How Community Keeps Para Swimmer Leanne Smith Strong Anywhere She Goes
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 NBCSports.com/hometownhopefuls for more stories from across America as these Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls prepare for Paris in summer 2024.
Beverly, Massachusetts, is the kind of place that builds athletes from a young age from the ground up. It’s an idyllic city with small town vibes and a community that encourages kids to be themselves and set lofty goals.
Full Disclosure: It just so happens that both this writer and the subject of this interview, Paralympic silver medalist Leanne Smith, call Beverly their hometown. Originally a gymnast, Smith began swimming after losing the use of several limbs and being confined to a wheelchair. Learning how to become a competitive para swimmer is only one aspect of her journey, but it all is tied to a local community that is defined by its athletic pedigree and the people who cheerlead from the sidelines.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
NBC Sports: Where do you actually consider your hometown?
Smith: I was born in Beverly, Massachusetts and then grew up and was raised in Salem. I graduated from Beverly High School, so… even though I lived in Salem for a time, I’ve always come back to Beverly. It’s where I’ve done all my activities, all my friend groups are from here, and now I live in Beverly. Beverly is my place.
Also coming from Beverly, I selfishly think that’s the right choice! What do you love most about having grown up here?
Smith: In general, the beauty of the area and being by the ocean. Also, having a very active community around you growing up with plenty of sports being offered through youth leagues and so many programs. It allows you to just really dive in and get to know the people within your community outside of the four walls of school. I have five brothers, and we were all very much involved in sports, so we were going nine million different directions at any given time. Looking back, it’s really cool to see what Beverly does to bring the community together at such a young age and how those grassroots organizations helped shape me into the person that I am today. I lived in Colorado for five years while training at OPTC… and I didn’t get the same sense of connection to the community out there. I think in coming back, it just felt so right. It’s always been nice to come back and feel the warm embrace, regardless of if I’ve been gone for a month, or if I’ve been gone for a year or three years or five years. It’s something that is really special about the community here in Beverly. There’s always someone waiting to welcome you back with open arms and cheer you along, whether it’s due to the hard times or the best time.
I know exactly what you’re talking about. It’s such a safe place to leave—and it’s a safe space to come home to. You mentioned sports leagues, so what did you play growing up?
Smith: The biggest organization that I’ve been involved with was the North Shore YMCA. I started there in 2003 as a competitive gymnast when I transferred from a private club. It was everyone’s second home at that point at the level we were training, but just the embrace from the coaches and other gymnasts, there was something that I hadn’t encountered in that private club atmosphere.
As I went through the next couple of years, even prior to prior to graduating, you start to learn how invested the Y is in creating safe spaces where kids and young adults can thrive in sports. As I got older and was about to graduate, it was nice to take on a role there as a class instructor and get a different perspective that they care about the person as a whole. That starts from infancy all the way up through adulthood into the senior status. I’ve had a lot of full circle moments as I’ve taken on different roles within that YMCA.
The Y encourages people to embrace the idea of who you are as a whole person. So, how would you describe yourself?
Smith: [Laughs] I hate talking about myself, I’ll talk about anything else! I’m extremely introverted but my close circle of friends would say “You’re not an introvert,” but put me in an interview scenario, and I’m like “No, thank you!” and get closed off. I would just say I’m really caring person and I’m definitely committed; if I say I’m going to do something, then I will show up. I do think back to what was driven at the YMCA, with core values in the beginning like caring, honesty, respect, and responsibility; so, I do try to still have those four words that linger in my mind when I approach a situation or person.
I feel like those were ingrained into all of us Y kids when we were little. What was your journey to adaptive sports?
Smith: I have early onset, generalized dystonia. It’s a progressive condition, and so with that, I’ve gone from two limbs involved to it being all my limbs... in addition to my core and all the way up to cervical dystonia. On top of that, I also do have lupus and a couple of other rare neurological conditions that have piled on over the last year and a few years prior to that as well. So essentially, it leaves me as what they call tetraplegia, which affects you from the neck down.
I started aquatic therapy in 2013. I was so active and athletic growing up—that was my outlet for everything. I went from being a young, healthy athlete to being confined in a wheelchair where walking is no longer in the picture. Learning down the road what other things I would be robbed of, my doctors and support team tried to think of ways that would get me out of my wheelchair to maximize what I still had the ability to use, but in a low-impact way. The water was their solution for that. Growing up, we had a pool, so I used to swim with no problem, but the thought of getting into the water, without using my legs or arms fully, was terrifying.
That sounds like a significant barrier to overcome.
Smith: It took me weeks. I would just go and sit at the edge of the pool just kind of be like, “Mmm, still not feeling it.” Eventually…I took anything that could float: kickboards, noodles, the water aerobics belts, anything that could keep me afloat. I put them all on and got into the pool. Slowly but surely, we’d just start to peel away the pieces of equipment and I started to really love the water because of how much relief it did provide for me, physically. One day ...I learned how to skull with my hands, a basic movement, and they said, “You could skull like this all day long and stay afloat.” So, we did a lot of that for therapy. We would just go back and forth for a half-hour. That was one of the first things that I clung on to as a sense of normalcy, completing the task at hand. It also completely removed the stigma of the wheelchair… that was a really hard transition, and it still is. People see a wheelchair, and our society is very much curious, but also rude and very behind the times... it’s the pity look, or the “I feel sorry for you” look. It’s the worst thing and you’re just, “No, I don’t have a bad life just because I’m in a wheelchair.” I think connecting that task of swimming independently and being able to have a conversation with someone while doing it… not have a wheelchair anywhere in sight was, mentally, this huge burden lifted off.
How did you transition from being in water therapy to swimming competitively?
Smith: Not long after, John Ogden, a swim coach at the Y, came up to me and said, “When you get out of the water, I want to see you in my office” And I worked in gymnastics at the time, so all I could think was, “What did they do now?” [laughs]. I get done with my session and I go back to my office and John is already sitting in my chair having a conversation with my boss, and in his very serious voice, just looked at me and said, “What do you think about swimming?” I laughed at him and said, “Not my cup of tea.” He said “Well, why not?” in this very taken aback way … I always refer to it as this just stone-cold look of “Did you just say no to me?”
I told him, “I’m not taking my arms out of the water. I will tread water all day long, but this whole we’re going to swim thing? I know what that means and that’s not that’s not something I can do.” But, John being as stubborn as he is, was like “Get a bathing suit, get some goggles, and I’ll see you Wednesday at 10.” My brain is in fight or flight mode, it’s not happening…but eventually, I ceded to John and showed up. We started as you would in a parent-child class, the very basics. Slowly but surely, over a couple months, we got me to a position where he said, “Alright, we’re going to this Paralympic meet in May. We’re going through the classification process to get you nationally classified and just to see where you’re at.” I was really unsure. He said, “Let’s have this meet be our target that we’re going to work towards. After that, we you can decide if you want to give it up, or if it’s something you want to continue.” So, I committed.
That’s a really fast turnaround! What did training look like?
Smith: Curveballs came with John each and every week. One time, we switched from short course [25 yards] to long course [50 meters] since the Paralympics are long course only. So he was like, “You’re going to swim the length of this. And I said, “I can’t even see down to the other end… what do you mean, John?! There’s no way I’ll make it. I don’t have the endurance for these things.” So, that’s kind of how it all started from just going to sitting on the side of the pool saying, “I’m not touching that water” to that first meet lead-up with John basically directing my life, but all for the good in the end of it. He is a very special person in my life; I still talk to him to this day, even though he’s moved on from the Y, but he really started me on this journey to where I am today, which is just crazy to think about.
What was that first Paralympic meet like?
Smith: I was absolutely terrified. Especially because John dropped another bomb on me a week before we’re about to leave that I had to go off of the block. One of the harder things that I really had a mental block with was that, in gymnastics… you don’t go down. It’s engraved in your head. Diving equals death in a lot of ways. Everything is about up; the amplitude is what you want. So, I physically could not go off the block; I would crouch and then screech. It was awful. I also just had no clue what we were rolling into.
What did you see when you arrived?
Smith: I saw kids and adults at all stages of life overcoming obstacles and doing their thing. It was a positive environment and not one that I had had experienced, so it definitely was a mental shift to “There’s a whole world out here of opportunities.” You don’t really know the extent of how many adaptive sports there are, and it’s growing to this day.
I think getting there and soaking it in was incredible… though, I was still terrified. I had to go through the classification to figure out where I was at. Then there’s getting behind the block and having to do a start of some sort just to get in the water. So, there are a lot of fears still going in there while also feeling like, “Okay, this is a community, I’ve met some pretty cool people.” Our ambassadors of the sport at that time really understood a lot of the things that I was going through and that was just something that I hadn’t ever experienced in the three years at that point that I had had had become paraplegic.
You hit the qualifying time for Para Nationals in your very first meet but weren’t sure you wanted to continue with the sport. What was the deciding factor that kept you in the pool?
Smith: I really did love being in the water, the freedom of being out of my wheelchair for that hour-and-a-half to two hours at a time was the greatest part of my day. I couldn’t get enough of it. So slowly but surely, I just bought into it. It was also just a familiar feeling in the sense of the drive of being a competitive athlete growing up. Even though it was on the able-bodied side, it didn’t take much for my body and mind to really get back on board with being in that mental space. Even to this day, it’s a lot of what drives me. I’ve had quite a turbulent swimming career, not so much thanks to my health. The amount of time I have been taken out by different illnesses or surgeries, or just the progression of my condition, has really taken a toll. And each time, you weigh “How much can you come back? Is it safe to push it?” I think that mentality, that competitiveness within me, always comes out to just want to prove people wrong; that I can still come back and still succeed or have some level of success.
Where does drive that come from, do you think?
Smith: I think I got a lot of that from what I have, but I also got a lot of that from people like John and my current coach, Dave Modzelewski. He’s been responsible for crafting my comeback and is also a Team USA hopeful for Paris on the coaching side. There’s also the coach I had just before here when I lived in Colorado; they’re all very creative. If you saw my swimming, you would be like, “Uh, how is that even possible?” I’m in a class of my own a lot within the United States. We have a lot of S6 and above swimmers and, currently, I’m an S3 and I have been in the lower classes since 2017. [Editor’s note: the S3 classification includes swimmers “with amputations of both arms and legs, swimmers with reasonable arm strokes but no use of their legs or trunk, and swimmers with severe co-ordination problems in all limbs.” For more on Paralympic classification, visit Paralympic.org and Lexi Global.]
I’ve had three major hospitalizations and sabbaticals from swimming during those times that have caused progression and that required anywhere from six to eight weeks, just in the hospital alone, never mind recovery outside of that. Every day we’re trying to figure out the best balance of how much yardage to swim, what that yardage should look like, and how to balance that out with PT, OT, speech, doctor’s appointments, etc. So yeah, it truly takes a village to get to the point of where I’m at.
You really hit your stride in 2021 and 2022. Was there any difference in the reaction when you came home to Beverly between the Tokyo Paralympics and then the 2022 World Championships?
Smith: It was just a whole different experience after Worlds because more of the community was aware of my story and had been following along for that past year in Tokyo. It was this whole new audience that was thrown into the Para world because I was training at the same time as I was working at the Y. It was cool to branch out a little bit more into the community and into our youth programs. We did a small brunch in the lobby of the YMCA. They’re like “We want all of your loot, your medals,” so they had this little table to display them. It was a little formal for me, but it was cool to have different community members coming by, whether from kid’s club, gymnastics, swimming, or just coming in to do their own workouts. To have so many different interactions and to give exposure to not only Paralympics, but adaptive athletes all-around, was awesome.
What was your experience like at 2023 World Championships?
Smith: It’s been a really hard year coming off a phenomenal world championships in 2022, then getting gravely ill after that and spending about eight weeks in the hospital followed by outpatient PT, OT and SLP. I’m still attending those sessions weekly. I just came off seven golds and had the year of my life in 2022 from a swimming standpoint. Coming away with a bronze was ok, but also a reminder that I’m not where I was, that’s a hard reality day in and out at the moment and one not everyone quite understands. It was a hard two weeks over there and I couldn’t wait to get home.
Yeah, I get that! Looking forward, what are your goals for Paris?
Smith: Our event lineup for the S3s is the 50 back, 50 breast, and 100 free. I have the option to swim up as an S4 for the 150 IM [no butterfly] but it is swimming up a class. I did that in Tokyo; it was before any of my other races, so I took it as an opportunity to get a lay of the land and see what the ready room looked like, and that whole process, especially it being my first Games. It was a low-level pressure race as opposed to one of my main races. So if it happens in Paris… I may partake in that as an extracurricular event to go through the motions of what can simulate that race-day experience.
In your vision board dreams, are you winning medals in all S3 events?
Smith: Two out of the three is the direction we’re heading. With my change in status, everything is two steps forward, one step back. Every stroke, I’m constantly pushing against resistance. When it comes to backstroke, I’m not able to get my arm out of the water at all, and I only use one arm for all my swimming. There’s just so much pressure and resistance; it’s more taxing than it is helpful or beneficial, even if that were like a first day race. I’d rather save myself for the other two races.
What are you most excited to see in Paris?
Smith: I’m really excited for the Opening Ceremony, because we didn’t get to really experience those in Tokyo. I want a true Paralympic experience. I’m excited to see how Paris puts together the venues and matches them with their culture. I’m going eat far too many chocolate croissants and carbo load on their food the whole time. I’m also looking forward to being able to navigate around the village and see the history of the city in person.
What are some hobbies and passions you have outside of swimming?
Smith: I have three little nieces; watching them grow and develop is something I enjoy doing. I also enjoy other adaptive sports, whether it’s sled hockey, cycling, or kayaking. I do a lot with Spaulding Adaptive Sports and their programs. I just love to be as active as possible and use it as cross-training.
Are you also working?
I haven’t gone back to work since went on medical leave last fall. And a lot of that is because, right now, swimming is partially work, but between PT, OT, and speech alone, I spend at least nine hours a week at therapy. Between that and trying to get in swimming and other specialty doctor’s appointments and keeping up with labs and scans, and that sort of thing, it’s just not on the table right now. Something I do still find time for is volunteering or being involved with different organizations. I just signed on for a lecture series about allowing athletes to take a risk and having doctors be okay with it. There’s a line: how do you find that balance between doctor and patient? So, doing little projects that pop up seemingly out of nowhere that involve advocating and informing people of what’s out there while continuing to rehab myself back to whatever state I’m able to get to at the highest level.
What do you do to keep your health as high as possible?
Smith: Working with certain supplements to help balance out any kind of deficiencies within my body, but also to help with boosting things. Nutrition is something I struggled with, especially because I would switch to a soft diet. When you can’t swallow, everything becomes a choking hazard. I work heavily with my nutritionist from the USOPC to find things to help boost my immune system; foods that are really high in antioxidants and iron or anti-inflammatory foods that could be blended into a smoothie, or already exist in the smoothie form. Then it’s just being very cautious around the environment but also trying to live life as well. There’s an important balance of it.
Where are some places you like to go to maintain that balance?
Smith: I love being anywhere near the water… being at Lynch Park and roaming around that area, which is fairly accessible. They did a lot of work this summer in downtown Beverly that is still getting wrapped up, but they’re finally putting in curb cuts on every single street corner and repaving things, making sidewalks so they’re smooth and you can get into restaurants; being able to roam around that area has been nice. I do a lot of drives through the long back roads, like Route 127, where you can follow the water through West Beach and into downtown Manchester; just hitting up the North Shore shoreline. I enjoy going into Boston or hopping on the train and going right into the TD Garden or catching a game at Fenway Park. I’m a Boston sports fan through and through. I’d say when it comes to Beverly, just finding Mom and Pop restaurants, and some of the newer ones, but you can’t turn down Little Italy every once in a while.
The sweet sauce makes a difference.
Smith: Exactly. And, you know, most of the world doesn’t even know what sweet sauce is… but if you know and you’ve had it, then you know.