OMAHA — When Regan Smith swims the 200-meter backstroke, she aims to maintain a controlled, consistent pace from start to finish. She has taken the same approach to her overall schedule during the seven days of the U.S. Olympic trials.
Friday, Smith swam her ninth and 10th races of the week, topping the field in both the preliminaries and semifinals of the women's 200 back. After a preliminary swim that felt smooth and composed, Smith declared her semifinal "sloppier," despite winning her heat. Though she wants to tidy up her technique in Saturday's finals, she's pleased with how she has managed her energy and emotions through a long week at CHI Health Center.
The final of the 200 back is Smith's last race of the trials. A first- or second-place finish will add a third individual event to her program for the Tokyo Olympics, along with the 100 back and 200 butterfly.
Smith finished the semifinal in 2 minutes, 7.23 seconds, .58 of a second faster than her time in the morning heats. Isabelle Stadden of Blaine also qualified for the finals, with a 2:09.20 that was the seventh-fastest time of the semis.
"[The semifinal] wasn't as great, but I'm OK with it," Smith said. "It's Day 6 of a long meet. I need to keep my head in the game and take it one step at a time, and not get too negative during hard days like this"
The 200 back is Smith's signature event. She is the reigning world champion and holds the world record of 2:03.35, set at the 2019 world championships.
Friday, she returned to the water 15 hours after finishing second to Hali Flickinger in the finals of the 200 fly. The 200 butterfly is considered one of the most challenging events in the sport, a physically taxing race that also requires proper strategy. Smith clearly had something left in the tank for the preliminaries of the 200 back.
Her time of 2:07.81 was nearly a second faster than Phoebe Bacon, a University of Wisconsin swimmer who had the second-fastest time in both the prelims and the semifinals.
"I executed it well," Smith said. "I thought the stiffness after last night's fly would impact me a bit more, but I felt just fine."
Smith has not had a day of rest since the trials began last Sunday. But her races were spaced well, with no more than two per day. Smith also never had to race twice in a single session.
She was originally scheduled for three races last Monday, with the preliminaries of the 100 back in the morning and two races at night: the 100 butterfly finals and the 100 back semifinals. She was unlikely to make the Olympic team in the 100 fly and scratched the final, keeping her workflow manageable.
Coach Mike Parratto noted that most meets have only two rounds of racing rather than a prelims-semifinals-finals format, another twist that makes the Olympic trials unique. He was confident Smith was well prepared to handle a rigorous schedule. During the 2017 world junior championships, he recalled her competing in 17 or 18 races, winning both backstroke events and breaking the world junior record in the 100 back.
"She has experience doing these types of things," Parratto said. "She's been around long enough that she knows what to expect."
After Friday's semifinals, Smith reiterated that winning the 100 back on Tuesday swept away the early stress of the trials. The past six days have been exhausting, but exhilarating, too.
"I'm enjoying my time now," she said. "It's been fun ever since."