2015 Pan American Games Gold Medalist 100 Butterfly
2014 USA Swimming National Champion SCY 100 Butterfly
2013 World University Games Bronze Medalist
15x NCAA-All American for University of Arizona
Let’s face it: Most swimmers can do a beautiful butterfly in the first 25 of a race or rep during practice when they’re fresh.
“Real butterfly is done when you’re tired,” says NCAA champion and Pan American Games gold medalist Giles Smith, noting how crucial body position becomes when fatigue sets in. “You really have to be aware of keeping your hips up and your back flat. If you’re moving up and down, it’s a real struggle.”
So instead of picturing that piano on your back during the last 50 or 25 of a race, think of a water bug. “You want to be skimming right on that surface,” he says.
Likewise, it’s easy to do a bunch of underwater kicks on the first 25. The best butterfliers are consistent off every wall.
“It’s something you don’t have an excuse to be poor at,” he advises. “You might not be able to do 10 kicks off every wall when you start, but you can do one. Then once one gets comfortable, you can do two or three. You can build on it progressively. That’s how I think underwater kicking should be built. A 12-year-old doesn’t have the lung capacity to do 10 kicks off every wall like the elites. They might only be able to do three kicks. That’s all right. But do those two or three kicks off every wall. And once that gets easy, do four or five. And by the time they’re older, doing 9 kicks off the last wall in a 100 is going to be simple.”
That goes double for the swimmers who aren’t blessed with basketball-player height. Smith speaks from experience, being 5’10” himself and having to go up against a certain other Baltimore-bred butterflier over the years.
“By elite swimming standards,” he admits, “that’s pretty tiny. My club coach said, ‘Hey, you may not grow up to be 6-foot-5,’ so he really made me work at my underwater kicking. I was going to have to be one of the best underwater kickers in the world, because I wasn’t going to have the reach that some of those really big guys do. So instead of sulking and complaining, I just decided I’d have to figure out how to adapt my body to compete next to Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte.”
Being 5’10” didn’t stop him from becoming the first Baltimore high schooler to go under 21 seconds in the 50-yard free, his specialty in those days, or scoring points and winning an NCAA championship relay for the University of Arizona, where he transferred following a frustrating freshman year at Tennessee.
“The one nice thing about being short? You can get off the wall a lot quicker than a tall person can. You have to find your strengths regardless of size or skill. You have to learn how to maximize your super-strengths and minimize your weaknesses.”
Better yet, he suggests, “work at your weaknesses until they’re not weaknesses anymore.”
Smith, who started swimming at the age of six and has belonged to both mostly minority and white clubs, would like to be part of the permanent solution to one of the sport’s historic weaknesses: inclusiveness.
“I always want to be involved with swimming and diversity awareness,” says the Arizona journalism graduate, who is back after a brief retirement. He’s currently training twice a day while holding down a full-time job at Celebrity Fight Night benefitting the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center at Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix.
His long-term goal? “Getting more kids from inner-city backgrounds in the water. With my success and the things that I’ve done, I think that can be a sign that you don’t have to be a silver spooner to be one of the best swimmers in the world. No kid should have a disadvantage in swimming just because of where they grew up. Every kid should have that opportunity to be the best. It should just come down to God-given talent and hard work.”