We’re closing out June’s Throwback Thursdays with a splash—and to be clear, that probably won’t be the last swimming pun I make here. We’re joined this week by former UVA swimmer Leah Smith, who is among the most decorated Virginia athletes of all time.
While at UVA, she won four national titles, more than any other UVA athlete across all sports. She took the 500m free and 1,650m free titles in each of 2015 and 2016. But amazingly, that wasn’t the peak of her career. It wasn’t even close. In fact, the peak of her career may be yet to come.
At UVA, she became a 16-time All-American and 13-time ACC Champion, while setting four UVA records and three ACC records.
I can’t even begin to document her career over the past three years since leaving UVA. Three-time world champion? 2016 Olympic gold medalist? and bronze medalist?
Simply amazing. Read more about what she’s been up to below, as she trains for the 2020(1) Olympic Games.
Streaking the Lawn: Presumably, the 2016 Olympic Games are among the highlights of what you’ve done since UVA. What else makes the list?
Leah Smith: The Olympics in 2016 was so much fun, and I loved coming back to campus for my fourth year after and getting to celebrate with my team and classmates, as well as the C’ville community! Since graduating, I’d say what makes my highlight list is turning professional in swimming in Spring 2017 and swimming in two World Championships in 2017 and 2019, which have the same selection procedures as the Olympics so those are a ton of fun! It has been the coolest experience being a professional swimmer and traveling all over the world to swim. It’s the best job I could ask for! I have also loved getting involved with different leadership opportunities within the USA Swimming community and on the USA Swimming National team as well.
STL: What are you doing during this quarantine period to keep yourself busy and/or entertained?
LS: After college I took a long break from reading for a while, but quarantine has put me in a great reading groove! I’ve been averaging a book a week, and it’s been really fun to add new things to my list. Other than that, I’ve been cooking tons of new dishes and trying to spice up my workouts by trying new things and making fitness goals each week. My favorite dishes that I made in quarantine were pad thai, sweet potato curry, and fried pickles.
STL: How have you been able to keep up with your training? How do you have to adjust for 2021 instead?
LS: It’s been pretty hard to keep up with training as we still cannot have organized workouts right now and cannot access our pool yet. There’s some local pools that have open slots for lap swim near me, so I’ve been able to keep my feel of the water which is nice! I’ve been able to challenge myself a lot on my Peloton bike too.
STL: If you could have been an athlete in another sport at Virginia, which would you choose, and would you be a starter?
LS: If I could be an athlete in another sport at UVA, I’d have to say soccer. I loved the soccer team at UVA and always respected those women and their work ethic so much. I most definitely wouldn’t be any good, but I would give 110% for sure!
STL: What is your favorite UVA sports memory, either as a fan or a player?
LS: My favorite UVA sports memory is probably a tie between a few things. Of course, the 2019 National Championship by the Men’s Basketball Team was amazing, and so fun to follow as a fan. I knew a few basketball players pretty well when I was at UVA and I felt like for many fans including me, 2019 felt like the culmination of so many years of hard work by the coaches and players, and of the tradition built by the alumni of the program too. Other than that, of course I have a few favorite swimming memories and those are getting a program best top 5 team finish at NCAAs in 2015 and 2016, and winning my first individual National Championship at NCAAs in 2015 in the 500 freestyle.
STL: Which coach or teacher had the greatest impact on you while at UVA?
LS: I majored in Media Studies at UVA, but I also minored in History and that was solely because of the amazing History professor I had, Professor George Gilliam. I took History of Virginia Pre 1865 and History of Virginia Post 1865, and both were among the hardest classes I took at UVA, but I loved them! I still remember some of his hardest test questions. He is incredibly knowledgeable as well as compassionate, and he is not afraid to challenge students to be their best in many ways. To this day, I still keep in touch with Professor Gilliam and his wife!
STL: Do you have any career advice for current students or recent alumni?
LS: While I do not have the most normal “career”, I would say my best career advice is to seize great opportunities when they arise or when you are needing a change! I find that many people hesitate when faced with a big decision, or with a career move they have been wanting to make, because it is very easy to stay in the comfort zone. Eventually, it could end up being years of you talking about wanting to make a change, but I think its so important to take big leaps without letting your fear hold you back for that long. After I graduated from UVA, I moved across the country to Tucson, Arizona, and it was a scary decision for me, but I left my comfort zone and grew in so many different ways. Looking back, I am so glad I made that leap.
STL: What do you see that current UVA student-athletes have on Grounds that you wish you had (facilities, resources, coach)?
LS: First off, I am so happy for all of the student-athletes at UVA getting upgrades for new facilities or funding for new things! Although, I wish that when I was in college that we didn’t have to bus 10 hours to Michigan for our dual meet, 8 hours to Georgia for Invites and 17 hours to Florida for our training trip! Then again, I made so many memories on those long bus rides with teammates that I am very thankful for :)
STL: What is your favorite Charlottesville restaurant?
LS: This is a tough one because Cville has the BEST restaurants of anywhere I have ever lived! I would say my top 3 are Lampo, Tavola, and C&O.
STL: A bonus question from Somdev Devvarman, last week’s spotlight: What’s the one thing you would add to Charlottesville to make it even more special?
LS: That’s a tough one! I wouldn’t say no to adding more amazing restaurants, because I love trying new ones!