AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Olympics just wrapped up in Tokyo, but Team USA is still working to bring home gold, silver and bronze.
The 2020 Tokyo Paralympics get underway in two weeks and one of the athletes to watch is Austinite Lizzi Smith.
This is Smith’s second time at the games. The 25-year-old made her world debut during the 2016 Rio Paralympics. She made a big splash and took home two medals. She earned a silver as part of the 4×100-meter freestyle relay, and a bronze in the 4×100 medley relay.
“The faster I get the more of the world I can see,” Smith said as she explained her passion for swimming.
This time, Lizzi is riding a wave of victories into Tokyo. During the 2019 Para World Championships, she earned four medals. She’s using that momentum for redemption. In 2016, she was a fingernail away from getting the bronze medal in the butterfly.
“Every 100th of a second counts. In Rio, I got fourth place by 100th of a second. So it was like not even a fingernail separating me from a medal. So the devil is in the detail. So I’m definitely training with that more in mind this time,” she said.
The 25-year-old will be competing in the 100 butterfly and 100 backstroke. Once Lizzi is in Tokyo, she will find out if her times qualify for the two relays she earned medals in 2016.
Training consists of hitting the pool six days a week, sometimes two or three times a day. For cross-training she lifts weights and when it comes to nutrition – it’s intuitive. Smith eats when she’s hungry and that includes carbs. I mean, come on, she’s guaranteed to burn it off.
Swimming is Lizzi’s passion, but growing up, it was her sanctuary.
“My head’s underwater, I’m in a different world, I’m not hearing people say anything, I’m not feeling stares,” Smith said.
Lizzi was born without a left forearm. It all started in the womb, and it was caused by amniotic band syndrome.
The water was her shield from the stares and stigma. What was once her insecurity is now her strength.
“I’m learning that it’s not an issue with me. My body isn’t a shame. It’s a systematic issue,” she said. “It’s … yeah, how everyone else feels about disabilities. It doesn’t belong to me. But I do get a voice to help change the narrative. And sport helps a ton to where now we’re represented as these elite athletes, not these participants.”
Smith’s motivation to train for the Paralympics came after seeing a story on the Disney Channel on the show Check This Kid Out that featured Jessica Long. Long has won 23 medals at the games in swimming with no legs, and she, too, is going to Tokyo for more medals. The story about Long changed Lizzi’s world.
That turning point in Smith’s life came when she was 12, and it quickly lit a fire.
“I had no idea that existed,” Smith remembers the feeling of watching somebody on TV she could relate to.
“Representation matters so much. Like, it wasn’t until I was 12 that I saw someone on TV with a disability swimming. And it wasn’t even a disability that directly represents mine, but even just seeing that, like, sparked my dreams, they allowed me to dream. So now if we can, like show all these different types of disabilities, like every person gets represented, it’s just gonna make society as a whole, so much better.”
At the time, the 12-year-old had five years of swimming under her cap, and she was beating kids who had two hands. The young competitive and curious swimmer did some research and found she was 13 seconds off from reaching the 100 butterfly record.
“I remember I watched a bunch of races, and still felt my mind blown that this was a thing I had no idea about.”
Six years later, at the age of 18, Lizzi matched that record.
Remember that 100th of a second that kept her from winning a third medal in 2016? You could say that moment was a blessing in disguise. After Rio, she came back to the states and hit the road on a spiritual journey. Smith lived in San Francisco for nine months, but as you know the city is expensive. The next seven months she was living out of her car as she traveled all across the country. In 2018, while driving to San Diego, Lizzi decided to make a quick stop in Austin, but it ended up being a week, and you guessed it, the rest is history.
Her message to swimmers her age and for the next generation — you are not alone.
“There are people out there just like you. This doesn’t have to be an alienating experience that the people before you experienced. We can build a really great community together,” she said.
Jose Torres is a morning news producer with KXAN. His blog will bring stories of hope and determination from others who have fought through their own health struggles and life challenges. He looks forward to sharing those conversations in future blogs. Do you know someone with a great story that could help inspire others? Share it with me at Jose.Torres@kxan.com