Different Strokes

John Smith is a funny guy out of the water, but in it he’s serious about leading Huntsville High to a second straight state title

By Chris Welch

His name is not Nemo or Marlin, but Huntsville High School senior John Smith definitely reminds you of the clown fish featured in the fun animated movie “Finding Nemo.”

He’s funny.

And … he swims like a fish as a member of the Huntsville High School swimming team.

For example:

When he was in sixth grade at Huntsville Middle School, Smith challenged Michelle Steed, his teacher, to an interesting bet. He bet her his Alabama football team would beat her Auburn team, and the loser had to do 50 pushups in front of the class.

“I seem to remember he was a bit of jokester,” Steed said, recalling the bet. “And yes, I got down on the floor and did those 50 pushups in front of the class when I lost.”

Yep, he’s funny. For example:

Fast forward to his senior year at Huntsville High and Smith is still the jokester. One day in class, Smith was caught on video by friends like Kate Nunn, whom he took to Huntsville High’s homecoming, singing “I’m a Little Teapot.” So, what’s the story?

“I asked my teacher if I could throw a water bottle into a trash can,” Smith said at the Huntsville Natatorium before a recent swim practice. “She said yes, but if I missed I’d have to sing ‘I’m a Little Teapot.’ “

Smith missed but the class scored, hearing Smith rattle off the anthem of tykes everywhere.

Yep, he’s funny. For example:

Kate Nunn says from time to time Smith will call “Sticky Feet” while friends are with him in the school hallway, typically right after the bell rings. The last one to move wins, and Nunn says Smith is so competitive – and so are his friends – they’ll be out in the hallway waiting for each other to move while classes are starting.

“Yeah, I play the class clown a lot,” Smith said, smiling. “I like to have fun at school.”

Huntsville High School's Swimmer John Smith

Photos by Chris Jensen

The handsome blonde swimmer – did we mention he had a fan club of young girls when he was younger? – says there are fun times at the pool and practice. But for the most part, he ditches the clown hat – or is it nose? – and is all fish when drills begin.

“Oh, swimming is way more serious when you’re in the water,” Smith said. “There’s not as much joking around because I’m trying to beat my teammates. But we still try to have fun before and after practice.”

Smith swims the 100-meter butterfly and has the fastest time in the state (50.6 seconds). That was set last year when Huntsville High School won its first state swimming title since the 1980s, Smith said. Huntsville High and Smith are favored to win another state championship during the state meet Dec. 5-6.

“First, John is one of the most sincere and wholehearted people I’ve ever met,” said Allison Brol, his coach at Huntsville High. “He was raised in a faithful family that has guided him to become the genuine person he is today.

“John has always been a very naturally talented athlete. He was a critical part in Huntsville High winning state last year.”

Smith started swimming at Piedmont Pool when he was about 6-7 years old. At the time, he also liked playing football, but he broke his arm and wrist when he was in the third grade and the doctor told him to take some time off.

That’s when he took to swimming – yeah, we had to say it – like a fish to water. Well, except for one thing – the flip turn on the walls.

“I started coaching John at age 9, and if you know what a flip turn is, you should know, most 9 year olds should know what it is, and do it,” Brol said. “Well, John would win race after race and never do a flip turn.

“It wasn’t until he was 12 that he decided to begin. Most swimmers start their competitive swimming by 9 or 10. John didn’t start until an older 13, and was blessed with natural success in the water.

“HSA, the year-round club team where John trains now, takes a break every August. I remember a few summers ago, during the break, John just couldn’t stay out of the water, he just had to get in and swim, lap after lap, obsessed.”

Smith said his goals are to win another state championship for HHS and to try to win his events. He hopes to swim collegiately at a big school like Alabama or Auburn, but has yet to take his visits.

Until then, he’ll continue to work on swimming and jokes as class clown.

“There’s a mollusk, see? And he walks up to a sea, well he doesn’t walk up, he swims up. Well, actually the mollusk isn’t moving. He’s in one place and then the sea cucumber, well …”