Even as a youngster, Kieran Smith was always more comfortable in water than he was on land.
It’s the main reason he started and stuck with swimming despite playing other field sports as a child – that and the fact that his older brother swam and he wanted to be just like him.
“I played baseball until I was 11, but it was pretty clear to me even then that I had more potential in swimming than in baseball,” said Smith, a sophomore All-American at the University of Florida.
“I was dragged along to his swim meets, so one day, I just decided I wanted to swim like he did. By the time I was 6, I was on my first competitive team.”
Ever since, Smith said he has made it his goal to be the best competitor he can be, and that dedication not only led him to a scholarship with the Gators but also a spot on his first National Team.
With each step he’s taken – including winning a silver medal at the 2017 World Junior Championships – along his path to becoming one of the top freestyle and individual medley swimmers in the United States, Smith said he gains more and more confidence.
And with Olympic Trials just a few months away, the timing couldn’t be better.
“I feel like I’m continuing to unlock my potential more and more with each race, and that’s good news with Swim Trials this summer,” he said. “I’ve had a good bit of success the past few years since 2016 Trials, but I still don’t think I’ve had my breakthrough meet. I’m hoping that happens in Omaha this summer.”
At those Trials in 2016, where he competed for the first time as a 16-year-old, Smith swam on the first day of the meet in the 400 IM.
He said the enormity of the meet proved too much for him, and rather than go and enjoy the experience of competing at what most in swimming consider the world’s premier swim meet (even more pressure than World Championships or the Olympics themselves), he let the environment get the better of him.
“I gave into my irrational fears and that definitely affected my race,” said Smith, who finished 42nd in the 400 IM and didn’t compete in any other events in Omaha. “When I stepped onto the blocks, I felt like I was going to fall off. I was more nervous than I’ve ever been, which is surprising since I went to the meet with no expectations of making the team.
“I just wanted to swim my best race, and I didn’t. Fortunately, I was able to relax after that first day and enjoy the rest of the meet. I think that experience gave me a good foundation for future big competitions. I’ve never been that nervous since.”
And it’s shown in his results. In addition to that silver medal at Junior Worlds, Smith finished third in the 200 IM at the 2017 U.S. Open and made the finals in the 400 at both the 2017 and 2018 Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships.
In 2019, he left Phillips 66 Nationals with top-5 finishes in the 200 IM, 400 IM and 200 freestyle – an event in which he had the top time for the year by an American swimmer (1:46.21).
Suffice it to say that, based on Phillips 66 Nationals alone last summer, Smith feels good heading into Trials this summer.
“I’ve learned how to deal with the pressure of a big meet each time since Trials four years ago, and that will only serve me well this time around,” said Smith, who played the cello in his school’s symphonic orchestra and continues to play whenever he feels stressed and needs to relax. “Still, I’m going in with an underdog mentality.
“I think that will benefit me more than if I were to go into the meet with really high expectations. I just want to enjoy the meet more this time. When I have fun, I swim fast, so I want to have a good time.”
Smith said even though he’s had more long-term success in the IM events, he feels heading into Trials this summer that he has a better shot at making the Olympic team in the 200 freestyle – an event that has really “come on” for him in the past year or so.
No matter the event, he knows that he’ll face some of the toughest competition in the world at Trials and if he doesn’t make the team this year, he’s confident he’ll have another opportunity in 2024.
He said his past two seasons at Florida have proven immensely beneficial in his continued development – physically, mentally and competitively.
Dryland training and eating better have helped put 15 pounds of muscle on his 6-foot-6 frame, and having a strong team of top swimmers pushing him every day in the pool has made him a better, more competitive swimmer.
“I’ve always loved to race, but my time here (at Florida) has really helped elevate my swimming to new levels,” he said. “I don’t know where I’d be right now if it wasn’t for my time in Gainesville. It’s made a world of difference in my times.”
Still, he knows it would be better to make the team now than wait four more years – especially when you never know what can happen during that stretch of time.
“I prefer to swim for today rather than for the future because who knows what life will be like in four years?” he said. “Nothing is given, so I’ve always felt it’s more important to go for it now than wait and see. I would rather get it done sooner than later.
“But no matter what happens at Trials this summer, I want to make time to enjoy the experience. I know if I do that, I will swim my best, and that will obviously give me the best chance to make the Olympic team – something I’ve dreamt of since I started swimming.”