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March 9, 2009

Touching the wall

By: Matt Kovatch

Sara Smith

Have you ever been stricken with mononucleosis?

If so, think back to that dreadful time and how terrible you felt.

If not, imagine the worst case of strep throat that you can dream of. Imagine your throat and neck glands being so painful that you couldn’t eat, and imagine your tonsils being so swollen that you had to be put on a steroid to counteract it. Imagine your spleen being so enlarged that you weren’t allowed to exercise or lift weights for fear of it rupturing.

Got it? Now imagine being an All-American swimmer with all of those symptoms, and being pulled from the water and the sport that has made you who you are.

Well, Virginia Tech senior Sara Smith doesn’t have to imagine that – she’s lived it.

The freestyle sprinter is currently putting the finishing touches on a decorated career in Blacksburg – she recently captured individual titles and set ACC records in both the 50- and 100-yard freestyle events to lead the Hokie women to a third-place team finish at the conference meet, their best ACC finish ever.

But just one year ago, Smith was still recovering from a brutal bout with mono that might have caused most student-athletes to take a redshirt year. But the driven and competitive Smith never considered it.

“It happened early enough in the season that I thought I could still have a decent postseason,” said Smith, who eventually won the 50 and 100 free events at ACCs that year as well. “But it was a tough year, to say the least.

“My entire fall season was a wash. I was out of the water for a month, and [for an elite swimmer like Smith] missing just one week of swimming can ruin your next two months. I still ended up doing well by the end of the season, but when I would go to a three-day meet, I could only swim well for the first day – I was so tired by the end of the meet.”

The McGaheysville, Va., native did go on to capture those two titles and then eventually made the semifinals of the 50 free at the U.S. Olympic Trials over the summer. Interestingly, Ned Skinner, Tech’s head swimming and diving coach, said the battle with mono may have helped her reach her full potential.

“In some ways, I think it was good that she had it,” Skinner said. “Any time you feel like your career could end or you see how fragile things are, I think it helps put things in perspective. Once she was able to put [the mono] behind her for good around last April, she really catapulted to another level. It set her up for what has proven to be a spectacular senior year.”

Being a short-distance sprinter, Smith was hampered by the fact that mono didn’t allow her to lift weights, which is what she derives much of her power and explosion from. But being a sprinter also helped her to get back to normal faster, as her endurance didn’t have to be quite as high as it would have been had she been training for a 200- or 500- yard event.

Regardless, she echoed Skinner’s thoughts.

“This year, I’ve been healthy for the whole season,” Smith said. “It’s something that you definitely take for granted, but being healthy for an entire year makes a huge difference. I’ve been able to train harder and longer than I ever have. Normally, by the third or fourth day of a meet, I’m just done. I don’t swim as well, I get sloppy and I’m tired. But at ACCs this year, even up to my last event, I still swam in top form. I just feel stronger. I don’t “die” in my races, as compared to last year when it was a struggle just to finish a 100 freestyle.”

Smith was an All-American in 2007 and is a five-time ACC champion, but that’s not all she’s accomplished in her time at Tech. She’s also a three-time member of the All-ACC academic team, and in 2008, she was named the conference’s inaugural women’s swimming scholar-athlete of the year.

“I look at my swimming and my academics, and I’ve done very well for myself,” Smith said, while reflecting back on all of her accomplishments. “My life is swimming and school. I want to have the highest GPA that I can. I work hard. I’m competitive by nature and I don’t like being beat.”

Judging by her 3.8 GPA in biology and all of the school records she’s broken, Smith hasn’t been beaten very often. That’s because she says she sets small goals for herself every week, whether it’s getting an ‘A’ in class or recording a faster time in practice.
One of her most recent goals, and not a small one by any means, was to get into the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine. It’s a goal that she recently found out she did not achieve. She was denied admission, and ironically, it was likely because she spent so much time achieving her other goals.

“It’s incredibly competitive.” Smith said about getting accepted to the vet school, of which there are less than 30 of in the entire country. “I think the average GPA of the incoming class at the vet school was around a 3.4 or a 3.5. I have a 3.8, so it’s obviously not my GPA. I think it’s because I didn’t have enough overall working and clinical experience. But I can’t get that experience because I swim year-round.”

Sara Smith

Smith isn’t complaining about the vet school’s selection process – she understands why they would easily take a person with years of working experience over a person with six weeks worth like herself. But she says it’s hard for those making the decision to see the whole picture based on an application and an interview.

It takes countless hours to be as good as Smith at what she does, both in the pool and in the classroom. In fact, she says the longest break she’s taken since the sixth grade has been about one month, a month last summer that she used to work in a veterinary clinic.

“People who aren’t in the athletics world probably don’t keep up with how much athletes work, how many classes they are forced to miss, and how much time and effort they put into their sports,” Smith said. “I think people who aren’t in that world don’t understand or don’t see the fact that I swim year-round, and that I haven’t had the opportunity to gain the experience I need.”
It’s sort of a catch-22, but in hindsight, would Smith trade in some of those gold medals for some internship experience?

“Absolutely not,” she said without hesitation. “It’s tough that I didn’t get in [to vet school], but I don’t regret anything.”

Ever the optimist, Skinner said he has told Smith that she can still attain that goal.

“The way I look at it, she didn’t get in on the first try,” he explained. “That vet school is very selective and prestigious, but that doesn’t mean she couldn’t ultimately get in. If she puts somewhat of a level of closure on her swimming career over the next six months and really gets some of that practical experience, she would be a magnificent candidate for that school or any vet school. If what she’s missing is practical experience, then if she puts her mind to it, I know she could satisfy those needs. She just has to acknowledge that there are some areas of her résumé that she has to tighten up.”

What comes next for Smith remains to be seen. Getting into vet school would have certainly ended her swimming career, but now her options have opened up a bit more. Will she continue to train once the NCAAs are through?

“I get asked that by everyone, and I have trouble answering it,” Smith admitted. “My focus right now is on getting through the college season. After the NCAA championships [on March 19-21], I will reevaluate what I want to do, and decide whether or not I want to continue swimming through the summer to see if I can make the World University Games or some national team. We’ll see how that meet goes and see where it positions me. I definitely won’t swim another three years until the next Olympic trials – that’s too much.”

Whatever Smith chooses to do, Skinner gives her his vote of confidence.

“Sara has another whole world ahead of her as a veterinary or medical student,” he said. “Because of that, I don’t think she’ll keep on swimming, but if she did, I really think she’d keep improving. Whatever she does, she has a bright future.”

Name Medal Event
Sara SmithGold50 freestyle
Sara Smith Gold 100 freestyle
Erika HajnalSilver500 freestyle
Jordan McHorney, Jessica Earl, Megan Newell, Sara Smith Silver 200 medley relay
Steffi Drechsel, Sarah Losinger, Megan Newell, Sara SmithSilver 400 medley relay
Steffi Drechsel, Sara Smith, Jordan McHorney, Megan NewelSilver400 freestyle relay
Sara SmithBronze 100 butterfly
Erika Hajnal Bronze400 IM
Erika Hajnal Bronze 1650 freestyle
Sara Smith, Megan Newell, Jordan McHorney, Steffi DrechselBronze 200 freestyle relay