At the U.S. Olympic swimming trials in Omaha last month, it wasn't difficult to pick out the group from Riptide Swim Club in Apple Valley. They were the gaggle of giggling kids clad in pink T-shirts with bright pink Crocs and covered head-to-toe in temporary tattoos. They were the ones there to watch their hometown hero, Regan Smith.
A group of about 40 people, grown-ups and young ones alike, from Riptide traveled to watch Smith in the trials. The 19-year-old Smith, who joined Riptide at age 13, is known for wearing pink Crocs, swim caps and nail polish at competitions, and young fans from the club wanted to emulate their idol.They decorated signs to show their support for Smith and enjoyed red, white and blue Ring Pops after she qualified for the Tokyo Games.
"It's been incredible," said Paul Smith, Regan's father and the Riptide co-program director. "I'm so happy to see so many of our families and our young swimmers just pouring themselves into this."
Riptide was founded by Jim Wise in 2012. Wise already owned the Wise Swim School but wanted to expand into competitive swimming. Over the past nine years, the club has grown from about 75-100 participants in 2012 to about 450 today, including the rowdy group of Smith supporters in Omaha. Most of the swimmers cheering on Smith at the trials were from the 9-and-under age group.
The club has 12 training groups, including the elite level and a Masters program for swimmers 18 and older. To accommodate all those groups, Wise built an eight-lane, 25-yard competition pool at Bluewater Aquatic Center and later added another seven-lane, 25-yard practice pool. Riptide touts itself as the only team in Minnesota with its own competition pool.
Still, Riptide was unproven when it opened and had to compete with well-established clubs around the state. So Wise brought in renowned swim coach Mike Parratto from Indianapolis to coach the senior elite team. Based in New Hampshire for 26 years, Parratto had coached eight-time gold medalist Jenny Thompson and many other nationally ranked college swimmers. His wife, Amy, also coaches at Riptide.
Regan Smith joined Riptide in 2015 and began working with Parratto, whose daughter Jessica is a diver on the U.S. team. Smith was already making a name for herself as a swimmer, setting short course national records in the 13-to-14-year-old age group in the 100-yard backstroke and 100-yard butterfly, as well as a long-course record in the 100 backstroke. Now, she's a first-time Olympian set to compete in the 100-meter backstroke and the 200-meter butterfly in Tokyo.
But, as Paul Smith said, "not everyone's a Regan." And not every swimmer that comes to Riptide wants to be.
Smith explained that Riptide swimmers come to the club for all sorts of reasons. Younger kids might come over from Wise Swim School because they love the water and want to spend more time swimming. Kids in high school might swim with Riptide in their offseason to stay in shape.
For high-level high school swimmers, it's the chance at a college scholarship. The high school season is only three months long, while club swimming offers year-round competitions in a wider variety of skills and distances. Smith said that, at a recent meet, Riptide had eight swimmers qualify for senior nationals, results that tend to warrant looks from Division I schools.
For the 9-and-under kids, it's about fun. Mikaela Bagley, who works with young swimmers on transitioning from swim school to competitive swimming, organized the trip to Omaha. She said that although not every kid understands the gravity of what Regan Smith is about to do in Tokyo, they know she's a big deal.
"I have kids who are just beginning swimming, and all of them are just as excited about what's happening," Bagley said.
Bagley and the kids have big plans to celebrate Smith in the Olympics. She begins competing Sunday with heats in the 100 backstroke. They'll decorate family cars with messages of support. They'll try to guess what her times will be, with the closest guess winning golden goggles. They'll search for a hidden golden swim cap at the Bluewater Aquatic Center. Kids who wear red, white and blue to practice will get a Popsicle.
Although Riptide won't host its own watch party, the club is paying for food and providing "watch party buckets" with treats for swimmers who want to host their own.
Bagley wants the kids to be excited about the Olympics as a whole. Although the kids know Regan, she wants them to know other top athletes from Team USA, from Simone Biles to Simone Manuel.
"We shouldknow the people that represent us and the people that are considered the top in the skills that they do, so that we can be the best athletes that we can be," Bagley said.
Still, sharing a pool with an Olympian doesn't hurt, and the club's enthusiasm for Smith's performance shows. Parratto said he ran into some of the young Riptide swimmers at the hotel in Omaha. He asked one of them, a 14-year-old girl, if she enjoyed watching the trials. She told him it was "amazing."
"There was just this look in her eye, I can't even describe it," Parratto said. "The look on her face just said, 'I loved seeing that.' … You cannot top that kind of inspiration."