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April 15, 2014

Athleticism runs in the Smith family

By: Marc Mullen

Several members of Amanda Smith’s family have enjoyed success in college athletics, and the Tech runner has followed suit, having won an ACC title and earned All-America honors this season

There is that famous quotation by Benjamin Franklin, one of our nation’s Founding Fathers, who wrote “… in this world, nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes.”

When it comes to the sports world, a third certainty could be added, and that’s “injuries.” There probably isn’t a student-athlete who can say that he or she hasn’t suffered an injury of some sorts, whether it’s a mild sprain of the ankle or a severe concussion.

Most student-athletes, though, would consider the minor ones a hindrance in the pursuit of playing time, while major ones can end a student-athlete’s career. In the case of junior track runner Amanda Smith, she’s suffered two injuries, both of which shaped her career path and paved the way for an ACC title and an All-America performance.

Smith, a native of Chesapeake, Va., or “the 757,” as she and many from the area refer to it, became the first Hokie woman in almost 20 years to win a conference crown in the 800-meter indoor race when she bested the field at the 2014 ACC Indoor Track & Field Championships at Clemson, S.C., on March 1.

She turned around two weeks later and ran to a first-team All-America honor in the 800 at the 2014 NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championships held in Albuquerque, N.M. She joined a select company of Tech track and field student-athletes.

And how was she – a runner who had never finished any better than fifth in her 2013 ACC indoor or outdoor 800-meter runs – able to accomplish this? Consistency.

“Coach [Ben] Thomas always preaches that consistency is key,” Smith said. “So consistently putting in the training over the past two or three years has really helped a lot. I haven’t had too many injuries, and in college, with the amount of miles we run, it’s really common to get injured and take a month off at a time. So just being able to consistently get the training in and continuing to develop and be able to up my mileage has helped a lot.

“And just getting older, being stronger and smarter when it comes to making choices outside of running, too. Definitely consistency, though. I’ve actually dealt with a couple of injuries, but just cross-training through them. You learn, I guess, when you get older. I always knew it was there. It was just putting it altogether, in a sense. Consistency, though, that’s what coach always says.”

Smith was born in Chesapeake, Va., in 1993 and is the only daughter of Steve and Debbie Smith, who also have three sons, and all the kids are roughly three years apart. The family is littered with athletes, especially from her mom’s side of the family.

Amanda’s oldest brother, Ryan, played football at Princeton – he majored in operations research and financial engineering and is now living in Hoboken, N.J., and selling stocks and security bonds. Her second oldest brother, Brandon, played baseball at Old Dominion, and last year, played for the Lake Erie Crushers, a team in the Independent Frontier League. Younger brother Brett is currently in high school and also looking to play baseball in college.

Her aunt, Joanie (Kampen) Dunham, played volleyball in the late 1970s for Purdue and was named the team’s MVP for three straight seasons. And one of her cousins, Emerson Kampen, played basketball for the Butler Bulldogs and was part of the team that advanced to NCAA Championship games in both 2010 and 2011.

“My dad was actually a runner in high school, and he was pretty good,” Smith said. “He ran like a 4:15 mile in high school back in the day. So that was pretty solid, but back then, the recruiting process was harder. There weren’t as many options to get recruited, with voice mails and emails, so he ended up going to Purdue. My mom played volleyball in high school. She didn’t do anything in college at Purdue, but she came from a huge family that was very athletic.

“My uncle played football in college, and my aunt played volleyball at Purdue. There’s a story that her and her coach took on two of the star athletes – I think it was a football player and a baseball player – in a two-on-two volleyball match, and they beat their butts, so that’s a funny story she likes to tell.

“But I have the most supportive family ever. It’s great. My whole family was watching the live ESPN3 feed of me running at nationals. When I got home, there were edible arrangements waiting for me, and my aunt, for a congratulatory gift, got me an Eats gift card for Eats Natural Foods because she knows that I love Kombucha – it’s a fermented tea. And I just thought, ‘This is the best family ever!’”

Smith’s journey into athletics came about mainly because of her older siblings. She would watch them and want to do what they and other older kids were doing. So she got involved in all types of sports. She actually started off by playing T-ball, soccer and basketball, and as she got older, moved on to softball.

But in the eighth grade, she suffered that first injury, and that started her on a path toward Blacksburg.

“I did running club in middle school and I decided I loved it, and it was then when I broke my thumb playing softball,” she said. “I was a catcher, and it was supposed to be a pitchout and the pitcher didn’t get it out far enough. So the girl swings and then my thumb … I broke it. So I had a cast for a while and couldn’t play softball. I was devastated at the time, but looking back, it was a good thing because I was able to focus on one sport and not try and do both. And from high school to here on out, I’ve just focused on running.”

When the recruiting process began, Smith benefitted from having two older brothers who had gone through it, albeit in different sports. They helped her weed out the schools, told her the questions she needed to ask when talking to coaches and schools, and helped her figure out what was most important to her as not to waste official visits.

Those visits included trips to Indiana and Georgia, and she had a Virginia visit scheduled as well. The trip to Blacksburg was the third stop, and afterward, she didn’t need a fourth.

“I came here, and I just fell in love with the team and the Hokie spirit and just loved it,” Smith said. “I went to a basketball game, and that was exciting. I just loved that the team here really supported each other where, at a lot of the other colleges, the girls’ and guys’ teams weren’t really close. So I kind of liked that aspect of it, because in high school, you have the same coach for girls and guys, and I kind of liked that here it was pretty similar.

“So I came here, and Coach Thomas … I like his training philosophy, and it just seemed like a good match. I called him two days later [after her visit], and I told him ‘I’m signing!’ It was a love-at-first-site kind of thing.”

Smith was a competitive runner for the first two years at Tech, but never made a huge impact until six weeks ago. Those performances almost didn’t come about because an injury nearly derailed her season.

She suffered a hamstring injury in November, and that forced her to take two weeks off. Normally, injuries are a bad thing, but the added rest arguably helped her in the long run.

“Coach didn’t want me to run on it until it was 100 percent, so I took a little time off for it,” she said. “But in the end, it might have been good because the seasons are long – outdoor goes up until the end of May, beginning of June – so maybe it was a blessing in disguise, I guess.”

Smith ultimately went on to capture her first ACC gold, as she finished in 2:06.69 in the 800, more than a second ahead of teammate Hanna Green, while Frances Dowd came in fourth. She joined Jen Chapman as the only two Tech women to win an 800-meter indoor title. Chapman won hers at the 1995 Metro Conference Indoor Track and Field Championships – three leagues ago.

Smith qualified for NCAA indoor meet, an incredible achievement in its own right. Only the top 16 times throughout the entire indoor season make the meet, as opposed to the outdoor season when student-athletes first qualify for the regional meet and then advance to the national meet from there.

At the NCAA indoor meet, she had just one goal in mind – to make it to the finals.

“Because the top three in each heat advanced into finals, that race [her preliminary race] was a sit-and-kick race to try and get into finals,” she said. “And that was my goal going into nationals. I just wanted to make finals, because without a good day 1, there’s no day 2. So I just sat with them and kicked and made sure I allowed myself enough time to successfully kick.

“You don’t want to wait until the last 25 meters before the line. So it all just fell into place for me. The final was just go for it and get as high of a place as you can. A girl took it out pretty decent, and a couple of laps were a little slow and you get boxed in, but that happens in those national meets. That was more a just run-as-fast-as-you-can race.”

With her fifth-place finish at the NCAA meet, Smith became just the sixth Hokie woman ever to finish in the top five of an individual event at the indoor meet, joining Kristi Castlin (60-meter hurdles, 2008-10), Queen Harrison (60-meter hurdles, 2008 and 2010), Kristin Price (3,000-meter run, 2001), Martina Schultze (pole vault, 2013) and Saskia Triesscheijn (pentathlon, 2006).

The hamstring issue turned out to be a minor injury, but even so, the accomplishments by Smith during the indoor season certainly fit the bill for another, though not as famous, Franklin quote:

“Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” For sure, she did the latter.