All in the Family
Hotshot second-year swimmer Leah Smith is fueled by her family’s competitive dynamic
Growing up with her two brothers and older sister, everything in Leah Smith’s house was a competition: who could clean their room the fastest, who did the best impressions of movie characters, whose SAT score was highest.
Competition is her family’s tradition—a legacy that has served her well as a swimmer at UVA. The second-year student’s time in the 500-yard freestyle during the NCAA Championships this spring set a collegiate record, and her time in the 1,650-yard freestyle set a school and ACC record.
Her finishes made her only the second woman in UVA history to win two national titles and the first to win them during the same meet. Only a year ago, she placed ninth and fifth in those races, respectively.
It was the lessons she learned growing up with her siblings that propelled her past her first-year setbacks, Smith (Col ’17) says.
“Knowing that I had the potential (to improve) just drove me even more to have a good year this year,” she says. “I knew how I was racing; I wasn’t being myself. That disappointed me.”
Competing at the highest level might be in Smith’s DNA. Because of his competitive streak, Smith’s great-grandfather Jimmy Smith, who was an infielder for the Cincinnati Reds, holds the distinction of being the only player ejected from the 1919 World Series, for tirelessly heckling White Sox second baseman Eddie Collins. Smith’s great-uncle, boxer Billy Conn, fought Joe Louis for the heavyweight championship twice. In his first fight he lost by a knockout in the last round, even though he was well ahead of Louis on points. His second challenge to Louis, a knockout loss in the ninth round, was the first televised heavyweight championship.
Smith recalled being inspired as a young girl by her relatives’ athletic feats, poring over old newspaper clippings and admiring trophies—including those belonging to her father, Dan (Col ’87), who won a silver medal for UVA in pole vaulting during the ACC Championships.
“I definitely think it made me want to be like my dad and have the same success that he did,” Smith says. “I used it to motivate me in the pool.”
As did her siblings, Smith learned to swim at a young age at the urging of her mother, the only member of the family who doesn’t know how to swim, but who was determined to make sure her children could.
“I didn’t really want to start, but my mom really wanted me to,” she says. “She bribed me with a Barbie, but I ended up falling in love with the sport.”
In the pool, Smith competed against her siblings, including her sister, Aileen, who went on to swim for four years at Columbia University. The two never had a chance to compete against each other in college, though.
Smith says Aileen wasn’t ready at first for her little sister to outperform her in the pool—but that soon changed. “She was a very good sport about it after it started happening. She’s been so supportive of me.”
“The biggest fear that I had with my kids was that competitiveness would become unhealthy,” says their father. “They’re very much competing against each other. Who better to push you to do that than your brothers and sister?”
Her parents juggle attending Smith’s meets with her siblings’ activities. Her older brother plays Division III baseball, and her younger brother plans to swim for the Naval Academy next year.
Whether they attend meets or not, Smith says her family’s presence is with her in the pool. “When I’m swimming, I definitely do it with my whole family in mind,” she says. “I do it so I can carry on the tradition that all my family has worked for.”