COLORADO SPRINGS – In the mountains or in the desert, every day starts the same way. Regan Smith goes to swim practice and collects a sheet of paper from coach Bob Bowman, listing a detailed plan for her time in the pool.

Last month, Smith read her instructions and hopped into the water at the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Center. It wasn't quite identical to her workouts at home in Tempe, Ariz. — everything's a little tougher at Colorado Springs' 6,000-foot altitude — but the effect was the same. All Smith had to do was shut off her brain and swim.

"Bob keeps it so simple, you don't have to think," she said. "And really, swimming is simple. You're just trying to go from point A to point B as fast as you can. You just can't make it anything more than that."

That's a radical change in philosophy for the 22-year-old, three-time Olympic medalist from Lakeville. Three years ago, Smith had a far more complicated relationship with her sport. Her love for swimming ran deep, but the pressure from becoming a world record holder at age 17 cloaked it in fear, dread, anxiety and doubt.

During the 2021 Olympic trials, Smith was so terrified before one race that she lost her will to win, choking on the water and wishing desperately for the swim to end. Her signature event, the 200-meter backstroke, became such a source of angst she avoided racing it.

A brief, disappointing stint at Stanford eventually led Smith to the desert, and to Bowman, who coached Michael Phelps to 28 Olympic medals. She said the 2022 move saved her life, along with her career.

In Tempe, Smith has shed the baggage of the past, just in time for this summer's Paris Olympics. She enters the Olympic trials in Indianapolis at No. 2 in the world rankings in the 100-meter backstroke, 200 back and 200 fly. Smith holds the American record in all three races.

Her trials schedule also includes the 100 fly. Smith had the third-fastest time in Saturday's semifinals and will race in the finals Sunday.

"Regan is really coming into her own,'' said Chase Kalisz, an Olympic gold medalist who trains with Smith and has known her since she was 15. "She's more confident. She's swimming well consistently. I think she's in a really great space going into trials."

As part of Bowman's stable of professional swimmers, Smith trains with several world and Olympic champions. That rarefied environment, along with Bowman's simple approach and rigorous training regimen, cleared away the mental obstacles that had held her back.

Overcoming a cold, and some mental blocks that previously had held her back, Regan Smith won the 200 backstroke against a challenging field in San Antonio in April.

It's been a gradual process. The first time Smith felt completely unafraid before a race was in April, at a Pro Swim Series meet in San Antonio.

Saddled with a cold, Smith didn't feel well, and she was facing a loaded field in the 200 back. Yet she dug in and won by nearly two seconds.

"Before, I would have said, 'I don't know if I want to fight hard enough to win,'" Smith said. "But that night, I remember thinking, 'I don't want to lose. I'm capable of winning anyway, and I'm going to do it.'

"I felt really confident. I wasn't afraid of anybody. That's what this season is all about: believing in myself and racing without fear. I've come a very long way, and I'm really proud of that."

Swimmer Regan Smith photographed at The Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, Colo., in May. Photo by Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune.

Hitting rock bottom

Bowman has been taking his athletes to the Olympic and Paralympic Training Center since Phelps was a teenager. In May, the group made its fifth trip to Colorado Springs in the past 14 months.

Smith and two other swimmers, Paige Madden and Lindsay Looney, rented an Airbnb a few blocks from the campus. For 3½ weeks, they lived a stripped-down lifestyle: eat, sleep, swim, lift. The intensive training left them too tired to do much in their spare time other than read or watch TV.

"It's brutal every time," Smith said. "But I've come to appreciate it."

Colorado Springs offers altitude, an Olympic-size pool and no distractions, just the kind of environment Bowman likes. It's a good spot for Smith, too. At the training center, she works with a sports psychologist, who has helped her calm the waters of an anxious mind.

Smith has compiled one of the most impressive résumés of any American swimmer in recent years. At the Tokyo Olympics, she won silver in the 200 fly and the 400 medley relay, and bronze in the 100 back. In the past three world championships, she brought home nine medals, including five golds.

How to watch Regan Smith at the U.S. swimming trials

The first two came in 2019, along with world records in the 100 and 200 back. Those blockbuster performances at 17 made Smith an instant star in the swimming world and a gold-medal favorite for the Tokyo Olympics.

She was ill-equipped to handle it. Smith said she suffered from "imposter syndrome," feeling she wasn't good enough to merit the hype. The attention became overwhelming for a teenager Kalisz recalled as "the shyest girl ever."

In a bit of reverse alchemy, Smith's gold medals from the world championships felt like lead weights around her neck. By that fall, she was telling her coach she didn't want to swim the 200 back.

"From the moment she set those records, she felt that expectation," said Mike Parratto, Smith's longtime coach at Apple Valley's Riptide Swim Team. "And when you're on Team USA, there's pressure there, too. It was a lot for someone that age."

Things got worse during the pandemic, when pool shutdowns deprived Smith of the comfort she found in training. Her fitness and technique declined. The Olympics were postponed for a year, and she deferred her admission to Stanford, fraying her nerves even more.

At the Olympic trials in June 2021, Parratto said, "she felt the weight of the world, and you could see it in her face." Smith made the Olympic team in the 100 back and the 200 fly, but she finished third in her signature event, missing out on swimming the 200 back in Tokyo. Only the top two qualify for the Olympics.

It was, Smith said, the "scariest, most paralyzing race" of her career. She was so embarrassed, she cried for a week. Secretly, she was relieved she didn't have to swim that dreaded event under the Olympic spotlight.

"In the [200 back] final at the trials, I felt like a scared zoo animal on display, with no escape," she said. "I was choking on the water. It felt like a fight-or-flight situation.

"There was no fight in me at all. No motivation, no competitive drive. That was rock bottom for me."

From left to right, Lakeville's Regan Smith won a silver medal (with Australia's Kaylee McKeown taking gold and China's Peng Xuwei earning bronze) in the 200-meter backstroke final at the 2023 World Swimming Championships in Fukuoka, Japan. Photo by Eugene Hoshiko, Associated Press.

Finding where she belongs

Three years later, Smith said she is a completely different person, made stronger by challenges and detours and hard choices.

She's making a good living as a pro athlete, with sponsorships including Speedo, Allianz and the Twin Cities' Foss Swim School. Smith recently returned to Minnesota with her cat, Roo, to shoot a video for Nulo pet food at her father's Lakeville home.

During the Colorado Springs camp, she took time out for a photo session to promote jewelry pieces she designed for Local Eclectic. Smith posed for an hour using one of her Olympic silver medals as a show-stopping accent. Her necklace featured Nike, the goddess of victory, and a favorite phrase: Bet On You.

"I never in a million years thought I would be doing as well as I am professionally," she said.

At Stanford, Smith said, she was in "a really dark place." Though she had dreamed of swimming there since she was a kid, the school and the team turned out to be a poor fit. Used to high-yardage training, she didn't think the Cardinal program was rigorous enough for her, putting a dent in her fitness and her confidence.

In her lone season at Stanford in 2021-22, Smith won two NCAA titles, finished in the top three in four other events and was the Pac-12 swimmer of the year. She won two more gold medals at the world championships that summer, but she came home to Lakeville frustrated and stressed, her confidence at an all-time low.

"Honestly, she was a mess," said Smith's father, Paul. "Things were just eating her alive."

Smith made the hard decision not to return to Stanford in the fall of 2022. Instead, she turned pro and connected with Bowman, who knew Parratto. Sight unseen, the Minnesotan moved to the desert, hoping that turning her life upside down would spin her in a better direction.

"It's the best decision I ever made," Smith said.

She got an apartment near the Arizona State campus, where Bowman coached the Sun Devils swimmers and his pro group. On her own for the first time, Smith found joy in the mundane chores of adulthood and pride in learning to solve her own problems.

Parratto and Bowman share a similar philosophy, building swimmers through tough but uncomplicated work. Smith immediately felt at home in Bowman's program, amid 19 other world-class swimmers who maintained an intense yet supportive training environment.

Regan Smith sets an American record in the 200-meter butterfly in the 2023 U.S. Championships.

After a few months under Bowman's guidance, Smith actually felt excited, not terrified, to race the 200 back. She reached a milestone at the U.S. championships last year, clocking a U.S. Open-record time of 2:03.80 — her best since 2019 and third-fastest in the world in 2023. Her American record in the 200 fly came last year, and she lowered her U.S. mark in the 100 back just last month.

"There's a saying in the sport: A happy swimmer is a fast swimmer," said Smith's mom, Kristi Smith. "Regan is so much happier. There's been a lot of change in her life, but she embraced it. She's in the place where she's supposed to be."

Regan Smith lowers her own U.S. mark in the 100-meter backstroke to 57.51 seconds in the Speedo Grand Challenge in Irvine, Calif., in May.

Keeping it simple

In the Bowman universe, Smith said, things are simple. If you do the work, you see the results. Yet she still struggled with some anxiety, even as her times dropped.

She credits her male training partners with helping her finally defeat her fears. Not only did they push her to swim hard in practice, their supreme confidence led Smith to ask herself: What am I so afraid of, anyway?

"The men are so good at having no fear," she said. "They want to swim against the best and kick their butts. After watching them day after day, for months and months, I was like, 'It's a sport. I'm talented. Why wouldn't I want to go out there and show off?'

"I have a lot more confidence in myself than I've ever had before. I'm still working on it, but I'm not going to let anyone scare me into thinking I'm not capable."

That attitude has spilled over into life outside the pool. Last December, a bout with mononucleosis upended Smith's training and racing schedule for two months, a bad way to begin an Olympic year. Her anxiety flared up, but she regrouped, drawing more confidence from handling that curveball.

She got more unwanted news in April, when Bowman was hired as coach at Texas. Smith and the rest of the pro group have had to travel to Austin to train with him, and she expects to move there after the Olympics, leaving the place where she reinvented herself.

"It's hard for her, because she loves her life in Tempe," Smith's father said. "But Regan has learned how to fight adversity. Part of that is just growing up, but she's also put in a lot of hard work."

At the Olympic trials, Smith plans to keep it simple. To become a two-time Olympian, she has to do one thing: get from point A to point B as fast as she can. That's a lot easier than it used to be, without all the mental baggage.

"Before Tokyo, I almost felt like a prisoner," Smith said. "It wasn't fun. The pressure was immense, and I just crumbled underneath it.

"I'm glad I went through those things, because hard things make you better. Now, I'm excited to enjoy the experience and really be present. I have big goals. I know what I can do."