Big Ten Senior Spotlight: CJ Smith of the University of Minnesota

The Big Ten has always been ripe with distance talent, and with the absence of the University of Michigan’s Connor Jaeger due to graduation, there are several contenders from a variety of schools ready to take a stab at becoming the conference’s newest distance king. Amongst the seniors in the Big Ten, the University of Minnesota’s CJ Smith is one of the most promising candidates for the newly vacated throne, and his impressive resume with the Golden Gophers is a testament to his resilience over the last four years.

A highly touted distance product out of Wilmette, Illinois, Smith has risen to the occasion on numerous occasions for the Golden Gophers, beginning right with the 2011-12 season. At his first conference championships, Smith swam to finishes of 56th in the 200 free (1:40.73), 14th in the 500 free (4:24.33, 4:22.09 in prelims), and 4th in the 1650 free (15:02.75). He posted the fastest mile time and second-fastest 500 free time on the team at the Big Ten Championships, and he would ultimately qualify for NCAAs with his performance in the 1650.

The following month, Smith made his debut at the NCAA Championships, recording finishes of 36th in the 500 free (4:24.05) and 13th in the 1650 free (14:52.73). Notably, he received All-American Honorable Mention honors for his finish in the 1650, and his performance ranks third all-time in Golden Gopher history for the event.

Forwarding to his sophomore year, Smith continued to develop his middle-distance speed to complement his already formidable distance ability. At the 2013 Big Ten Championships, Smith would go lifetime bests in the 200 free (1:38.58, 31st) and the 500 free (4:20.49, 4:20.72 in finals for 12th), while also taking 5th overall in the 1650 free (14:54.21). He led all Minnesota swimmers with his performances in the 500 and the mile.

Punching his second consecutive trip to the NCAA Championships, Smith would use his previous experience to break into the scoring heats once more on a national stage.  He placed 46th in the 500 free (4:24.58) and 13th in the 1650 free (14:54.21, All-American Honorable Mention), and he also saw action as a part of the Gophers’ 800 free relay (6:29.91, 26th).

Smith continued to be a vital figure in the Golden Gophers’ distance program through his junior season, and he improved upon his average placings at the conference championships during the 2013-14 season. He would go a personal best time in the 500 free (4:19.98, 11th) while also snagging 40th in the 200 free (1:39.40) and 4th in the 1650 free (14:56.18). Similar to years past, Smith recorded the fastest times amongst all Gophers with his times in the 500 free and 1650 free.

For the third consecutive year, Smith traveled to NCAAs, and for the third consecutive year, Smith left with All-American Honorable Mention honors, an impressive feat in its own right. Smith grabbed 16th in the 1650 free (14:56.09) to secure those honors, and he also placed 46th in the 500 free (4:24.03).

Smith’s ability to score every year at the NCAA Championships demonstrates his ability to race against the very best on a consistent basis. He has already been pretty quick in both the 500 (4:24.07) and the 1650 (15:07.51) at the Arena Grand Prix at Minneapolis last November, so he has some momentum to work with this week against a very talented field, including Michigan’s Anders Nielsen and Northwestern’s Jordan Wilimovsky. Smith will also surely be eyeing the Minnesota school record of 14:45.20 held by Justin Mortimer from back in 2005, so look for this senior to be aggressive in his final championship season.

Best Times (SCY/LCM):
200 Free: 1:38.58/1:54.54
500 Free/400 Free: 4:19.98/3:54.78
1000 Free/800 Free: 8:59.23/8:17.42
1650 Free/1500 Free: 14:52.73/15:16.96

Major: Political Science Minor: Sociology of Law, Criminology, and Deviance
Favorite Event: 1650 yd. freestyle
Favorite Hobby/Hidden Talent: I really enjoy following the Chicago Cubs and reading biographies and autobiographies.
Favorite Movie: Warrior.
Role Model Growing Up/ Person You’d Like to Meet: John Wooden
Favorite Food/ Pre-Race Meal: My Mom’s Pasta with Spicy Italian Sausage.

At what age did you become involved with swimming? How did you get into it?

Other than doing parent-tot lessons when I was really young I started participating on my swim team, the YWCA Flying Fish, when I was about 6. My coach Pete Caragher thought I should move onto the team after doing swim lessons for a couple years. I loved the sport and the idea of being around a bunch of my friends so I decided to continue. For a long time I swam while playing baseball and soccer and it was not until my freshman year of high school that I realized I wanted to be fully committed to swimming. From there I started swimming year-round and enjoyed being surrounded by such great teammates and friends.

What is your favorite collegiate swimming memory and why?

There are so many different memories to choose from during the past four years but I would have to say the Big Ten Championships my freshman year stick out the most. It was a great time cheering on my teammates and watching us compete against the rest of the conference. It was also the first time I swam a time that got me invited to the NCAA Championships, which exceeded my expectations. Each year the Big Ten Championships are such a great meet because this is where you get to see your teammates improve after all the hard work they put in.

Before college, you competed for New Trier High School, a program that has a history of producing very successful swimmers both in the high school realm as well as at the NCAA level. Can you describe how a program like New Trier helped prepare you for a successful future with the Golden Gophers? Or do you feel that your progression in college has been independent from the previous four years?

Swimming at New Trier, a school so rich in tradition, taught me many different things and without the experiences I gained while at New Trier there is no way I would be the same swimmer I am today. I think the most important thing I learned is that nothing is more important than the team and working hard.

Sometimes swimming can seem like an individual sport but each time I go out there I know I am wearing the “M” on my cap along with all of my teammates. At Minnesota we are all working towards a team goal that can only be achieved if each individual does the best they are capable of. While at Minnesota I have tried to continue this mentality that we are all swimming for each other and that with hard work, anything is possible.

You have scored points at NCAAs all three years that you have competed with the University of Minnesota, an impressive sign of consistency in its own right. If there is one thing you have taken away from your previous three visits to NCAAs, what would you say that is, and how do you think your experience will help you in your final season?

I think the one thing that I have taken away from my previous visits to NCAAs is to simply have fun. Coach Kelly Kremer always reminds me before each race to enjoy the moment and to have fun and I think that sometimes it is hard to remember simplest of things when one is at a meet with such a high level of competition. It is easy to get distracted and to worry about things you cannot control so it is important to place your attention on enjoying the experience and having fun in the moment.

What/who do you think has been the single most important catalyst to your swimming career?

I would say the most important catalyst to my swimming career has been my family and my coaches. My parents have always been there for me, whether it was driving me to a swim practice early in the morning or having dinner ready for when my brother and I got home from practice. It meant so much knowing that I had parents who supported me and wanted me to achieve my goals.

On top of that I could not thank enough my brother and best friend Grant, who is killing it at Davidson in N.C., for always cheering for me and having my back no matter what. Alongside my family I have been lucky to have coaches who have pushed me in the pool and in the classroom. In high school I was with Mark Onstott, who showed me what it means to be on a team and to work hard. Pete Caragher at the YWCA created my passion for the sport and gave me a place to get away from any stress or other issues. At Minnesota Kelly Kremer has pushed me to achieve things I never thought possible. He has given me insight into what it takes to be an elite swimmer but at the same time he reminds me to enjoy my surroundings and to have a good time.

Do you have any plans/commitments following the completion of your collegiate career?

So far the plan is to continue training under Kelly and the rest of the staff at Minnesota until the 2016 Olympic Trials. This past summer I spent some time out at Mission Viejo with Coach Rose, which I really enjoyed, so hopefully I can get the opportunity to work with him a little bit more as well. Academically I plan on preparing to take the LSAT and then applying to law schools, which is something I have always wanted to do.

What should we look forward to from Minnesota as a whole at this year’s Big Ten Championships?

Minnesota has swimmers and divers that year in and year out show improvement and I think that is one thing that we as a team get excited for. I think what one can look for in Minnesota is for a handful of our younger men to step up and to compete with the rest of the Big Ten. The ultimate goal is to swim/dive and score at the NCAA Championships and we as a team hope to have some new faces at the meet that will represent Minnesota in the right way. Our team and coaching staff dedicated a lot of this season reminding us to only worry about what we are doing and the things we can control. As a team we look forward to having the opportunity to implement this alongside all the hard work we have put in over the year.

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About Varun Shivakumar

Varun Shivakumar hails from Hoffman Estates, IL and swam competitively for 16 years. He swam both backstroke events at Northwestern University, and ranks fifth in the school’s All-time performances list in the 200 yard backstroke. Representing NASA Wildcat Aquatics, he also competed in the 2012 Olympic Trials in Omaha, NE …

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