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Hometown Hopefuls: Kieran Smith, Connecticut

Throughout the summer, in a series called Hometown Hopefuls, NBC is spotlighting the stories of Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls from all fifty states, as well as Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, as they work towards the opportunity to represent their country at the Paris 2024 Games next year. We’ll learn about their paths to their sports’ biggest stage, and the towns and communities that have been formative along the way. Visit for more stories from across America as these Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls prepare for Paris in summer 2024.

Kieran Smith lamented the absence of fans at his first Olympics in Tokyo, but the support was loud and clear when he went back to his Connecticut hometown a few months after the Games.

Smith traversed the hallways of Ridgefield Elementary School and entered the gymnasium in November 2021. He recognized two of his old teachers. He noticed signs commemorating his achievements, which included a 400m freestyle bronze medal.

He also looked into the eyes of, he estimated, around 100 and 150 students between two assemblies (one for second grade and younger; the other for third grade and older.).

The principal conducted a Q&A with the hometown medalist. Then the kids got their turn.

The younger ones asked his favorite food and color. The fourth- and fifth-graders were interested in the work ethic it took to become an Olympian.

Many swim for the Ridgefield Aquatic Club. As did a young Smith, who credits club coach Emmanuel Lanzó as his biggest inspiration and motivation in the sport.

Smith swam at the Olympic Trials in 2016 (placing 42nd in the 400m individual medley a month after turning 16), but said he began harboring Olympic hopes in 2017, when he took 200m IM silver at the world junior championships.

He entered the Tokyo Olympic Trials ranked No. 1 in the U.S. in 2021 in the 400m free, but his best time was still 93 hundredths of a second shy of the automatic Olympic qualifying standard.

That meant that there was a scenario where Smith could win the trials and not make the team. The only way to assure his spot was to swim a massive personal best to get under the standard, plus finish in the top two.

Smith left no doubt. He sliced his lifetime best time by 2.85 seconds in winning a race that takes 3 minutes and 45 seconds.

“I knew there was a little pressure,” Smith told NBC that night. “I was confident.”

Smith went to Tokyo seeded seventh in the 400m free by best time in 2021, yet lowered his personal best by another 92 hundredths for that bronze medal.

Smith’s goal for the Games was to win a gold medal in the 4x200m free relay (Smith had the fastest leadoff leg, but the U.S. ended up fourth). “To walk away with an individual medal,” he said, “was more than I could have asked.”

He returned to the University of Florida, where he still trains under coach Anthony Nesty. It has become Distance U. Smith shares a pool across from The Swamp with Bobby Finke and Katie Ledecky, who swept the 800m and 1500m free titles in Tokyo.

Nesty recruited Smith to Gainesville when he was an assistant to Gregg Troy, then took over as Gators head coach for Smith’s freshman season. Smith still remembers that first team meeting.

“I don’t think [Nesty] said a word about swimming, but he told us that he’s going to do everything he can to develop us into hard-working, productive young men,” said Smith, who has tattoos of the Olympic rings on his left bicep and alligator scales on his right thigh. “My favorite quote from him from that meeting was probably, ‘Real men cry, and real men say I love you.’”

When Smith won that Olympic bronze, Nesty told him it was just the beginning and encouraged him to set long-term goals.

Smith kept it simple: to become a two-time Olympian in 2024.

He’s well on his way. Smith anchored the U.S. to 4x200m free relay gold at the 2022 World Championships, posting the second-fastest split of the 32-swimmer field.

“I love swimming the relays more than I love swimming the individuals,” he said. “Putting the team on my back.”

Then he won his first individual global title in the 400m free at the world short course championships this past December.

That meet was held in Australia, his birth country. Smith spent his first two months in Sydney due to his father’s work schedule.

Smith also strives to emulate Australian legend Ian Thorpe. In 2000 and 2004, Thorpe both won the Olympic 400m free and anchored Australia’s 4x100m free relay.

That range is rare at that level, but Smith has worked on his 100m free in hopes of getting on the U.S. relay. He missed the eight-man final at last month’s nationals by 19 hundredths, but still made the team for next week’s world championships in the 200m and 400m frees.

Smith studied physiology and kinesiology at Florida. If he wasn’t swimming, he’d still work in elite athletics as a trainer or massage therapist.

He’s also known for the arts. Smith brought a cello with him when he drove 1,000 miles down the East Coast from Ridgefield to matriculate at Gainesville.

And on that post-Tokyo Olympic visit to his hometown, he made sure to visit Michael McNamara — “Mr. Mac” — his orchestra director at Ridgefield High School.

Like he did with the elementary students, Smith had words for the budding musicians.

“So many students drop orchestra to take an extra AP [Advanced Placement] course or something,” he said. “My biggest message was there’s a way to balance school, high-level athletics and keeping your extracurriculars.”

Smith begins his campaign at the World Swimming Championships in Fukuoka on Saturday morning with the 400m free prelims. Find the full streaming and TV schedule for swimming worlds here.