By Elicia Ye
After bringing home a combination of six gold and three silver medals from the Summer Olympics in Rio last year, three members of Stanford’s women’s swim team placed in the 2017 U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis to grab spots on Team USA for the World Championships this month.
Katie Ledecky ’20 and Leah Smith ’18 earned first and second place, respectively, in the 200-meter freestyle, 400-meter freestyle and 800-meter freestyle. Smith also placed first in the 400-meter individual medley (IM) and 1500-meter freestyle.
“A lot of people said they expected me to die on certain strokes,” Smith said. “Back and breast [stroke] were the two legs I was worried about because I knew I’d have easy speed on the [butter]fly, and I didn’t want to use my legs too much on the back[stroke] and not be able to do anything on the breast[stroke].”
Smith, who usually swims in freestyle events, decided to try out the 400-meter IM this year and worked to overcome her misgivings with backstroke and and breaststroke.
Head coach Greg Meehan is pleased to see the team’s overall results and especially the “phenomenal” performance from Leah Smith, whom he said “stood out as a hammer and is a good one-two punch with Katie [Ledecky] in Free events.”
As with any post-Olympic year, the team for the 2016-2017 season consists of a blend of veterans and youngsters getting their first real international experience, and the coaches are discovering how each individual fits in on the team.
Just as teams and players evolve year by year, Meehan expects Worlds to be “very different” from the Olympic experience of chasing gold at Rio. In order to effectively lead the team, Meehan looks to select captains before swimmers leave for the pre-Worlds training camp in Croatia.
“We rely a lot on our captains because they’ve got a ton of experience,” he said. “Some of them have been on more international trips than I have.”
In preparation for World Championships, Team USA will be leaving on July 11 for their training camp in Opatija, Croatia, prior to arriving in Budapest, Hungary, where they will be competing throughout the week of July 23.
“The camp will feel like a trainee camp to some, a maintenance to others and a resting camp for the rest,” Meehan said. “[Co-head coach] Dave [Durden] and I hope to get all the personalities together as the team starts to build towards Budapest.”
The Stanford women’s swim team was glad to have seniors Lia Neal and Nicole Stafford, along with junior Lindsey Engel, as captains for the 2016-2017 season. They led the team to its first D1 NCAA Women’s Swimming and Diving title since 1998.
“NCAA was a really remarkable meet for us this year as it is the first time Stanford has won it in 19 years,” Neal said. “It was such a surreal moment and experience with teammates, coaches, athletic trainers, family, alumni and former teammates that all came out to cheer us on.”
However, in order to have ample time to get in shape for Nationals, which took place from June 27 through July 1, winning the NCAA title didn’t earn the swimmers a break after the collegiate season had ended. Those hopeful of making the World Championship team headed straight for the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs during spring break and had been training since March until two weeks before Nationals.
A two-time Olympian and co-captain, Neal placed third in the 100-meter freestyle, qualifying for the relay team at Worlds but falling two-tenths of a second short of making top two to swim the individual event.
“For me, my times were pretty good, but I also wasn’t completely ecstatic either because we wanted to make it individually in the 100,” she said. “I had my moment of disappointment but still made the team—I get to go to Budapest!”
Nonetheless, Neal maintained an optimistic outlook and a positive mindset. “For every disappointment, there’s something I learned about myself,” she said. “I like to think that I could take all these opportunities to become a better swimmer, a better person.”
In the post-Olympic year, the coaches’ goal for the women’s team isn’t to recreate the experience in Rio. Instead, they work to make sure the younger swimmers get a full experience on the International A-Team and do not take the opportunity for granted.
“We want them to have the experience of putting on the American flag cap and realize how meaningful that is, regardless of the type of meet,” Meehan said. “In the end, the goal is to win as many medals for Team USA as we can.”
Contact Elicia Ye at eliciaye ‘at’ gmail.com.