NewsPara SwimmingLeanne Smith

Paralympic Swimmer Leanne Smith On Her Comeback Story

by Lisa Costantini

Leanne Smith poses for a headshot for the U.S. Paralympics Swimming National Team (Photo by Joe Kusumoto)

Sitting on the pool deck on day one of U.S. Paralympics Swimming National Championships in Orlando, Florida, a memory popped up on Leanne Smith’s phone from exactly one year ago. The photo showed her lying in a pool on her back wearing a life preserver — unable to keep herself above water unassisted.

Six months before that photo, she was competing at the 2022 World Para Swimming Championships in Madeira, having what she called “the meet of my life — seven golds,” she happily shared.

But shortly after that meet in June, she fell ill with a respiratory infection. As a result, she spent several weeks in the hospital with a partially collapsed lung, including time in the ICU. “I was working on relearning how to eat, speak, swallow — just your basic everyday functions that I had lost.”

“I wasn’t sure where I stood with returning to swimming,” the silver medal Paralympian said, who was only able to get in the water with assistive devices. “Would I be able to get back to the level that I wanted to be at? There was a lot of uncertainty.”

This was not the first time this had happened. “I’ve gone through that cycle before where I’ve gotten sick, ended up in extensive rehab and had to relearn how to swim,” she said about getting diagnosed with early onset dystonia in 2012, a progressive disease which affects all four of her limbs, her vocal cords and her trunk. She has since been diagnosed with lupus, too.

While she quietly worked to get back to her former self, she finally opened up about her journey on Instagram at the end of 2022, writing: “I don’t like sharing anything personal on social media but some have inquired about where I’ve been after ending on such a high note at World Champs … I should be getting ready to swim at U.S. Paralympic Nationals in NC. A time to reunite and catch up with teammates and coaches and of course do what I love most, swimming! Instead, I’m sidelined clinging to hope that one day I’ll return to the pool…”

Her rehabilitation efforts allowed the 35-year-old to make her return at the 2023 World Para Swimming Championships in Manchester, United Kingdom last summer — taking home a bronze medal in the 200m freestyle S3.

The results were not what Smith had hoped for at her fourth world championships — where she’d previously earned 10 gold medals — but she was also swimming in a new classification due to her most recent illness.

Leanne Smith floats in a pool with assistance as she recovered from her illness. (Photo by Leanne Smith)

“I’m trying to take in how far I’ve come and not be so hard on myself,” Smith admitted. “I can’t predict the future so I can’t get too caught up on what I was like before. But that’s easier said than done.”

Keeping her worlds results in mind, the Beverly, Massachusetts, native knew she wanted to go into the most recent national championships differently and decided to switch up her training.

It worked.

Smith left Orlando in December with her best times since coming back — earning three gold medals and results that secured her a spot on the national team for the following year.

“That’s a huge relief,” she revealed, “not having to worry about achieving it at the next meet, or this year.”

Now, she said, her focus is on Paris 2024.

Making the team is her first goal. She’ll get her chance at U.S. Paralympic Team Trials — Swimming, which is going to be held in June in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Once she accomplishes that, she said, her hope is to be “back up on the podium — especially in the freestyle,” Smith shared.

Her single silver in Tokyo was not the only hardware the competitive swimmer was hoping for. “I was disappointed with how I swam, but I was happy I came away with a silver medal. Not everyone comes home with a medal, so I was grateful for that,” she said.

In an effort to achieve multiple podium finishes, she is working on being competitive in events other than freestyle. “I definitely want to get back on top for the 100 free, and then see if I can land on the podium for breaststroke and backstroke — as those are the only events that are offered in my classification.”

She’s taken the things she learned in Tokyo and is using them to propel her towards her goal of this year’s Paralympics.

“It’s been a building process — and it will continue to be a learning process — but I’ve learned a lot about where I need to be,” Smith said. “Even if it’s simple things, like nutrition — you’re in a new country and you have to find that balance and having the right resources. We took things that didn’t work and just rewrote it.”

While some might count her out due to her age, the athlete is a firm believer that age is just a number. “I look at it as I’ve only gotten better as I’ve gotten older,” Smith said, admitting that it isn’t her age that will slow her down, but her disease. “But If I train as hard as I can, put in the work and the hours, with the right mindset anything is possible.”