Williamsport’s Smith wins world championship in aquathlon event

When Lydia Smith was asked what the toughest part of the aquathlon was — be it the 1,000-meter swim or the 5K run immediately afterward — the Williamsport senior joked that it was neither. Rather, the hardest part was getting out of the 57-degree water and trying to get her wetsuit off to start her run.

“If I’m being honest,” Smith joked. “It wasn’t horrible because I felt I trained enough for both.”

The three-sport athlete from Williamsport may have just been joking, but it could be somewhat truthful as to what was the most difficult part for her because Smith ended up taking first in her age group (16 to 19 years old) and in the process, became a world champion.

On May 2, Smith won the 2019 Pontevedra ITU Aquathlon World Championships for her age group in Pontevedra, Spain. The race consists of a 1,000-meter swim followed immediately by a 5K run. Smith finished with a time of 37 minutes, 5 seconds, which beat France’s Lona Gandon by 18 seconds. The third- and fourth-place finishers were from Australia and Great Britain, respectively.

To begin the aquathlon, Smith dove in for the swim portion of the race with women between the ages of 16 through 49, not just those in her age group. Once she finished the swim portion, Smith said she estimated she was the third person from her age group already to exit the pool. While some may be happy they were the third person in their age group out at that part of the race — especially given it was a world championship event — Smith wasn’t.

“That really bugged me,” Smith said. “I don’t like to be behind. So during the run, I just kept thinking about what it would be like if I won this thing and tried to pick those girls off and I finally did.

“Just a lot of mentally thinking like ‘you can do this, you’re not freezing in the water anymore.’ Running is more of my element, I felt a little more in control.”

Gandon was one of those few athletes ahead of Smith in the swim portion and the race was a loop course, meaning that Smith saw her coming back on the first lap as she was going out. Smith’s only thought at the time was that she’d catch her.

“Second loop about the same spot I saw her and I passed her and I said ‘don’t look back, keep going,'” Smith said “I don’t really remember seeing her again, which was really my goal.”

Despite standing on a podium with a gold medal draped around her neck, Smith admitted that it didn’t hit her she was a world champion until almost half an hour afterwards.

“You see those people (who are world champions) and you wonder what it feels like, it doesn’t kind of feel like anything. More like just shock,” Smith said. “I got home and my friends were really excited for me. I was like ‘wow, I guess I really did it.’ That’s when it set in. My friends were super cool, my teammates were all so supportive of it. The atmosphere here is amazing.”

Smith and her mother Sue wanted to compete in a triathlon type of event, but knew they weren’t very good at the bike portion, so they wanted to find a race that didn’t include bikes. That’s when they discovered the aquathlon. They signed up and competed in nationals in Cleveland and later qualified in Miami for the world championships in Spain.

“It was kind of spur of the moment and exciting going into something you don’t really know what it is. You don’t expect much, but it’s such a blast,” Smith said.

“We had competed in triathlons prior to this race, but this was a whole new experience,” Sue Smith said. “We were very excited to qualify and get the experience traveling abroad. It was a very pleasant surprise.”

In Miami, Lydia Smith was sick when she competed in the qualifying event, but still managed to win her age group to qualify in November to go to Spain. And not only did Smith qualify, but her mother did as well, making the world championship event even more special for her to travel abroad with her mother and compete in the same event.

“Anytime you get to do something with your daughter it is very special, but to share something like this is truly incredible,” Sue Smith said.

To prepare for the event, Lydia Smith practiced with both her swimming teammates and track teammates for both portions of the race.

Smith has earned 10 varsity letters at Williamsport in her first three years, including three each in cross country, swimming and track and field. She won the District 2-4 Class AAA cross country championship in addition to being a three-time gold medalist at the District 2-4 Class AAA swimming championships, earning trips to the PIAA championships in both sports.

“It really helped push me. On the track and in the pool, they were kind of pushing me for this race,” Smith said.

And the fact that Smith became a world champion isn’t exactly a surprise to those who know the type of athlete Smith is and her dedication and passion for competing.

“Lydia’s character shines on and off the award podiums. She is a remarkable attribute to our athletic programs here at Williamsport Area High School, not only because of her impressive athleticism, but also for her level commitment, unwavering work ethic and uplifting leadership,” Williamsport track and cross country coach Jeremy Steppe said. “She is a team player who brings true sportsmanship and camaraderie to each of the teams that she is part of as a Millionaire. As her cross country and track coach, it was great to see Lydia have the chance to compete on such a big stage and represent the cherry, white and blue.”

That community support was felt by Smith when she returned from Spain.

“Everyone was super exciting and I was so grateful to have an awesome support system,” Smith said. “Every team member, every coach, every teacher has been amazing and so cool about this whole thing. I don’t know where I’d be without them.”