Photos Courtesy of Florida University

by Gina Zammit

If you happened to see a very tall young man with sandy blond hair walking around town this summer, chances are you got a glimpse of first-time Olympian Kieran Smith. The Ridgefield native returned home shortly after winning a bronze medal for the men’s 400-meter freestyle final at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics which took place in summer 2021.

Smith started swimming at age 6. He was inspired by his mother, Sandra, and her love of swimming as well as the waning patience of sitting in the lobby during his older brother Greyson’s lessons. The next year, at just 7 years old, he was swimming competitively. By the time Smith graduated Ridgefield High School in 2018, he was the top college recruit in Connecticut. While at the University of Florida — where he is currently enrolled — he set the 500 free American, NCAA, SEC, and Florida record with a 4:06.32 at the SEC Championships.

Though his swimming skills have brought him across the world, Smith is a true Ridgefielder at heart. When talking about the moment he knew he had won bronze, home came up immediately. “It felt good,” Smith said, “a bit relieving. I knew that the Tunisian swimmer [Ahmed Hafnaoui] was ahead. I knew that I hadn’t won, but seeing the light on the block before turning around at the scoreboard was like ‘ah, good!’ Going home with a little bit of hardware. In the next 2-3 weeks, I’m not gonna look at a pool. I’ll be swimming in the ocean a little bit,” laughing, “but that’s about it.”

After a well-deserved break with his family, Smith spent some time at The Ridgefield Playhouse. First, to attend an outdoor concert and then a meet and greet, new medal in tow. About 70 people attended the event, most notably his parents, his former coach Emmanuel Lanzo, and several members of the Ridgefield Aquatic Center, where Smith got his start. 

Coach Lanzo spoke at the event about the importance of parental and community support in cultivating a champion, especially in the case of Smith’s own parents, Patrick and Sandra Smith. “Their respect for the craft, their attention to the details, add in those three hours on a Sunday, and 5 a.m. practices that were 10 degrees; we all struggled. We were all struggling to achieve something, and they never stopped supporting him.” A few happy tears flowed as Lanzo described the love they share as a cohesive team. “They loved me right away. As I loved them right away for supporting him.” 

Smith has experienced this support from his very first swimming competition. The introductory program for kids (aged 7) at Ridgefield Aquatic Club (RAC) is called Olympic Way. Though that name didn’t resonate with Smith at the time, he reflected on how that label serves as an inspirational and aspirational message, though likely subliminal. “I never thought about that name of the program because, before me, I don’t think RAC ever had an Olympian,” Smith commented. “I know we have had a Ridgefield Olympian. But, that program being named Olympic Way, I think with the right about of preparation and the right amount of commitment, there is a way to become an Olympian. I think that’s really powerful. I mean, at that point it was a long shot, but as I moved through the program, stayed committed, set goals, experienced failures and learned from those failures.”

Kieran’s mother confirmed his goal-oriented nature when asked about what led him to winning the bronze. “He’s been setting goals since he was a young age group swimmer, whether it was a goal for practice, a goal for a race, or a goal for a particular meet. He’s committed. He never misses practice, ever. He’s a bit of a perfectionist. He focuses on details, he’s very competitive, and he loves the race.”

Photo by Dylan Miller. Kieran Smith at a meet and greet event at the Ridgefield Playhouse, where he spoke to community members and offered advice to young athletes.

Long before the 2020 Olympic trials, Smith, AJ Bornstein, and another RAC swimmer, Marcie Maguire all qualified and swam at the 2016 Olympic Trials. Kieran and AJ were only 16 at the time and placed 42nd and 32nd in their individual events. “I believe the experience they had then helped them succeed at trials in 2021,” said Sandra Smith. “Kieran making the Olympic Team is a great success story of course, but his teammates also saw great success at Olympic Trials with AJ placing 13th overall in the 200 breaststroke and Connor Hunt placing 20th in the 1500 free in his first trials.”

It’s clear that Smith values these friendships in and out of the pool. “Kieran’s RAC friends are some of his best friends,” said Sandra Smith. “When he comes home to CT they always try to get together to catch up, even if it’s just for a quick breakfast sandwich at Tony’s Deli. I think they have built relationships that will last a lifetime.” 

Addressing any future Ridgefielders with Olympic dreams, Smith has some sound advice. “Even if you’re not a swimmer, if you’re excelling at soccer, lacrosse, track and field, and other sports that will take you to the next level, I hope you all can come away from this with more respect and appreciation for the process, and the efforts and work that your coaches, parents, and everyone that wants you to succeed puts in. The support staff and everyone that does everything that they can for your success are a crucial part of the process.” 

Shortly after coming home, Smith received a proclamation from Ridgefield First Selectman Rudy Marconi to mark the rare occasion of welcoming a local Olympic champion home. “I have so much respect and so much love for this town I call my home and I love this proclamation,” said Smith. “I will cherish this forever because forever I will call myself a Ridgefielder.”

What’s next for Smith? Well, it seems that the 2024 Paris Olympics will see two Ridgefielders in attendance. After expressing frustration about Smith not winning gold this year, Coach Lanzo said, “I will be there in Paris 2024. Probably I’m not allowed to say anything; but, anyway, I’ll be around.”