AUSTIN – Lizzi Smith’s favorite part of every race is the start. Swimmers get 15 meters to be underwater, and she uses them all. The dolphin kick she learned as a child to dominate the pool game sharks and minnows remains a point of pride.
"It’s the closest to a fish I’ll ever be,” she said. “Everything is calm. I can see the reflection, because I’m laying on my back. It’s not natural, but I get to explore that world. It’s a cool thing to have, because not many people get to experience that moment.
A lot of people will cut the underwater (part of the race) short. I stay under for as long as possible. ... It’s hard. You’re holding your breath and exerting a lot of energy.”
Smith, 23, first came to Austin two years ago unsure if she would swim competitively again. She was in the midst of a 16-month spiritual journey that began in Rio de Janeiro with the heartbreak of finishing fourth at the 2016 Paralympics in her signature event, the 100-meter butterfly, one-hundredth of a second from reaching the medal stand.
While she stayed out of the pool almost entirely, the hiatus turned into the ultimate dolphin kick.
Smith resurfaced in a big way this summer. Last week, she broke and re-broke her own American record in the S9 classification of the 100-meter butterfly to claim bronze at the World Para Swimming Championships, her second of four medals at the meet in London.
She also won two gold medals last month at the Parapan American Games in Lima, Peru, setting Pan Am records in both the 100 fly and 50 freestyle.
"It’s incredible,” Smith said Friday from London. “It’s been six years since I’ve been on a podium for an individual (medal). Every year I write that down on my goal sheet. Being up there now, it’s kind of fun to reflect on the years before where I kept falling short. I’m really proud that I felt those moments but I kept going.”
It was in Austin, around Halloween in 2017, where she caught her breath.
“I fell in love,” she remembered telling her dad over the phone while driving north toward Dallas in early November, after a week spent in the Texas capital. She knew she’d be back, and ended up relocating here in January 2018 after seven months spent exploring North America alone in her Prius.
Starting in her home state of Indiana, she touched all 48 states in the continental U.S. and some of Canada. She made it her mission to explore as many cities as possible, earning money through a babysitting app and sleeping in her car in Walmart parking lots.
“What’s cool about Austin is you’re allowed and encouraged to be yourself, which is probably going to be weird,” she said of the city that’s become her adopted home. “I’ve always done things differently. Not many people stick with swimming or pursue being a Paralympian. I moved out on my own when I just turned 18. I lived out of my car for seven months.
“Sometimes I receive a little backlash where people will be like, ‘Why?’ ... The culture in Austin is not to do that. If people see you do something differently, they ask questions. You’re encouraged, and when you’re encouraged, you thrive.”
Smith hasn’t always embraced her differences. She was born without a left forearm, the result of a rare condition called amniotic band syndrome where the fetus becomes entangled in the womb. She felt the stares, and as a natural introvert found ways to hide behind a puffy sweatshirt or jacket.
She always felt most free in the pool, where she could out-swim just about anyone and her ability to do so with one hand was celebrated. The Paralympics became an attainable goal — one that she achieved at 20 years old. Smith brought home two relay medals from Rio, but the one she didn’t win weighed on her.
Ian Crocker could relate. The former University of Texas swimmer also missed out on bronze by one-hundredth of a second in the 100 fly at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. They discovered the coincidence over coffee after Smith reached out to Crocker, who is a swim coach at the Western Hills Athletic Club, upon moving to Austin. They were referred to each other by Smith’s former training partner — and 23-time Paralympic medalist — Jessica Long.
“Not a lot of people can share that experience,” Crocker said. “It’s kind of become obvious that we’re kindred spirits. ... It’s been a nice window into a different perspective of what I went through. I get to be the coach that I always wanted in those scenarios.”
Within two months of working together, and despite the 16 months away from the pool, Smith was already swimming faster than she did in Rio. In May, she set the American record in the 100 fly by swimming a personal best time of 1 minute, 8.54 seconds. Before she left for Lima, it was announced that Smith had landed a sponsorship deal with swimwear brand Arena, becoming the company’s second Paralympian ambassador alongside Long.
In London, she lowered her mark in the 100 fly to 1:08.12. Crocker believes Smith has even more room for improvement before the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo.
“I think within a year she can be 1:06 or even better, and that’s just in her main event,” Crocker. “I don’t think the world has seen how well she can do backstroke, and if she decided to her (individual medley) would be really good. If she wanted to, I think she could have a lot more events to swim in Tokyo.”
His words proved prophetic in London, where Smith also broke the American record and claimed bronze in the 100 back and took fourth in the 50 free. Along with Long, she helped the U.S. claim two silver medals in the 4x100 medley and freestyle relays. She also barely missed qualifying for the final in the 100 free.
More importantly, the time Smith spent away from swimming allowed her to find perspective, a new home, and a new outlook on life.
“We all have these things we’re insecure about,” she said. “Mine is my arm. I’m learning as I’m getting older to, instead of isolating myself and shying away from these conversations, ask each other questions. Share our stories. Life is a lot more fun when we know each other. It’s a lot less scary, too. You kind of realize how small the world is. That’s what the road trip did, it made everything feel a lot smaller to me.”