Rub it with a brick.
That was one of the things Leah Smith’s grandfather, Jimmy, used to tell her. He got the saying—and the determination and suck-it-up mentality it represents—from his father, also named Jimmy Smith, who carved out a career as a major-league baseball utility player and had a cameo with Cincinnati in the infamous 1919 “Black Sox” World Series.
Leah Smith’s lineage is rich with athletes and successful people. Billy Conn, a 1930s and ’40s world light heavyweight champion boxer from Pittsburgh, was her great-uncle. She is following the family tradition, and it just might help carry her to the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
“My grandpa always encouraged us to be the best you can be,” says Leah, of Lynn Haven Drive, a world-class swimmer who seems to be rewarding her late grandfather for that support.
In March at the NCAA championships in Greensboro, North Carolina, she won the 1,650-yard freestyle in 15 minutes, 34.46 seconds, a whopping 12 seconds ahead of her nearest competition; won the 500 freestyle; set an NCAA record in her 500 preliminary race with a time of 4:30.37, the second-fastest women’s time in history at that distance; became a seven-time NCAA All-American; and helped the University of Virginia finish fifth in the team standings.
Leah, a graduate of Oakland Catholic High School who was a state 200 freestyle champion as a senior, is entering her junior year with the Cavaliers. She also is a member of the United States national team. She swam at the 2012 Olympic trials as a 17-year-old but missed qualifying for the London Games, finishing 12th in the 800-meter freestyle and 14th in the 400 freestyle.
This cycle, Leah is prepared to break through and become an Olympian.
“She’s a special girl,” says her father, Dan Smith, who was a pole vaulter at Virginia. “She has an incredible ability to make her future what she wants it to be. She decides what she wants to do and puts her mind to it. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred it happens. When it doesn’t happen, it’s tragic.
“I’m in sales,” he continues. “I’ve taken all these sales classes and seminars, and they talked about getting a mental attitude for what you’re about to do. You know what you’re about to do is possible, and you behave as if it’s already happened. She has the ability, much more than I do, to do that.”
Leah is scheduled to swim in the 200 and 400 freestyles at the World University Games in July in South Korea, and as part of the 800-meter freestyle relay at the FINA World Championships in August in Kazan, Russia. Last summer, she was part of the gold-medal 800-meter freestyle relay team at the Pan Pacific Championships in Australia.
In a sport where seasonal peaking and tapering rule, she thrives on the year-round training and competition.
“I think the college season prepares me to do well in the summer season,” she says. “I don’t think that I need to make drastic changes to be successful.”
Leah says growing up she “dabbled a little bit in softball and ballet, but I didn’t really like them as much as swimming.” She jokes—at least we think it’s a joke—that she took up swimming at the request of her mother, Margee. “My mom doesn’t really know how to swim. She wanted me to go to the ocean (on a family vacation) and be able to save her if she was drowning,” Leah says.
She grew up swimming for the Mt. Lebanon, Chartiers Valley and Jewish Community Center club teams.
College and her swimming career limit her trips home to Mt. Lebanon, although she has a few favorite spots she tries to hit. “I really like going to Potomac Bakery. Anywhere Uptown, really. And back to church at St. Bernard. That’s where I went to grade school,” she says.
Leah has stayed remarkably healthy, although she needed a cortisone shot last fall for a shoulder problem. Dan Smith notes that Leah swam through the pain for months, including several important meets, before she sought medical help.
“That’s the way she looks at a shoulder injury—a sore shoulder is just a sore shoulder to her,” Dan says.
You know, just rub it with a brick.