Dinos swimmer Rebecca Smith
Rebecca Smith will represent Canada in the 4x100 metre freestyle relay at the Summer Olympics. Dinos Athletics

May 28, 2024

Class of 2024: Swimming sensation and UCalgary Nursing graduate headed to 2024 Paris Olympics

Rebecca Smith sees career in nursing as her next great adventure

‘Oh, my goodness, I’m exhausted,” says Rebecca Smith, in an interview just two days after an intense week at Toronto’s Pan Am Sports Centre, May 13 to 19, where she competed in the 2024 Olympic swim trials. She’s perfectly drained both mentally and physically. But this exhaustion is sweet. She’s elated. She made it. 

The 24-year-old will be competing at the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris this summer, July 26 to Aug. 11. It won’t be her first rodeo either, as the saying goes. Smith was a silver medallist at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, competing in the 4x100 metre freestyle relay, the same competition she’s bound for in Paris. 

The hardcore training, rigorous and uncompromising, began pretty much immediately after Smith — a two-year member of the UCalgary Dinos women’s swim team and a member of the senior national swim team for Team Canada — received the Olympic qualifying news. Not that she’s ever stopped training for long since she began swimming competitively at the age of eight in Red Deer. 

A woman with long hair smiles at the camera with her arms crossed wearing a swimsuit

Rebecca Smith was named 2022-23 University of Calgary athlete of the year, along with fellow standout swimmer Stephen Calkins.

Dinos Athletics

She’s allowing herself a short breather, however, on May 30 so that she can walk across UCalgary’s Jack Simpson stage and proudly collect her Bachelor of Nursing (BN) degree, as part of the spring convocation ceremonies.  

Hearing Smith express a moment of exhaustion is almost surprising, because, for an outsider looking in, one would think she was truly tireless, miraculously managing to juggle the full-time demands of her nursing studies and training while competing at the highest level of her sport. 

She’s clear that she is not tireless. Just driven, focused, and “really good at time management,” which seems like a terrific understatement.

“Each week I’ll put in eight training sessions in the pool plus three weight training sessions,” says Smith. “On top of that, in nursing I had three three-hour lectures a week and a three-hour lab and then I would do two eight-hour nursing shifts. 

“I was running all over the place!”

As with so many of her peers, Smith felt the pressure at midterm time and to get through her studies she pulled many a “late night.” Her version of late wasn’t quite the same as so many of her fellow students, however, who, in that time-honoured tradition of post-secondary education might pull all-nighters to get by.

Smith won a silver medal in the 4×100 metre freestyle relay in her Olympic debut in Tokyo in 2020.

Smith won a silver medal in the 4×100 metre freestyle relay in her Olympic debut in Tokyo in 2020.

Courtesy Canadian Olympic Committee

That wasn’t going to work for Smith. To perform at an Olympic level, a solid night’s sleep of at least seven or eight hours is a necessity. 

“Midterms are insane, so in those times I might push it and go to bed by about 10:30,” she says. “During a regular week though I’d try to aim for 9:30 at the latest.” 

Following the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Smith made the leap from the University of Toronto, where she was studying general sciences, to UCalgary, joining the nursing program in 2021. 

Nursing had a special calling. “I’ve always wanted to help people ... and before COVID I was actually volunteering in a paediatric unit,” she says. “I saw the work the nurses were doing, and how much time and care they would invest in their patients, and I found it really inspiring. This is what I want to do with my life.” 

All the while, as she worked diligently with her nursing studies, Smith continued racking up gold, silver and bronze medals in the likes of the World Aquatic Swimming Championships and Commonwealth Games, competitions that brought her from Australia and Budapest to England and Abu Dhabi. 

Rebecca and friends in her Term 7 clinical group after the completion of a shift on the postpartum unit.

Smith and friends in her Term 7 clinical group after the completion of a shift on the postpartum unit.

Courtesy Rebecca Smith

“I definitely couldn’t have done it without the support of the Faculty of Nursing,” she says. “I was blown away with how much they supported this crazy balance between my nursing and swimming lives.” 

Some of Smith’s friends and teammates were concerned she was taking on too much. They encouraged her to focus on her swimming and pursue nursing later. The latter would always be there. 

“I think I wanted to prove to everybody that it was possible, that I could pursue my education and still compete at an international level,” she says. 

“A lot of athletes are lost once their sporting careers end. They don’t know what to do next and it’s quite sad. That’s why I decided to start my education now. I have that Olympic medal. I’ve achieved that goal. I love my sport and I’ve continued with it. But I also wanted to set myself up for life after sports.” 

What happens after Paris? Might Smith continue swimming, or end her career on the high note of a second Olympic Games? 

“Honestly, I haven’t had to think about it,” she says. “I’m going to enjoy every moment when I’m at the Games and I’ll see how I perform. If I’m satisfied with my performance maybe I’ll decide this is the end of swimming for me, I’ve taken it as far as I can go, and I’ll pursue nursing full time in the fall. But maybe I’ll feel hungry for more and I’ll keep going and I’ll just start nursing on a casual basis.  

“I’m living in the moment and I’m so excited about the possibilities.” 

Once her Olympic glory is behind her, Smith sees nursing as more than a profession. Rather, it’s the next incredible adventure. “When I began my preceptorship last fall, working in the NICU (neo-natal intensive care unit) we were watching over this little baby, and we weren’t sure the baby would make it. But my last week was in December, and I watched that baby being discharged. I cared for that patient, a human life that had survived, that was thriving.

“Is there anything more rewarding than that?” 

Read more inspiring stories about the accomplishments and journeys of the Class of 2024.

Graduates, as you prepare to transition away from student life, we'd like to also welcome you into the UCalgary alumni community. Learn about the programs, benefits and services available exclusively to UCalgary grads, and be sure to keep in touch. 

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