As father and son, Clark Smith and his dad, John, share a very unique milestone in University of Texas swimming history.
John was a member of legendary Longhorn Coach Eddie Reese’s first NCAA Championship team in 1981, and Clark was a member of his 11th, 12th and 13th national championship squads – the most recent coming this spring.
Having exhausted his collegiate eligibility this year, it’s an honor Smith said he holds very dear – that and his mom, Tori, was also an All-American swimmer at Texas.
Funny thing is, mother and son share an even more rare honor: they are both Olympians.
Clark, however, is an Olympic gold medalist, having won a shiny medallion last summer as a member of the 800 freestyle relay in Rio.
He said that, while he didn’t receive any pre-race advice from his mom, she did encourage him to take in the entire experience so he would leave with many great memories that would outlast any hardware he might take home from a race.
“My Olympic experience was exactly how I expected it to be,” said Smith, who will graduate next spring with his degree in Kinesiology. “In the end, I was just a guy on a prelim relay, so it’s really not some glorified story. I just enjoyed the ride and took it all in.”
“As far as my mom goes, I think she just didn’t want me to put too much pressure on myself. I think in the end, my parents just want me to leave the sport feeling good about myself, and I do.”
Leaving the sport isn’t something Smith is planning anytime soon. As the American record holder in the 500 freestyle (yards), he is looking forward to competing through the 2020 Olympics and then plans to make a significant career commitment to the Marines.
Until then, however, he’s content to focus on this summer and Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships for a shot at earning a spot on the 2017 World Championship team.
And after the stellar NCAA season has just finished – winning both the 500 (when he set the American record) and 1650 freestyles – Smith said he’s eager to see what he can do in Indianapolis against a loaded field.
Considering how far he’s come since his freshman year at Texas – when he failed to qualify for NCAAs in any events – Smith is riding a wave that he hopes will carry him to Budapest this summer.
“My college career was everything I had hoped it’d be,” said Smith, who broke Peter Vanderkaay’s American record in the 500 this year. “I have the opportunity to swim for the greatest coach in the history of the sport and be a part of a winning team. Swimming in the end, has really helped me deal with disappointment; that’s the biggest thing it’s given me.
“I don’t like to blow smoke; I’ll just try to swim my best race (at Nationals) and see where it puts me. I’ll definitely have to drop some time off my personal bests if I want a shot.”
At Olympic Trials last summer, Clark said he went to Omaha feeling confident about his chances to make his first Olympic team and follow in the footsteps of his mom.
He didn’t, however, envision himself earning a spot on the team in a relay – figuring his best chances were in either the 400 or 1500 freestyle events.
“I guess you can never really predict what’s going to happen, at least with me,” he said with a laugh.
Heading into his senior season at Texas last fall, Smith was coming off the Olympics and his most successful summer to date.
While that might have been enough for some athletes to rest on their laurels for a little while, he quickly realized that he’s only as good as his most recent race and has made it a point ever since to continue to do whatever he needs to get faster.
“I never let a previous season’s success or failure determine how I feel about the next,” he said. “It was cool to make the Olympic team, but that doesn’t automatically mean I’m going to make World Championships this year or do something amazing by default. I think the way I look at it, every season you sort of have to reestablish yourself.”
Along with his impressive genetic swimming lineage, Clark, at a towering 6-foot-9, also played baseball and was always taller than his classmates.
But like many athletes, with the guidance of his parents he decided to focus on swimming during his adolescence – realizing that was what was necessary to truly be good.
As his body grew and he continued to evolve, he said he found it extremely difficult to keep a decent stroke.
“It was frustrating, and I felt like I was constantly adjusting my technique up until the end of high school,” he said. “I felt awkward in the water for a really long time.”
Now that he’s done growing (height-wise), no longer awkward or looking for his stroke, Smith said he feels like he’s found his groove in the water – and it’s paying off big dividends.
And despite having come from such great swimming bloodlines, he said he doesn’t feel any outside pressure to continue to swim fast and make World or Olympic teams.
He knows all he can do is put in the time and effort during practice, get in the water for competitions and give it all that he has every time he swims.
“The only pressure I’ve ever felt is the pressure I put on myself,” said Smith, who grew up idolizing Ian Crocker despite not swimming the butterfly events. “I don’t really compare myself to my parents, and they haven’t ever put pressure on me to go fast.
“Swimming is fun… sometimes. I definitely still find enjoyment in it. I think I was about 4 when I started lessons. I remember loathing it sometimes as a kid because I was either lazy or would rather be playing with my friends in the street. If I’m being honest, it’s not the most fun sport, but it is definitely the most rewarding. There’s no doubt about that.”
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