OMAHA – When Regan Smith was 7 years old, the butterfly made her love racing. When she was 18, it comforted her, as the stroke she could always rely on when others weren't going so well.
Thursday, the stroke closest to Smith's heart carried her to a second-place finish at the Olympic trials — and a second event at the Tokyo Games. Smith, of Lakeville, swam faster than everyone except Hali Flickinger in the women's 200-meter butterfly, earning another Olympic berth two days after making the U.S. team in the 100 backstroke.
On a 105-degree day in Omaha, Smith and Flickinger burned through a torrid duel in the first 100 meters. Smith's early lead dwindled to .02 of a second at the halfway point as Flickinger, the 2019 world silver medalist, reeled her in and took control in the final 50 meters. Flickinger made her second Olympic team in a U.S. Open-record time of 2 minutes, 5.85 seconds, with Smith second in 2:06.99.
Smith's time made her the fourth-fastest performer in the world this year in the women's 200 butterfly, while Flickinger moved up to second. The world record holder in the 200 backstroke, Smith will end the Olympic trials with that event, beginning with Friday morning's preliminaries.
"I never thought I would make [the Olympic team] in the 200 butterfly," Smith said. "This is very special.
"Butterfly has always been the fun one. In backstroke, I think I subconsciously put a lot more pressure on myself. In butterfly, I don't care what happens; I just want to have a fun race and do my best. I went out and enjoyed the race [Thursday], and I didn't feel pressure."
Before the trials, Smith felt primed for a big performance in the 200 fly. The butterfly was her first love in swimming, she said, even though the backstroke made her a world champion and world record holder.
She has progressed steadily in the event over the past couple of years. While Smith struggled with her backstroke last year, during a summer with no meets and limited access to pools, her butterfly still felt smooth and solid. The one-year postponement of the Olympics gave her time to get stronger.
Just before the pandemic began, Smith set a national age-group record with a time of 2:06.39. In May, she finished second to Flickinger in the 200 fly at a Pro Swim Series meet in Indianapolis, with a time of 2:07.59 that made her the eighth-fastest woman in the world this year.
"I've worked so hard on that stroke, and I've made so many great strides forward in practice," Smith said last week. "I just hope it comes together. I know in my heart if I execute well, I can do something really great."
She expected to get faster at the trials, when she would be fully rested. To be fast enough for a top-two finish, Smith knew she needed to concentrate on every detail of her technique.
Though she thought her preliminary swim was "a little tight" — which she expected, since her excitement at making the Olympic team kept her up late the night before — a superb semifinal swim lifted her confidence.
Smith's strategy remained the same for the final: To keep her mind on her mechanics, and off anyone or anything else. Flickinger allowed her to set the early pace, then raced strategically and closed hard, with a time of 33.12 for the final 50 meters.
"It's always fun to race Regan," Flickinger said. "It's nice to have someone who goes out like Regan does, and then just see what happens in the race."
Smith said the 200 butterfly was the perfect follow-up to the 100 back. After the stress of trying to make the Olympic team in that event — in which she held the world record until last Sunday — she relished racing her favorite stroke, against a champion she admires.
Though Smith came up short of her personal-best time, that didn't matter.
"I'll take it," Smith said. "I did what I needed to do."
Former Gophers sprinter Bowe Becker finished fifth in the men's 100-meter freestyle, which could put him on the Olympic team.
Becker, who completed his Gophers career in 2019, swam a personal-best time of 48.22 seconds. The top four finishers were named to the Olympic team Thursday, and the fifth- and sixth-place swimmers are expected to be added later in the meet to fill out the relay pool. Caeleb Dressel won the race in 47.39, followed by Zach Apple (47.72), Blake Pieroni (48.16) and Brooks Curry (48.19).