Oakland Catholic standout nearly sets U.S. swim record

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LEWISBURG, Pa. -- On Friday, Leah Smith of Oakland Catholic was competing against the best swimmers in Pennsylvania.

On Saturday, she was swimming against the rest of the nation -- and nearly came out on top.

Smith had no doubts she would again set the PIAA Class AAA girls 500 freestyle record she already owned, and she did so with ease. She posted a 4:37.98 in the preliminaries to brush aside her previous mark of 4:39.96 at the 2011 PIAA meet.

Then she nearly topped the U.S. mark in the final.

With a strong, easy stroke throughout, Smith touched the wall at Bucknell University's Kinney Natatorium in 4:36.41.

According to the National Federation of State High School Associations record book, Smith's championship time is unofficially the second-best time of any U.S. female swimmer in a NFHS scholastic meet.

The NFHS national record is 4:34.78 by Dagny Knutson of Minot, N.D., in 2008. Once Smith's time is certified -- the PIAA must go through the process of measuring the course and checking the automatic time to confirm -- she will take her place at No. 2 nationally ahead of such notables as Olympian Janet Evans.

The best time by a teenage female swimmer in the 500 free came a month ago when Katie Ledecky from Stone Ridge School in Bethesda, Md., an independent school, swam a 4:31.38.

"It's my personal record, so I'm happy about that," said Smith

But Smith, who clearly wanted to break Knutson's time, acknowledged disappointment that she fell less than two seconds short.

"It's not devastating, but that was my goal," Smith said.

Smith was named the Class AAA female swimmer of the meet, an honor that brightened her mood somewhat.

"That's never happened before, so I'm happy about that," she said.

Smith's time stole a little thunder from two WPIAL male athletes, Dominic Giordano of Pine-Richland and Zach Buerger of North Allegheny.

Giordano rolled up a score of 584.45 to win the Class AAA boys diving title, but his shot at the PIAA record of 599.50 (Connor Kuremsky of North Allegheny, 2011) fell short.

Giordano, fifth a year ago, will attend Florida State.

Buerger earned his second gold medal of the meet when he won the 500 freestyle.

Buerger improved his preliminary time by nearly six seconds with his 4:28.12 in the final to add the 500 gold to the 200 individual medley title he won Friday night.

North Allegheny finished fourth in the Class AAA boys team standings and Upper St. Clair finished fifth.

Oakland Catholic was fifth in the Class AAA girls team standings, although Latrobe, without a champion, finished fourth.



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