Rebecca Smith walked into a coffee shop on Tuesday morning like it was any other day.
Smith, 21, was sporting her red Olympic-issued team Canada sweater with her Olympic silver medal in her backpack.
The Red Deer swimmer has been home for just over a week from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, reliving her Olympic moment with friends, family and passersby, all of whom simply want to extend congratulations and show how much her performance meant to them.
“It didn’t really feel real when it happened, then it just hit me once I got home… when I got here, I just couldn’t believe how many people were watching. It was so crazy, it still is crazy,” Smith said from the lobby of the Red Deer Recreation Centre, where she swam as a young child.
“I went into a coffee shop and they knew who I was. I was like ‘wow’.”
She was stopped by an elderly couple outside the Red Deer Recreation Centre, who were overjoyed to meet her in person and just see her medal.
It happened again a few minutes later, when a family, who had just come from the pool, said they watched every race and couldn’t believe Red Deer was represented at the Olympics. Smith showed them the medal, let them hold it and took a photo.
There was also a welcome home party with friends and family and a visit with MP Earl Dreeshen – the support has come from everywhere.
“I just have so much support, from so many family and friends. I had a great celebration with my family at Sylvan Lake, it was just so amazing to see everyone,” she said.
“They all had a watch party while I was away. They were freaking out and so happy for me. I’m just so thankful to have such a great support system.”
She tried her best not to think about all that while she was in Tokyo, getting ready to swim on her sport’s biggest stage, but as soon as she turned her phone back on in Canada, it started to rush over her like a wave.
“I was really focused. Obviously, it would have been great to have my parents and my family there, but I could just feel the love and support back home,” she said.
“Even Red Deer putting up the sign, that just made my day. I think I was for sure really focused, just on getting the job done.”
It was in the 4×100 metre freestyle relay where Smith collected the silver medal on the second day of the Olympics, an event she wasn’t even supposed to swim when she made the trip to Tokyo.
She remembers the race like it was yesterday.
Smith swam the third leg and then along with two other teammates, screamed at the top of her lungs as Penny Oleksiak tried to make up time and win a medal. When Oleksiak touched the wall in second place, they couldn’t believe it.
“We just jumped up and down and we were screaming. We saw Penny, she was the anchor for the relay. She flipped at the 50 (metre mark) and had her last length, she was coming in and we were just screaming our heads off because we knew it was going to come down to us and the States,” Smith recalled.
“We knew we had a chance for second or third, we just didn’t know what was going to happen. She had a great touch. We saw that two beside our name and we just went crazy.”
Smith had another shot at a medal in the 4×200 metre freestyle relay. The team of Smith, Summer McIntosh, Kayla Sanchez and Oleksiak finished fourth in that event, with a Canadian record but just off the podium. China set a world record to win gold, with the U.S. close behind and Australia capturing bronze.
“That’s a tough race, just the 200 in general – the strategy and so many good teams,” said Smith, who set a personal best 200m time in the heats, before the final.
“In the final, we broke the Canadian record, which is crazy and we finished fourth. We would have loved to be on the podium, but we did everything we could.”
In the coming weeks, there won’t be much rest for the Olympian either.
She is enrolled in the nursing program at the University of Calgary in the fall and will swim for the Dinos in U Sports competition this year. Before that, she has to pack up her belongings in Toronto and make the drive back to Red Deer, while also squeezing in her sister’s wedding.
For now, she’s still basking in her Olympic experience, one that she’d been dreaming of since she was a young swimmer.
“This has been my dream since I was 1o and I started swimming here at this pool. I just went to Calgary this past weekend for a signing at a kid’s swim meet. It shocked me that these kids are looking up to me, I’m an inspiration for them,” she said.
“Just knowing that now I am that person – I am that Olympian, is so amazing.”