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McDonogh grad Giles Smith aims to make a splash in his final NCAA swimming meet

On the bulletin board in Giles Smith's bedroom in Woodlawn hangs a list with with two sets of goals: one for Smith in the pool, the other for life outside.

"You can't just say you want to be an Olympic swimmer and a gold medalist and not have a plan," Smith said.

So, along with his parents and his "swimming Dad" — club and high school coach Scott Ward — the McDonogh graduate compiled one.

Among those aspirations is an individual NCAA title, which the University of Arizona senior will have an opportunity to achieve competing in the 100-yard freestyle and the 100 butterfly at the upcoming national championships, which begin Thursday in Austin, Texas.

Smith has already won two NCAA titles, one last year in the 400 medley relay, and one in the 200 medley relay in 2012, when his team broke an American record. This year represents his best shot at an individual victory, as he enters the meet ranked No. 1 in the 100 fly.

Smith's ascent hasn't come without challenges, but as he finishes college, he's enjoying the payoff from a swimming career that began before his first birthday.

'A swim geek'

Smith started swimming at nine months old at a "Mommy and Me" class. His mother, Marcia, had a back injury, so his father, Harold, got in the pool with all the other moms.

Neither of his parents had experience swimming, but they could tell from an early age that their son enjoyed the water

"Even when he had his first bath, he sat and smiled and laughed," Marcia Smith said.

Smith credits a lot of his success to the role his parents have played.

"Whether that be buy an expensive swimsuit or driving me to 5 a.m. practice, they wanted me to have no excuses from a lack of opportunity," Smith said. "So they really sacrificed a lot for me."

At 10, Smith headed into the state championships ranked No. 1 in his age group in the 50 freestyle. The top two swimmers in that event would advance to the zone championships.

Smith finished third.

"I just went home and cried and cried," he said. "I didn't even go to school the next Monday because I was so upset and distraught. But it made me want to be better. It made me want to try hard."

Smith and his parents went in search for a new swim club and found the Eagle Swim Team, founded by Ward, who also coaches at McDonogh.

More than a decade later, Ward still remembers his first meeting with the Smiths.

"I was just so impressed with how focused [Smith] was on his goals," Ward said. "I found a swimmer that was as much of a swim geek as I was."

Smith memorized the rule book and read swimming magazines and books. One day, Ward walked out of his office holding the book "Gold in the Water" — about a group of Olympic swimmers training in California.

"He saw me leaving with it and said, 'Coach I am reading that book. Do you like it?'" Ward remembers. "It was a really good book, but not something that I think an 11-year-old boy would want to read."

Ward realized early that Smith was not going to have the prototypical swimmer's body. He guessed that Smith was not going to reach 6 feet tall, which he never did.

"So we decided to have him work on being the best underwater kicker," Ward said. "Because you don't have to be particularly tall to be good under water kicking."

The following year, after the most intensive training he had ever received, Smith came back and won the 50 freestyle at the state championships.

"I guess then we saw he had the competitive fire," his father Harold said.

'Setbacks are really opportunities'

Smith continued to swim for Ward at McDonogh, where they set more goals, like making the 2008 Olympic trials.

Smith didn't. On the surface, it was another failure.

"I've always tried to preach to him that setbacks are really opportunities to reflect and grow," Ward said. "So if you miss a goal or something happens to you, you can figure out what happened and learn from it and try to improve on it."

Smith thinks it helped him reach his next level of success. A couple years later, he broke the national high school record in the 50 freestyle.

Smith was suddenly one of the best sprint recruits in the country. The problem was, he had already signed with the University of Tennessee.

Smith knew he could compete for a higher-ranked program, but he headed to college thinking that life at Tennessee would give him an opportunity to reach his goals. It didn't turn out that way.

One Sunday in 2011, during Smith's freshman year, Harold was setting up to watch some football. Dressed in Tennessee gear, he was about to dial for some food to be delivered when he received a surprising phone call.

"I decided to call my Dad and say I need to transfer," Smith said. "It was one of the hardest phone calls of my life."

Smith sat out a year, came back to Baltimore, took classes at CCBC, and trained once again with Ward at his alma mater.

Though there were days he would go home and be furious that he had to go to community college and train rather than compete at the top level, he still put his work in, mostly because he started to use the setback as fuel.

Smith developed a love for the weight room. He began to work out harder than ever, focusing mostly on his legs.

With confidence, Smith started visiting schools again, and he found Arizona, where he felt more of a family atmosphere than he did at Tennessee.

'Slowing down to speed up'

Even after years of training, Smith arrived at Arizona "green" in terms of technique and approach, according to Arizona swimming coach Rick DeMont. Early on, DeMont focused on Smith's fundamentals and taught him to have soft hands in the water.

"That was really hard for me to learn because I always like to slam my hands in," Smith said. "But he taught me that you kind of have to relax a little bit."

Said DeMont: "It's almost like slowing down to speed up."

The tutelage paid off. In the 2012 Olympic trials, Smith finished eighth in the 100-meter butterfly.

But he still continued to face adversity. At last year's NCAA meet, he struggled, finishing sixth in the 100 butterfly, seventh in the 200 freestyle relay and not reaching the finals in the 50 free.

This January, he tore a pectoral muscle, which he originally worried would end his season.

Smith put in six hours of rehab a day, which included acupuncture, and healed in time for the Pac-12 championships. There, Smith won the 100 fly with a time of 45.92 seconds and contributed to his team's 400 medley relay victory.

"It's always an interesting route, but he always somehow gets to the end," his mother said.

These NCAA championships will be Smith's final races at Arizona. Afterward, the Pac-12 Men's Swimming Scholar-Athlete of the Year will pursue a professional career.

The first step will be aiming to make the U.S. national team this summer, something he failed to do so last year despite making it the year before.

His other life goals include finishing his degree, giving back to his parents for their sacrifices, and giving back to Ward for his. His loftiest goal remains to win a medal at the 2016 Olympics.

"Resiliency is me," Smith said. "I don't think I am the most talented person in the sport, I don't think I'm the biggest person, but I do think I am one of the strongest."

pbarrett@baltsun.com

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