South/East Xtra: Mt. Lebanon girl, 17, tests Olympic waters
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Sitting in a hotel room in Omaha, Nebraska two days before the biggest swim of her life, Leah Smith could not help but think this is why she gave up a season of high school swimming.
Just a few miles away from her hotel room was the Century-Link Center, the host of the 2012 U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials where Smith, a Mt. Lebanon resident and a student at Oakland Catholic High School, is competing in three events this week, hoping for a shot at the London Olympics.
Smith placed 14th in the 400-meter freestyle in 4:11.93 on Tuesday. She was scheduled to compete in the 200-meter freestyle Wednesday and the 800 meter freestyle Saturday.
"Everything I have done -- taking off high school swimming -- was all leading up to this," Smith said. "It was a tough decision, I love my team but I felt it was the right thing to do. My coach and I discussed this and I thought it was the best thing to do."
Smith, a rising senior at Oakland Catholic, will rejoin her teammates next season, but first things first -- the Olympic trials.
More than 100 swimmers from the U.S. qualified for the Olympic trials, but only 16 will advance to the finals in the 400- and 800-meter freestyle and only eight will advance to the finals in the 200-meter freestyle.
The top two finishers in the finals advance to the 2012 London Olympics.
Smith went to the trials seeded No. 28 in the 200 freestyle and No. 12 in the 400 and 800 freestyle. They were by far the highest seeds of any local swimmer to reach the Olympic trials.
"It was really cool," Smith said of seeing her name near the top of the long list of qualifiers. "There are more than 100 people in my events and there are so many good swimmers at this meet, it is the best of the best. Being that close to the top is really cool.
"My ultimate goal is to make the top eight, I am only four spots away from that [in the 400 and 800 freestyle] and I think I can improve. Going into meets, I usually swim a lot better than I am seeded."
A 17-year-old Mt. Lebanon resident, she is one of the youngest swimmers in the field. A vast majority of the swimmers at the event are collegiate swimmers in their 20s. Smith is waiting until after the Olympic trials to delve into the collegiate recruiting process.
Smith arrived in Omaha on Saturday morning with her coach at the Jewish Community Center, Al Rose, and her JCC teammate, Luke Nosbisch, an Olympic trials qualifier himself. Nosbisch, a Gateway graduate, currently swims for the University of Pittsburgh. Smith's family made the 15-hour drive to join Leah in Omaha.
This will be the biggest meet for Smith in terms of competition, exposure and what's at stake. The two fastest heats in all the events will be broadcast on television and Smith is in the fastest heats in the 400 and 800 freestyle.
She said she has friends back home who plan on watching and recording the broadcast. Upon playback, the video may look like it is fast forward as this will be one of the fastest swim meets in the world.
Smith's seed times were 2:00.00 in the 200 freestyle, 4:09.55 in the 400 freestyle and 8:34.11 in the 800 freestyle. Smith anticipates she will swim personal bests in all three events.
"There are going to be so many people watching," Smith said of the atmosphere at the pool. "If I make finals, it will be crazy."
Smith entered the events with a positive mindset, realizing just how difficult it would be to qualify for the Olympics. As a teen-ager, there is a more realistic shot in four years of making another run at it.
"Since this is my first time [at Olympic trials], I am not too worried," Smith said. "I still have other chances. I don't have anything to lose because I am so young. I am definitely using this as a tryout and getting prepared for four years from now."
First Published June 28, 2012 12:00 am