Man on a mission: Giles Smith seeks Olympic gold

A view of Giles Smith diving into competition for Team USA as he is in the constant pursuit of excellence illustrated by his dedication to the sport of swimming. (Submitted photo)

Swimming is a big part of Giles Smith’s life and he hopes to turn that passion into an Olympics berth by way of the Town of Paradise Valley.

Smith, a Baltimore native, has made Phoenix and the Phoenix Swim Club, 3901 E. Stanford Drive in Paradise Valley, his home for training. He hopes that training will qualify him for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

“It’s something that I’ve dreamed of,” he said. “It’s something that I’ve worked really hard at and it’s something that is my definite goal.”

That journey to the national stage didn’t begin with Smith being a top swimmer. In fact, he said he learned to swim from a “mommy and me YMCA swim class,” a humble beginning for someone who has won international medals.

He made his first appearance on the national stage in 2007 at the Speedo Junior Nationals at the age of 15.

Smith has won numerous titles including a gold medal at the 2015 Pan American Games 100-meter butterfly and silver in the 400-meter medley relay. He’s also finished first at the Winter National Championships in the 100-meter butterfly in both 2014 and 2018.

He did compete in the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials but failed to qualify for the games.

But there’s more to Smith than his abilities in the pool. Doug Djang, who’s worked with Smith as a coach for several months, said he is impressed with what kind of character Smith has away from the pool.

“Giles is a good dude and a good person, which is one of the most important things to me,” he said. “He’s intuitive. He’s intelligent. Working with an athlete like that is a blessing because they keep a pretty good perspective on the balance of athletics and life.”

Smith also works with youth at the swim clinic. He finds working with children rewarding because he’s helping them gain confidence in both their swimming abilities and life.

He likes to see himself as showing them that if they work hard and focus, then they can have opportunities to succeed in ways they might not have imagined.

“They really look up to athletes as role models,” he said. “For these kids, I’ve done a lot of the things they want to do, whether that be swim in college or win national titles or win a couple of international medals. It’s really rewarding working with these kids and watching them grow and maintaining a relationship with them and seeing their growth along their journeys.”

An inspiration

In numerous ways, Smith is a swimmer who is bucking several trends that are prominent in the sport.

Giles Smith (Submitted photo)

Smith stands at 5-foot-11, several inches shy of the approximate average of 6-foot-2 for male swimmers who made the finals in the butterfly races in the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, according to analysis from “Swimming World Magazine.”

Under those same parameters, swimmers who made the finals in the freestyle races, on average, stand closer to 6-foot-3 during those two games.

In another area, Smith, an African-American, competes in a sport that is primarily white.

In a breakdown from the NCAA, the organization reported 9,623 male swimmers and 12,778 female swimmers across its three divisions. Blacks made up 2 percent of that male total and 1 percent of that female total.

Furthermore, the USA Swimming Foundation announced a study in 2017 from the University of Memphis and University of Nevada-Las Vegas that found 64 percent of African-American children had zero to low-swimming ability. Hispanics followed with 45 percent and Caucasians had 40 percent.

These numbers, according to the study, did improve slightly from 10 years prior.

When it comes to trends and statistics, Smith said those don’t define what makes a great athlete.

“When it comes to, at least for me, being an example for other swimmers, it’s just about showing people it doesn’t matter where you come from, it doesn’t matter how big you are, it doesn’t matter how tall you are,” he said. “Sports is all about working hard and just trying to be the best.”

Smith said he believes its not only important to be an inspiration to African-American children, but rather to all children because it helps swimming grow.

“The best thing about swimming is right now, it’s not the most diverse sport but it is changing,” he said. “We are seeing a little bit more success with swimmers of all backgrounds.”

Smith doesn’t believe he is not alone in setting examples for children from different backgrounds. He cited swimmer Simone Manuel, two-time gold medalist at the 2016 Olympics, as one of many diverse athletes showing younger athletes trends can be broken.

“It’s about showing people that they can do something that society says a certain group of people can’t do a particular sport,” he said.

This desire to grow the sport is noticeable to those around him. Coach Djang said he’s noticed Smith’s passion for the sport and how he uses his career experience as an inspiration for others who want to use sports as a way to reach higher goals.

“He sees the sport as a great way for youth to have a healthy interaction with sport across the country and across the world,” Coach Djang said.

“He also sees, as someone who lived it, the ability the sport has to make an impact on his life. …He sees the positives of the sport and it’s ability to have a positive impact and allow things that for many people don’t see possible in terms of getting an education and of representing your country.”

A view of Giles Smith diving into competition for Team USA as he is in the constant pursuit of excellence illustrated by his dedication to the sport of swimming. (Submitted photo)

A passion for swimming

Smith is also no stranger to Arizona. He transferred to the University of Arizona from the University of Tennessee after his freshman season in 2011 and has stayed ever since.

While at Tennessee, he had success, earning all-SEC honors as a freshman. He liked the coaches and the type of program Arizona had, ultimately prompting him to transfer.

After his time at Arizona, he fell in love with the community and weather, ultimately deciding to stay to continue his training.

“It’s a cool area of growth and there’s a lot of expansion that’s happening in Phoenix,” he said. “Phoenix is a really fun place.”

Smith made his way to the Phoenix Swim Club, where he trains as a member of USA Swimming. What he enjoys most about the club is its the community feel. At the club, Smith works with head coach Garrett McCaffrey as well as personal coaches Joey Morgan and Coach Djang.

Upon first meeting Smith, Coach McCaffrey said he was impressed with how Smith was “an extremely nice young man,” who was polite and someone who others could get along with well.

Having Smith at the club, Coach Djang said, helps make the other swimmers of all ages by providing his career experiences and perspective.

“Because you have a world class athlete you see frequently, if not all the time, on deck, you see that they’re human just like you are,” he said. “He makes world class performance and world class athletics a real thing to (club swimmers) by being in front of them everyday.”

Smith has been swimming since he was 6 years old, but he said he didn’t truly discover his passion for the sport until he was 11 or 12 years old. It was around this time Smith said he noticed he was having success and paid attention to his rankings in his age groups.

“I was realizing some of my potential and began to, after that, work harder, do more and train a little bit more specific and have more focus in everything I was doing,” Smith said.

Swimming is a passion for Smith because he sees it as an “everyday sport,” one that requires a lot of commitment and can lead to big rewards. But it’s not only that. Smith said he also loves the personal interactions he’s had along the way and the friends he’s made from competing.

Inherent in competing is the chance of not reaching set goals. For Smith, one of those moments came after he didn’t qualify for the Olympics in 2016. He went as far as to call this moment his “biggest hurdle” he’s had to overcome.

“After that, I was taken aback a little bit,” Smith said. “I wanted to shake this but I had to refocus. I took some time off and let some injuries heal. That was definitely the hardest part.”

In any letdown, Smith said it is important how one bounces back after challenges. When looking at his athletic career, Smith said he believes he has had just as many tough moments as he has had successful ones.

Those varying experiences have helped Smith become more than just a top-notch swimmer. Coach McCaffrey said he’s noticed how willing Smith is to share his talent with others.

“He has honed his craft for a long time and he’s great about sharing his knowledge with other swimmers of all ages and abilities,” he said. “He’s easy to approach and easy to talk to.”

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