NEW HAVEN — University of Florida freshman Kieran Smith was one of the most dominant swimmers Connecticut has ever seen, breaking record after record during his time at Ridgefield before continuing to shine with the Gators.
He was a once-in-a-generation talent for the Tigers, which blossomed into one of the top programs in the state while Smith was there. It was safe to assume it would be a long time before a talent like his would once again appear in the area.
Ridgefield sophomore Connor Hunt is on his way to emulating what Smith accomplished with the Tigers. Hunt won two events at Thursday night’s State Open — the 200 and the 500 freestyle — the same two Smith set records in while winning them a year ago.
“I always find it kind of funny that a place like Ridgefield had three kids on the junior team,” said Hunt, referring to Smith and AJ Bornstein, another standout Ridgefield wrestler who graduated with Smith ans is now a freshman at Michigan.
“We kind of stick together. I keep in touch with both Kieran and AJ. Kieran was texting me about the meet (Thursday). They’ve helped made me the swimmer I am.”
“It’s just good timing I guess,” Smith said. “We knew we had the potential to do something like that, and our coach set it up for us. I’m so proud. I’ve been keeping in touch making sure he’s doing what he has to do. I want to be the best mentor.”
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Hunt — who has spent his entire life in Ridgefield — has long looked up to the standard in distance swimming that Smith established. Hunt chased Smith last year while training in the same lane, with the goal of not being lapped in mind.
“At the beginning the game was Kieran trying to lap him,” Ridgefield coach Emmanuel Lanzo said. “But you get into that environment and that relationship and great things will happen. It’s a big brother scenario.”
A fierce competitor, Hunt was described by Smith as hard-working and someone who doesn’t take kindly to not being in the front of the pack. Sound familiar?
“Sounds like me, honestly, I’d say,” Smith said.
Hunt learned the sport in Brookfield before joining the Wilton Wahoos. He’s been at Ridgefield Aquatics since he was 10, and began breaking some of Smith’s age-group marks. The two began training together when Hunt — whose older sister Sara is a senior who swam for the Tigers — was in eighth grade.
Hunt has thrived in the team environment for the Tigers, who continue to churn out top talent; Ridgefield placed third at the State Open as Will Bryant won the 50 freestyle.
“He understands the culture of the team and he understands that the previous swimmers put a lot of effort in taking the team to this level,” Lanzo said. “All the swimmers on the team gave him the flag. You’re goiong to carry this team. He’s always been in that position of I’m going to be the next one.”
Smith has not slowed down since making it to Gainesville. He won the 200 IM and took second in the 400 IM during the recent SEC championships. The intense club competition combined with success in high school prepared Smith for success at the next level.
“A lot of people would say it’s unbelievable, but now people understand why I always talking about him like that,” Lanzo said. “It’s not about his ability to win; it’s about his ability to adapt to an environment. It’s like a virus; he’s going to go there and take over.”
Up next for Smith is the NCAA Division I Championships, set for March 27-30 in Austin, Texas. Few atmospheres in the sport rival what he’ll encounter there.
“I’ve heard the meet is the incredible with intensity, it being pressure-packed and fast,” Smith said. “The only meet I could think of that would similar would be the junior world championships. The difference between this meet and those are this is way more focused on teams.”
A highlight for Hunt came prior to the season when he was named to the USA Swimming National Junior Team. That meant a trip last September to Israel for the open water world championships; Hunt was part of the 4×1,250 relay team that took the silver medal.
“It was my first time being out of the country and they kept us safe there,” Hunt said. “It was a lot of fun; being on that trip with national junior team kids and national team kids — some of who go will go on to the olympic team — was crazy.”
Qualifying for the team again in two years is a goal for Hunt, who said the pool of athletes will be even deeper. He will be a top recruit when he becomes eligible to be recruited under the new NCAA rules. The future appears bright for the self-driven Hunt, who has made swimming a year-round venture for most of the past decade.
Smith’s state record in the 500 sits at 4:18.03; Hunt won Thursday in 4:32.24, his best time in the event. With two years to chase down his mentor, Hunt — who thumbs his nose prior to every race to officially lock in — will sure earn plenty of medals along the way.
“Last year swimming in a lane with Kieran and AJ really pushed me, “Hunt said. “This year using some of the stuff they taught me, I was able to push myself in practice every day to keep getting better.”
“We want to break all the records,” Lanzo said. “We’re coming for Kieran’s’ records. That’s what he’s asked us, that’s what he wants. He will not feel any pride if goes through next two years and his baby brother Connor doesn’t break his records.”