Smith reacts after winning the 100-meter backstroke final while setting a world record Tuesday, June 18, 2024, during the fourth day of competition for the U.S. Olympic Team Swimming Trials / Grace Hollars/IndyStar / USA TODAY

She was a girl then, a woman now. Five years ago, Regan Smith put her hand to her slack-jawed mouth in shock when she saw what she’d done in the pool. Tuesday night in Indianapolis, in her reunion with the 100-backstroke world record, her mouth blurted out the epithet of someone who has been through some stuff.

“F--- yeah,” she said, gazing at a Lucas Oil Stadium scoreboard that flashed a time of 57.13 seconds next to her name.

“Long time coming,” she said later, describing the moment. “You know, like it's about time. So I was psyched. And the feeling of getting it tonight versus getting it five years ago was so different. I was just psyched out of my mind.”

To know where that came from, let’s backtrack to a steamy July night in South Korea in 2019—when the Smith family’s life changed in real time. Regan Smith, age 17, broke Missy Franklin’s world record in the 200-meter backstroke at the world championships, and the machinery of sudden fame clicked into motion. Within minutes, officials from World Aquatics and USA Swimming descended upon where her parents were sitting in the stands, gathering contact and biographical information on the newest It Girl in the sport.

Regan added the 100 back world record two nights later while leading off the American medley relay. She was small but startlingly athletic, possessing perfect technique, riding a wave that began with four age-group records in one meet at age 10. Then there she was lighting a Korean pool on fire, skyrocketing from ascending star to arrival. The future appeared limitless. 

“It was very easy, I had no pressure on me,” she said. “I was always the youngest. Nobody really expected much out of me, and so it was so easy to walk into races feeling so fearless and not really caring what the outcome was.”

And then, shortly after arrival, everything crashed. Nothing was easy anymore.

“It ate her alive,” says Paul Smith, Regan’s father. “She felt a target on her back and she didn’t like it. I didn’t fully understand the extent to which she felt it.”

It was debilitating enough that by December 2019, Smith was telling her coach at Riptide (Minn.) Swim Team, Mike Parratto, that she no longer wanted to swim the 200 back. The fastest woman in history in that event wanted nothing to do with it.

She stopped talking to Paul during meets about her race strategy, stopped watching replays of those races with him. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, demolishing her routine and whatever was left of her confidence.

By the 2021 Olympic Trials in Omaha, everything was a labor. Regan made the team in the 100 backstroke, but her countenance expressed only relief, not joy.

“The look on her face after that race,” Paul Smith says, “it was sad.”

On the walk to the pool for the 200 back later in the meet, Paul offered a few words of rah-rah encouragement. She stopped, put her hand on his shoulder and said she just wanted to have fun.

“It was her saying, I’m going to get beat and I don’t care. I’ve accepted it,” Paul Smith recalls. 

Sure enough, the world-record holder finished third in America, failing to qualify for Tokyo in that event. Even winning two silver medals and one bronze at those Summer Games felt a bit hollow as she continued a futile search for her peak backstroke performances. 

“I was at my absolutely lowest point confidence-wise,” Smith said. “I just didn't want to be there. I wasn't excited. I had no faith in myself. I wanted other people to do it because I thought that they were going to be better off doing it than I was. And that's so sad to think about now because like I just said, I always had it, but I just didn't have it up here.”

Following a season of unhappy swimming at Stanford in 2021-22, Smith left to join Bob Bowman’s pro group at Arizona State. His rigorous training fit her. She started working with a sports psychologist. Everything started to come back together.

“It was a journey to fight and scratch and claw to get back in the shape she needs to be,” Paul Smith says. “To get that confidence and swagger back.”

Regan Smith waves to the crowd after her heat win in 100 meter backstroke prelims at 2024 U.S. Olympic Swim Trials
Regan Smith waves to the crowd after her heat win in 100 meter backstroke prelims Monday during Trials. Credit: Mykal McEldowney-USA TODAY Sports / IndyStar-USA TODAY NETWORK

The swagger started to return last year. Smith dominated the backstroke events at U.S. Championships, but went to Fukuoka for the world championships and came in second to Australian Kaylee McKeown in the 50, 100 and 200. McKeown also took away both the 100 and 200 world records from Smith in 2023.

“There were many years that went by after 2019 where I thought that I would never do that ever again,” Regan said Tuesday night.

In October 2023, McKeown lowered her own world mark in the 100 back to 57.33. In ’24, she and Smith kept posting can-you-top-this in-season times—not records, but simply benchmarks of who was swimming faster. Regan was closing the gap.

In May, Smith re-set her own American record at 57.51. Then, earlier this month, McKeown swam fast at Australian Olympic trials but did not break her own world marks. Smith had an opportunity to take back the advantage.

She seized it with a spectacular flourish, recording a lifetime best of 57.47 in the semifinals before blowing the world record away by two-tenths in the finals. She should make a run at the 200 world record of 2:03.14 later this week, and is a prohibitive favorite to win the 200 butterfly here as well.

The two backstroke queens are on a Paris collision course that may be the single best showdown of the Games, in any sport. Gold medals will be on the line for Smith and McKeown in those events and likely the medley relay as well.

“I think what I really struggle with is separating emotion from logic,” Smith said. “And I think the best of the best, they are able to stay logical in the hardest times, and that's what I always struggled with. Because when logic goes out the door and emotion comes in, that's when you choke, and I did that over and over because I just let my emotions take over. And I think I'm really starting to do a good job at staying logical and knowing what I'm capable of and knowing what I do in practice, and knowing what my abilities are, and I think that's what's really taken me this far.”

From girl to woman, from emotional to logical, from everything being easy to understanding how hard it really is … Regan Smith’s five-year, world-record journey has come full circle.

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Pat Forde


Pat Forde covers college sports, the Olympics and horse racing for Sports Illustrated. Pat wrote two books and was nominated for the 1990 Pulitzer Prize. In addition to his work at SI, Pat is also the co-host of the College Football Enquirer podcast. He is an analyst for the Big Ten Network and contributes to national radio shows. In a career spanning more than three decades, Pat has worked at Yahoo! Sports, ESPN and the Louisville Courier-Journal.