Tobie Smith sees several similarities between distance swimming success and becoming a doctor.
For starters, both take a lot of time and persistence. Whether it’s a 25k open water swim or 1,500 freestyle race in the pool, like earning a medical degree and then doing residency, the achievement is a marathon and not a sprint.
On top of that, both take a tremendous amount of dedication and determination along with focus and endurance.
Suffice it to say, as a family practice physician and former Open Water World Champion (25k), Smith understands what it takes to do both.
“It’s never easy, but the end result is completely satisfying,” said Smith, who lives just outside of Washington, D.C., but has her practice in nearby Baltimore, Maryland. “When you’re swimming distance, it takes time to get there, but when you do, there’s a tremendous feeling of achievement that comes with it.
“I felt the same thing when I made it through medical school. It took many years and lots of focus and hard work, but I did it. It’s definitely a marathon but so worth it.”
A practicing physician for the past 10 years, Smith, a pre-med major at the University of Texas, took time to train and compete at the top level between her bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
Even while she continued to swim and pursue her dreams in the pool and open water after her four years at Texas, Smith said she never lost her focus and desire to go back and earn her M.D.
Her mother was a nurse, and having grown up an athlete, she said she always understood the importance and impact of health and wellness in her and others’ lives.
It’s one of the many factors that led her to pursue a life of caring for others as the Medical Director for Health Care of the Homeless, a community health clinic that serves a homeless and near-homeless clientele in Baltimore.
“Like swimming, this was very attractive to me because of the tremendous relationships I make with the many people I see at the clinic,” she said. “They are an under served population, and I absolutely love being able to provide them with the medical care they need and deserve.”
After she finished her degree at Texas in 1995 – earning multiple All-America honors – she went to graduate school and continued to train in Austin while she pursued higher aspirations in the water.
That summer, she competed at World University Games in Fukuoka, Japan, and won the gold medal in the 1,500 freestyle.
But as she got older, she realized she was losing a bit of her speed in the pool and decided to focus almost solely on open water competition. In 1998, that commitment and training (she trained almost exclusively in the pool) led her to a spot in the open water competition at FINA World Championships in Perth, Australia, where she left as the 25k champion.
A year later to celebrate the completion of her master’s degree in kinesiology from Johns Hopkins (where she trained with the men’s team), Smith swam the English Channel in August, and despite some perilous conditions near the end of the race, she completed it in just over 8 hours.
“I did some ultra-distance workouts to prepare for the swim, and felt really good in the water,” she said. “With the English Channel swim, you sign up for a two-week window to swim, and then you wait your turn depending on the water conditions.
“I swam in excellent conditions although the water was fairly warm for the English Channel, and for the first six hours, I was swimming at record pace. I kept thinking ‘When is this going to get harder?’ and then the weather conditions changed. I fought through the winds and waves, and it took almost 3 hours to complete the last few miles. But I’m so glad I did it. Once I was done, I knew I never wanted to do it again, but I feel like I earned my street cred as an open water swimmer.”
Smith swam a few more years and earned a spot on the 2003 World Team in open water but didn’t swim up to her expectations.
At the conclusion of the meet, she decided it was time to move beyond swimming and focus on her true calling – medicine. She said if open water had been an Olympic sport at that time, she most likely would have stayed in for another year and swam toward a spot on the 2004 team.
She started classes at the State University of New York at Stony Brook later that fall, and after finishing her courses. Smith returned to Texas – San Antonio this time – to complete her residency, and then relocated to her current home community to practice.
Smith said, while she always anticipated helping others was what she wanted to do, she had no idea the impact providing medical care for people who otherwise couldn’t afford it – and most likely wouldn’t seek it out because of that – would have upon her as a person and doctor.
Because the clinic is located above a family shelter, she sees her patients often and they have a short walk in for care and attention.
“People are always going to pay for food and other necessities before they pay for health care, even when they have something wrong and need attention, so when you factor homelessness into that, the percentage goes down even more because they really are looking out for the most basic needs first or they sometimes don’t come because of transportation issues,” said Smith, who learned to swim at the local country club in Houston as a child.
“We’re a teaching clinic, so I also really enjoy helping our students see the value in this kind of work, too. Medicine is a very rewarding profession, and I love working in this clinic because I get to work on social justice issues. Everyone deserves good health care no matter their circumstances in life.”
After many years away from the water, Smith took a step back toward the pool in January 2017 when she was appointed to serve on the USADA Board of Directors.
Having represented USA Swimming on a FINA task force several years before to investigate athlete safety in open water races after Fran Crippen’s death in 2010 – backed by her education and experiences as a doctor and former top athlete – the appointment was welcomed.
“It’s been great being connected to swimming again,” Smith said. “When I left in 2003, I told myself I was going to have nothing to do with swimming in the future, but I was really honored to be asked to be on this board.
“As an open water swimmer and someone who was drug tested for several years, I know the importance of a level playing field. Being able to combine my medical background with my swimming background here is really rewarding. Swimming gave and taught me so much – perseverance, determination, not making a huge deal out of small things, being focused and organized, the list goes on. It’s really nice that I am getting a chance to now give back to the sport that gave me so much.”