Zachary Smith’s college swimming plans centered around staying local, he said, until a chance meeting with a Division I assistant coach became an offer the Eldersburg native had a tough time declining.
Smith remembers taking part in an October club team practice with Eagle Swim Team when his coach, Scott Ward, made sure Florida State University assistant Emma Svensson knew who the McDonogh School senior was. Svensson watched Smith practice, he said, and the two chatted for some time following the workout.
That led to an exchange of text messages, and soon Smith said he was in communication with FSU’s coaching staff to gauge Smith’s interest in the Seminoles.
“And of course I said yes, I would love the opportunity to talk to the coaches and get to know the program,” Smith said. “D-I swimming ... a highly competitive program, the [Atlantic Coast Conference], all that stuff.”
Smith went from pondering a college career close to home to committing with Florida State, making plans to be in Tallahassee for the next four years.
Smith, who spent his summers as a member of South Carroll Swim Team, is ranked No. 5 in the Class of 2020 for boys by collegeswimming.com. He came to McDonogh after spending his freshman year at Liberty High. Smith won the 500-meter freestyle at this year’s Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference championships in February, and earned first-team all-MIAA honors.
Smith helped McDonogh win its third consecutive A Conference team title, and the Eagles went 6-0 during the regular season to finish first in the league standings. He also holds the program record in the 500 free (Ward is also his varsity coach at McDonogh).
Year-round swimming helped him garner college attention, but Smith said Florida State “at first wasn’t really on my radar.” A campus visit changed that.
Smith said he went to Tallahassee to check out the school, and was pleased with its criminal justice program since he plans on getting into cybersecurity as a major. Smith said he also was able to attend a Seminoles swim meet at Georgia Tech on his way back home.
“The team was great, I loved the campus when I got to go down and visit,” Smith said.
Smith collected second-place finishes in the 1,000 and 1,650 free at the Maryland Swimming Senior Short Course Championships on Feb. 20, and he also placed third in the 200 butterfly and fourth in the 500 free.
Eagle Swim Team took 20th at the 2019 National Club Swimming Association’s Summer Swimming Championships in Indianapolis, and Smith was a two-time finalist in freestyle events.
Smith said his work with Eagle Swim Team’s National Training Group in recent years has helped lower his times. That work also left Smith with a decision to make, he said.
“I also played baseball, soccer, I had other sports going on,” he said. "It was like, if I want to pursue this, I’m going to have to give up those sports and really be all in."
Smith was referring to big-time swimming, from the Division I college ranks to a shot at participating in the United States Olympic Trials — and beyond.
“My big, big goal is Trials,” Smith said. "Trials is the first step, and then Olympics if and when I get there. With those goals, I’m going to need to be 110%, all in, be locked in and committed. The whole nine yards.
“D-I is at that level. You have athletes who, their goal is to be at the Olympics. They’re all going to push you when you train, and you’re going to be the best that you can be. That was the big thing for me.”