More than once during her first season at the University of Minnesota, Kierra Smith seriously considered giving up and returning home to Kelowna.
Homesick and distraught by her lack of progress with the Golden Gophers’ swim team, Smith was ready to pack her bags—only to be coaxed back each time by U of M coach Kelly Kremer.
Now, two years later, with an NCAA gold medal in her possession and a burgeoning swimming career ahead of her, the 21-year-old Kelowna athlete can only look back with gratitude at the decision to remain in Minnesota.
On Saturday at the national championships in Greensboro, North Carolina, Smith powered her way to victory in the women’s 200-yard breaststroke in 2:04.56, the third fastest time in NCAA history.
The Immaculata grad blew away from the field over the last 50 metres to win by a commanding 2.09 seconds.
While Smith isn’t surprised her first NCAA title elicited some strong emotions, she was taken a little off guard by the nature of her reaction.
“When I looked at (coach) Kelly after winning Saturday night, I started to break down emotionally, remembering all those meetings in his office crying and saying I wanted to go home to Canada…today…now,” said Smith, “…and how he kept reeling me back in with his stories of other athletes who had gone through what I was going through.
“This was the happy end to that tough chapter.”
Not surprisingly, Smith’s coach back in Kelowna was thrilled with the outcome of Saturday’s race.
“It was a fantastic swim,” said Liquid Lightning Swim Club coach Emil Dimitrov.
“There were a lot of great swimmers competing, so it was very big for her to win gold. She deserved it.”
It was unfamiliar territory at the NCAAs for Smith who, for the first time in a major event, went into the final as both the No. 1 seed and the favourite.
From missing the finals in 2013, to a sixth-place finish last year, to the top of the podium as a junior in 2015 Smith couldn’t have written a better story of her progression.
“I felt like the way I had been swimming that I could do it,” Smith said. “I really wanted to win the NCAAs, that was a goal of mine this year. I just thought it would be a bit closer, but believe me it’s OK that it wasn’t.”
Smith’s career in the pool took some major steps forward last season, both in terms of results and confidence gained. After making the Canadian national team in the spring, she followed up with a fourth-place in the 200 breaststroke at the Commonwealth Games in Scotland in July.
Then in December, Smith narrowly missed the podium again with a fourth-place showing at the FINA world short course championships in Doha, Qatar.
Dimitrov said the result in Qatar was just what Smith needed to confirm she belonged with the world’s best.
“The worlds was the turning point,” Dimitrov said. “She texted me after that and said now I believe that I can be No. 1. It opened the door and when you start believing in yourself there is no limit. Kierra is starting to believe in herself and it’s making a difference.”
Not too shabby for a young woman from Kelowna who just three years ago didn’t even know what the NCAA championships were or exactly where to find Minnesota on a map of the U.S.
Despite some tumultuous times and thousands of hours of hard work in the pool, Smith has no regrets with her decision to stick it out.
“It’s been a tough journey, a lot of hard work but really all in all, I’ve loved it,” Smith said. “From not being sure that I even wanted to go down there, to where I am now is amazing. It’s the best decision I could have made and would do it 100 times over. The support I’ve had from the coaching staff and my teammates has been great.”
Smith is back in Kelowna this week to work out with Dimitrov, before the two head for Toronto for the Canadian swimming trials. If all goes as planned, Smith will earn a spot at this year’s FINA world championships in Russia.
Smith will also take a year off from NCAA competition with U of M to focus on the long-term goal of preparing for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.
Although it’s not official, Smith is already in a favourable position to swim for Canada’s team next year in Brazil.