At 6 feet, 9 inches tall, the idea of being crammed into a small metal tube for a long period of time flying high above the clouds doesn’t excite Clark Smith.
And yet, the former star swimmer at Aurora’s Regis Jesuit High School got in an airplane and endured an uncomfortable journey to make it to Rio de Janeiro, where the chance of a lifetime awaits him.
Just 21 years old, Smith is headed to compete for the United States in the Olympic Games and he will go to great lengths to do so.
“Oh you have no idea, it’s definitely not one of my favorite things,” Smith told the Sentinel about his love for planes a couple of weeks before he and the U.S. team headed to Brazil.
“I’m not a big fan of traveling in general, and I heard it will be a 12-hour flight, which will be interesting because I get bored pretty easily,” he added. “It will definitely be pretty exciting to be able to be there, though.”
Smith — a three-time All-American swimmer and NCAA champion at the University of Texas — is one of three former athletes from Aurora high schools set to compete at the Games in Brazil, joining fellow swimmer and Regis Jesuit grad Missy Franklin and Smoky Hill grad Zainab Sanni, a sprinter who has qualified to represent her native Nigeria.
The Games begin Aug. 5, with swimming starting the next day at the Olympics Aquatics Stadium.
Since the Olympic Trials ended in Omaha, Neb. on July 3, the U.S. swim team had back-to-back training camps in San Antonio and Atlanta and both experiences gave Smith an early idea what it’s like to be an Olympian.
Even though he’s just qualified to swim on the U.S. men’s 4×200 meter relay, Smith has earned his way into the sport’s most elite club. A spotlight comes with being any sort of Olympian, even if you don’t stand nearly five inches taller than Michael Phelps.
“It was a little surprising that people wanted my autograph, I just made a relay,” Smith said. “But it’s pretty cool to have little kids come up to you with a kickboard and ask you to sign it.”
While the athletic spotlight is new to Smith, his mother, Tori, knows all about it.
Tori (formerly Trees) made the U.S. Olympic team for the 1984 Games in Los Angeles and finished fifth in the women’s 200-meter backstroke. She talked to her son a little bit about being an Olympian, but knows that he has to soak in the whole experience to fully understand.
“I think that at first everyone is a little bit overwhelmed,” said Tori, who also carried the Olympic torch in Atlanta in 1996.
“Looking back on it, I definitely was,” she added. “It takes awhile to soak in and it may take him 10 years from now to learn what he really did. It’s really, really hard to make the team and it’s never a given. You can be a world record holder and not make it. But once you get there, you are an Olympian for life.”
That Smith is headed to the Olympics is no surprise to his former Regis Jesuit and Denver Swim Academy coach Nick Frasersmith.
Though Smith’s frame is not ideal for riding in an airplane, it is one of the assets that make him a world-class swimmer in Frasersmith, with incredible endurance and a tireless approach to training making an ideal combination.
“With his outside physical ability and his a aerobic capacity, his whole body is a swimming machine,” Frasersmith said.
But even with that package, some good fortunate is typically needed to make an Olympic team.
Smith had an individual berth within his grasp in the 400-meter freestyle after charging out to a lead in the event, only to watch a handful of swimmers overtake him before he reached the wall.
“I’ve been trying to forget that race (the 400), but I’m definitely glad I make it in another even even though the first race didn’t go as I hoped,” Smith said. “Hopefully I won’t make the same mistake again, but I don’t regret going for it. It’s better to go out and go for it than to never have a chance.”
In the 200 freestyle — not exactly the distance freestyle specialist’s best event — Smith’s sixth-place finish qualified him for the pool to swim in the men’s 4×200 relay in the Olympics.
There was a little bit of suspense, however, as the men’s team has a maximum of 26 members and Smith’s invitation depended on open spots after the two individuals in each event at the Trials were added.
Fortunately, there was enough space for Smith and Texas teammate Jimmy Fiegen to be added as alternates in the 4×200 and 4×100 relays, respectively. Because of a new rule, both will swim in either the prelims or finals of the event and the whole team receives a medal.
The Americans are favored in both events and there will be significant Longhorns flavor with Smith, Feigen, Townley Haas and Jack Conger all in the mix.
Smith expects his entire family, his parents and sisters Meagan and Samantha, to make the trip. He will return to Colorado briefly in mid-August before he returns to Austin for the start of the new school year.
Courtney Oakes is Aurora Sentinel Sports Editor. Reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected] Twitter: @aurorasports. FB: Aurora Prep Sentinel