East/South Xtra: Former WPIAL standout creating buzz at Virginia

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Leah Smith comes from a family of swimmers.

Older sister Aileen is a senior swimmer at Columbia University. Brother Neal is a senior at Central Catholic who is going for a third appearance in the PIAA championships. Even older brother Daniel, a sophomore pitcher at Williams College, swam until he was 14 years old.

All this aquatic success must be the result of a talented gene pool -- literally -- from parents Margee and Dan.

Not so, said Leah.

"I think it's because my mom doesn't really know how to swim at all," she said with a laugh. "When she would take us on vacations, she wanted us to be able to save ourselves if we were in danger or be able to save her if she was in danger, too."

The only thing in danger these days when Leah hits the pool are records.

Just last year as a senior at Oakland Catholic, Smith won the 500-yard freestyle at the PIAA championships in 4:36.41, the second-fastest time ever by a high school swimmer in the United States.

She hasn't missed a beat -- or stroke -- this year as a freshman at the University of Virginia.

In just her first few months in Charlottesville, Smith already has set Virginia records in the 500-yard freestyle and 1,000 freestyle, and she owns the school's second-fastest time in the 1,650 freestyle and third fastest in the 200.

Overall, her times rank in the top five in five different freestyle events in NCAA Division I. She is No. 1 in the 1,000 freestyle by more than three seconds (9:33.29), No. 3 in the 800 (8:32.47), No. 4 in the 400 meters (4:13.63) and 500 (4:36.19) and No. 5 in the 1,650 (15:57.44). She also has the 14th fastest time in the 200 freestyle (1:45.09).

This early success, however, doesn't surprise Virginia coach Augie Busch.

"She was one of the top two or three distance swimmers coming out of high school so she was a big recruit," he said. "So in that respect, it's not so surprising.

"She has that type of personality that just loves competition. If someone has that, mixed with her talent, they are going to be successful. I wouldn't call it a surprise. I was expecting her to be one of the top two or three recruits that she was ... and she is."

Smith has been competing against the best for a long time.

A member of the 2012-13 U.S. National Junior Team, she competed in the 2012 Olympic Trials where she finished 12th in the 800 freestyle and 14th in the 400 freestyle. She also competed in the 2012 Junior Pan Pacific Championships where she won the 400 freestyle and placed third in the 200 freestyle and was recognized as Swimmer of the Meet.

"[The Olympic Trials and Junior National Team] have given me so much more experience, so I know that going into a meet like the NCAAs I can be more prepared because I've gotten a lot more mentally tough over the past couple years," she said.

"Going into the Olympic Trials when I was 17, I was somewhat unprepared. I had never really been at a meet like that before. I think with every meet that I'm going to, I learn a lot about myself, what I need to do to do my best."

Smith and her Cavaliers teammates, ranked No. 7 in Division I, closed out their dual-meet season Feb. 8 with a 189-103 victory against Pitt at the Aquatic and Fitness Center in Charlottesville to raise their record to 11-1. Smith turned in her winning time of 9:33.29 in the 1,000 freestyle to help her earn Atlantic Coast Conference Swimmer of the Week on Feb. 11 for the second time this season.

"I've always been a really driven person," she said. "I set really high goals for myself. Even if I don't get them, I think about them almost every day.

"I think why I'm doing so well now is that I have such a great training group. I was interested in Virginia because of the distance group they had and now that I've gotten here, it's better than I could have imagined.

"In my club back at home, we didn't really have a distance group. I would often do stuff by myself, or with my little brother. Now I have 15 other people to do them with me. It's really awesome."

Next up for Smith is the ACC championships which began Wednesday and run through Saturday in Greensboro, N.C. The NCAA championships are scheduled for March 27-29 in Austin, Texas.

"Leah might be able to compete for an NCAA championship this year in the 500, but she wants to get to the point where she's one of the best ever and that's winning two or three events every year," Busch said.

"She's an elite athlete but there are several more layers to peel. She realizes that -- she's not full of herself by any stretch. That's the next stop ... realizing what that next level is and knowing it's a 365-day-a-year process."

Rick Davis: rdavis@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3789.

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