Original article by Bob Putnam, Tampa Bay Times
The two sprints in swimming — the 50- and 100-yard freestyle — are mad dashes in the pool, both races lasting less than a minute.
The brevity of the events allows for no error; one tiny mistake can mean a fraction of a second lost, which in this context is an eternity. After all, these are swimming’s versions of a drag race, flat-out speed and froth.
McKenna Smith is a sprinting specialist. From a crouched start, the Academy at the Lakes junior slices her arms through the water in a foaming rush to the wall, usually out-touching all of her opponents to take first place.
So far this season, Smith has won all but one of the races in her signature events. The lone loss came in the preliminaries of the 50 free at the Tampa Bay Classic, which was based off times in different heats rather than head-to-head competition.
No matter. Smith came back to win the event in the finals. She also set the Tampa Bay Classic record in the 100 free (52.18 seconds), shaving one-tenth of a second off the mark she established the year before.
Not bad for someone who did not want to become a swimmer.
Growing up, Smith concentrated on volleyball. A family friend encouraged her to try swimming.
“I didn’t want to do it,” Smith said. “I thought swimming was boring.”
After resisting, Smith finally got in the pool.
She never left.
In sixth grade, Smith joined the Academy at the Lakes swim team. She tried just about every event, learning all the different strokes.
Two years later, she focused on the sprints.
The 50 and 100 free are all about technique. The starts off the blocks have to be perfect, the flips on turns spot on, the breathing just right.
That takes practice. Smith practices twice a day, three times a week. In all, she goes through eight weekly workouts.
The training paid off.
At last year’s Class A state meet, perhaps the fastest of all classifications, Smith finished second in the 50 free (23.29) and fourth in the 100 free (50.59). Her meteoric rise continued in the offseason with strong performances at sectionals and junior nationals.
The Wildcats have gone through a remarkable transformation, too. When Smith first joined the program there were only a handful of swimmers and no pool for practices.
“We all just showed up for meets,” she said.
Academy eventually secured the Land O’ Lakes recreation center for practices. And after going through two head coaches, the Wildcats hired Lorin MacDonald, who guided the Elite Florida Swimming club program that Smith already belonged to.
There is more depth with several middle schoolers who decided to swim this season.
Five years at the high school varsity level made Smith a veteran. She now serves as a mentor to the newcomers.
“It’s been fun this season because we have a team,” Smith said. “All the young swimmers are so eager to learn, and I try to give them pointers as much as possible.”
Sometimes that means not even swimming her top two events. At dual meets, Smith typically tries other strokes because the youngsters are more comfortable doing freestyle, particularly in the sprints.