World champion backstroker and #1-ranked NCAA prospect Regan Smith will take a gap year from college competition in 2020-2021.
Smith confirmed the news to SwimSwam today, saying she and Stanford coach Greg Meehan had talked through the decision together.
“After talking a lot with Greg, we just decided that it would be better for me and my training to have more consistency at home,” Smith said.
“This was a really, really hard decision to make. Especially because I felt so firm for so long about going off to school this fall.”
Smith said she was fully ready to make the jump to college level, but that the ongoing uncertainty around the coronavirus pandemic forced her to re-evaluate a move across the country. Smith will instead remain in Minnesota, training with coach Mike Parratto and her longtime Riptide Swim Club. She won’t begin taking classes through Stanford, but says she’s looking into taking online courses of some kind to stay connected to an academic routine during her gap year.
“He [Meehan] was so unbelievably understanding,” Smith said, while she was weighing all the factors in her decision. “He was working extensively with me and being so patient with me.
“I’m really disappointed and sad,” Smith said of delaying her Stanford career. “But I know that this will probably be the best for me. I think this will give me the best chance to have a strong year at home with some more consistent training, and then hopefully be able to have a more normal freshman year next year.”
“I have really appreciated Regan and her family’s approach to this conversation over the past 18 months,” Meehan said. “Of course, the original plan was easy: enroll after the Games in 2020. Then we had another plan to enroll this fall with the Games being postponed to 2021. Now we have a new plan.
“The reality is things do change and we all need to be flexible. The most important thing for Stanford was to support a plan that made the most sense for Regan. This new plan is exactly that.”
Smith is one of the best high school swimming prospects in history. The summer before her senior year of high school, Smith won the 2019 World Championships gold medal in the 200 back and broke world records in both the 200-meter back and the 100-meter back. The latter came while leading off the American world record-breaking women’s medley relay.
Smith had originally verbally committed to Stanford. As a 2020 high school grad, she would have been able to remain in Minnesota through the 2020 Olympic Trials and 2020 Tokyo Olympics, keeping her training situation stable through her bid for her first Olympic berth.
But the worldwide coronavirus pandemic forced a one-year postponement of both the Olympics and Olympic Trials. Smith will now effectively follow in the footsteps of former Stanford standout Katie Ledecky, who deferred her college enrollment one year, joining Stanford just after the 2016 Rio Olympics.
It’s a big blow to Stanford’s 2021 NCAA title hopes. The Cardinal have won three straight collegiate national titles, but were expected to face a stiff challenge from Virginia even with Smith on the roster. Smith’s deferral also sets up another intriguing Stanford-Virginia battle next season, when Stanford should add Smith and Virginia is expected to add elite sprint prospect Gretchen Walsh as a freshman in the fall of 2021.
A few more interesting notes from our conversation with Smith:
- Smith is still very excited to compete at the NCAA level, and hopes to compete across a full, four-year college career. “I really would like to swim the full four years,” Smith said. “I know that things could change for me down the line, but as of now, I’d really like to swim the full four years.”
- As for her Olympic Trials lineup, Smith confirmed the three events she’s widely expected to compete in: the 100 back, 200 back and 200 fly. She said the 100 fly was still a possibility, but cited a tough 100 back/100 fly double and deep fields in both races as complicated factors. “I think I may have to pick the 100 backstroke over the 100 butterfly, but if there’s a way I can fit them both in there, I’d really like to do that,” she said.
- With another year to prepare, Smith said looking at a relay-distance freestyle event could also be an option, but said backstroke and butterfly were her primary focuses for the time being.
- Under pandemic restrictions, Smith said her training has been “a bit limited,” but she’s had enough pool access to swim six days a week, though without any doubles. “Sometimes I wish we could be doing a little bit more, but I’m really thankful for how often I am able to be in the water, considering the circumstances,” she said.
- Smith noted that long course pool space can be hard to come by in Minnesota. But she’s been able to train at an outdoor long course pool about three times a week, and is working on setting up long course training opportunities at the University of Minnesota Aquatic Center for the winter.