With a Pan American Games gold medal, an NCAA title and a top-eight finish at the world championships, it was a breakthrough year in the pool for Kierra Smith.
If all goes as planned, 2016 will be even more prosperous and memorable for the 21-year swimmer from Kelowna.
Smith, who is now focused on earning a berth at next summer’s Olympic Games in Rio, returned home this week to a hero’s welcome at the Kelowna International Airport.
“I wasn’t expecting this at all, this is so nice, I love Kelowna and had so much support from the entire city as I was down in Toronto,” Smith said. “It’s so heartwarming, I’m really happy right now.”
After winning gold in the 200-yard breaststroke for the University of Minnesota at the NCAA championships in March, Smith followed that up with a record-setting performance at the Pan American Games in Toronto, capturing the gold medal in 200-metre breaststroke.
Competing and winning gold in her home country is an experience Smith said she’ll never forget.
“It was so unreal representing Canada, having the Pan Am Games in Toronto,” said Smith. “It was such a good experience. Just the crowd there and the energy, and I just tried to gather as much energy as I could from them as I was swimming, you could definitely hear them the entire time.
“The experience of getting the gold medal in Toronto is something I’ll remember, in 10 years when I look back at 2015.”
Three weeks after the Pan Am Games, Smith was in Kazan, Russia for the FINA World Championships where she took yet another big step forward in her career. Smith reached the A final and finished eighth overall in the 200 breaststroke in 2:23.61. But the crowning moment for Smith came in qualifying as she set a personal best with a swim 2:22.82.
The result proved to both Smith and her local coach, Emil Dimitrov, that all the years of hard work and persistence were finally paying dividends.
“I just think I just gained a lot of confidence in that I can race the girls internationally and that I can belong at that level,” she said. “After I went to 22 (2:22 in Russia) I went up in the stands with Emil, and when we sort of came down from the high, he was laughing because after my freshman year I went 2:32.
“Two years ago he said ‘You were crying,’ and me saying ‘What do I do now?
“Now I’m just lucky that he’s stuck with me this whole time and believed that I could get to here from where I was before.”
So armed with confidence and a firm training regime, Smith will focus on getting ready for the Olympic trials next April in Toronto.
To prepare, Smith will take the next year off from school at the University of Minnesota but will train for three months with her Gophers’ teammates and coach Kelly Kremer.
Then in early 2016, she’ll return to Kelowna to train with Dimitrov, the head coach of the Liquid Lightning Swim Club, and make her final push towards locking down a berth next summer in Rio de Janeiro.
“I’d love to be on the podium and eventually get a medal for Canada at the Olympics,” Smith said. “I’m going to try for next year, but if not then the next one, I’m going to keep swimming.”
As for her journey to this point and looking back on her accomplishments in 2015, Smith couldn’t have asked for much more.
“It took me a long time to get there, but this summer just being able to touch the wall first, getting a gold for Canada and just feeling support from all over the country and especially from Kelowna,” Smith said. “It just gave me a lot of motivation going into this next year and I just find that I can do more than I thought I could have when I started this sport.”
This weekend, Smith be a special guest at the Apple Triathlon as she’ll speak with young athletes at the youth camp on Thursday and again prior to the Open Water swim on Friday.