2016 Olympic Gold Medalist (800 freestyle relay)
American Record holder (500, 1000, 1650 freestyles)
3-time Individual NCAA Champion
3-time NCAA team champion with University of Texas (2015, 2016, 2017)
Any clinician can tell a swimmer to adjust his or her stroke. An effective instructor can explain how the change will benefit that athlete and break down the mechanical instructions in a way that won’t overwhelm their pupil.
Olympian Clark Smith learned the difference as a young athlete.
“When I went to clinics as an age-group swimmer, I was always told to make multiple changes in my stroke or other changes that didn’t always make sense to me,” he remembers.
Those experiences taught Smith to become better at “putting my thoughts into words without making it too complicated for kids to understand.”
But ultimately, it’s the swimmer’s job to implement technique changes. “Only you can make the changes you want to see,” he says, pointing out a lesson he wishes he’d learned sooner: “Don’t expect your coach to remind you of your bad habits. It helps to pick on yourself.”
This 6-foot-9 elite is the son of two University of Texas of swimmers, one of whom was a 1984 Olympian.
“I couldn’t really see myself going anywhere else to be honest,” Smith said of his college choice. “I wanted the chance to swim for Eddie Reese, the man who coached my father and is now considered the greatest coach in the history of the sport. How could I pass that up?”
But he was aware that he couldn’t just coast on his pedigree.
Although he was a 100 and 200 butterflier as an age-grouper, he found himself in a stacked butterfly group when he arrived in Austin as a freshman.
“I definitely had a rough transition coming into college,” he admits. Eventually, he figured out that if he was going to make his mark, he had to be willing to do it another way.
“I never swam distance events until my junior year of college because I was never interested in doing them. But my college team needed a distance swimmer, so I tried to fill that role.”
Smith did more than fill that role. He gave Reese the team’s first-ever national championship in the 500 free as a sophomore at the 2015 NCAAs.
“One good race can erase a year of disappointment,” he says. “Going into the finals of the race, I didn’t really feel any pressure to win because I had already made it so much further than I did the year before. The lack of expectations I think is part of why it happened.”
He also credits his parents for finding the right mix of support. “I’m fortunate enough to swim for parents who know so much about the sport but also don’t put any pressure on me. I don’t think I would have had a fraction of the success I’ve had without them.”
Coming out of those 2015 NCAA Championships, it began to dawn on Smith that he had a shot at making the Olympic Team a little over a year later. But first, he would have to survive Olympic Trials, which he describes as “the most depressing meet I’ve ever been to.”
Making the team as part of the 4×200 free relay did even change his opinion of the meet.
“I was happy, don’t get me wrong,” he says, “but it was still a depressing atmosphere because most of my friends didn’t make the team and some came very close.”
He was able to enjoy himself at the actual Olympics, noting that “Rio was a lot more enjoyable than Trials because of that lack of pressure, and relays are a little bit more fun than nerve-racking.“
Smith didn’t experience the post-Olympic letdown that some swimmers feel as they return to finish their NCAA careers.
“I was glad I had one more year of eligibility, because my junior year was a bit of a disappointment,” he says. “And I was glad to have one more season with a team before my career starts to become more isolated as a professional. Going back to college swimming after the Olympics was by no means anticlimactic either. The NCAA championship meet is the most intense meet I think I’ll ever swim in.”
He finished off his college career by winning the 500 again in NCAA record time (4:08.42) and helped Texas win their third consecutive team title.
Smith reached the highest levels of the sport by following a couple of simple lessons he hopes to impart to young swimmers: a) be conscious of your technique during every practice session and b) when it comes time to race, don’t overthink technique.
“Hopefully it becomes second nature with the focus put into practice on it every day,” he says.