Varsity Xtra: After Olympic bid, Smith returns to school team

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Having competed against the best swimmers in the world and coming close to qualifying for the Olympic Games, Leah Smith stands out among her classmates at Oakland Catholic and, frankly, any other high school swimmer in the area.

Her race times, accomplishments and overall body of work are evidence enough.

While her raw talent and impressive resume set her apart from her peers, for the next few months, Smith will be just another high school athlete among her friends.

After taking a year off from high school swimming to compete in various meets across the country and the world, Smith will swim for Oakland Catholic in her final semester of high school -- something she is eagerly awaiting.

"I'm so excited," Smith said. "I love high school swimming and I was sad that I couldn't do it last year. Last year, I was trying to gain a lot of experience racing against people whom I was going to race at trials.

"I had to go to a lot of meets and travel for them, so it was going to be very hard to do high school swimming and do that all at the same time. But now I'm back this year and I love my team and I can't wait to help them compete."

The return to Oakland Catholic is the next stop in what has been a whirlwind expedition for Smith in the world of competitive swimming.

The biggest stage came last summer when Smith competed in the U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha, Neb. For Smith, who already was known as a star in the local swimming community, it was a chance to prove herself to a much wider audience.

Ultimately, it was a task that this Mt. Lebanon resident was able to accomplish.

Smith finished in 12th place in the 800-meter freestyle and 14th in the 400-meter freestyle. For those who may not be overly impressed with those finishes, here's some perspective -- about 2,000 swimmers are invited to the trials each year, with only the top two in each category making it to the Olympics.

That means Smith, who has not even finished high school, was a few seconds and a few strokes away from making the trip to London and competing in front of the world's collective gaze.

"It was a really cool experience," Smith said. "It was definitely a learning experience. I had never been to a meet of that magnitude with so many fast swimmers. I'd been to nationals, but this was so much bigger because there was always the possibility of making the Olympics.

"During the trials, I was hoping to swim better, but looking back on it, I'm really happy with my performance. I think I did really well."

Her times at the trials qualified Smith for the Junior Pan Pacific Championships this past August in Hawaii, where she had another good performance, recording times she said would have been even closer to qualifying for the Olympics had she swum those times in Omaha.

After taking her talent across one ocean, Smith got the chance to traverse another continent, as U.S.A. Swimming took her and several other swimmers to Berlin and Moscow to compete in circuits of the FINA/ARENA Swimming World Cup. In the Moscow leg of the competition, Smith won the 800 freestyle, out-touching American competitor Rebecca Mann with a time of 8:19.24.

In addition to Hungarian Olympian Katinka Hosszu, the overall World Cup series winner, the trip to Europe afforded Smith the opportunity to swim with other Olympians such as Lotte Friis of Denmark and Camille Muffat of France, both of whom she swam against in the 400 freestyle. Smith finished second in that race, finishing behind only Muffat, who won a gold medal in that event at the London Olympics.

As might be expected, swimming against that caliber of competition has made Smith a much better swimmer, the kind of improvement she probably wouldn't have made had she continued swimming against local competition.

"The biggest thing that I think has made a difference now is going to the international meets. She got to room with and be with swimmers of her caliber and better, who have the same goals," said Al Rose, Smith's coach for the Jewish Community Center Sailfish in Squirrel Hill. "Everything changed for Leah after her sophomore year after winning states and setting a state record. That's when she found out, 'Hey, I can really do this and I can pay the price of doing it.'

"That's difficult because there are a lot of athletes who have the talent, but they're not willing to pay the price and that's what sets them apart and that's what has set her apart."

That combination of talent and work ethic can be found in her ability to shatter pool records, seemingly at will.

In 2011, Smith broke the state record for the 500-yard freestyle with a time of 4:39.96. The previous record was about 15 seconds slower.

Earlier this month at a meet at Peters Township, Smith set a record in the 200-yard freestyle, breaking her own record from two years ago, another twist in a record-setting journey that has effectively become a game for her.

"She'd had the 200-free record, and she set the 100-free record and broke her previous 200-free record," Oakland Catholic coach Jim Skirboll said. "Wherever she goes, she breaks a record or two."

But feats far greater than a pool record await Smith in the coming years, as she will attempt to qualify for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Making it to Brazil will take much of the same work Smith has put in the past few years and most of her athletic career -- the 5:45 a.m. workouts she does three times a week while most of the city is still asleep, along with the evening workouts and daily dedication it takes to be a high-level athlete in a sport that demands incredible time commitment.

Smith insists she's ready and excited to do whatever it takes to make the Olympics, and Rose, who has coached her since she was in grade school, believes she can make it.

"I do, and that's her goal," he said when asked if it's possible for her to make it to Rio. "Now she knows she's there and she can do it."

Even with such lofty goals and expectations for herself, Smith has other, more immediate plans.

As bright as the Olympic dream may blaze for Smith, for the next few months -- her final ones in high school before she leaves to swim at the University of Virginia -- she is looking forward to the opportunity to take everything her experiences have taught her and use them to help her team -- and closest friends -- be successful.

And, even in a sport as competitive as swimming, she can have some fun while she does it.

"I just got so much experience out of that and it was so much fun," Smith said. "I'm really learning to have fun while swimming. I'm going to use that high school swimming and try to spread my positive attitude to my team."

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Cara DeCarlo of Tri-State Sports & News Service contributed to this story. cmeyer@post-gazette.com; Twitter: @craig_a_meyer


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