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Smith Sports Shine With Some Added Silver

By Eric Sean Weld

Late last May, when 18 Smith crew team members rowed their shells through the waters of the American River outside Sacramento, California, coming in second in team points, they capped off the best year ever in college history for the Smith crew team.

Taking the silver medal at that NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) Division III championship tournament was the culmination of an undefeated season for the crew team: they had already won the NEWMAC conference championship, the East Coast Athletic Conference championship and the New England regatta.

Though the college's crew team has achieved at a high level in the past, the NCAA silver medal marked the first time any Smith team has won a medal in national competition. The college joined the NCAA in 1981.

Smith crew was one of only six teams invited to the NCAA tournament, along with Ithaca, Coast Guard, the University of Puget Sound, Trinity and Williams colleges. Ithaca was the overall gold medal winner.

"We were very happy to win the silver," says head crew coach Karen Klinger. "They raced a great race," she said of her varsity team, which had nearly upset Ithaca in the final race, losing by a 10th of a second. "It was the most exciting racing of the tournament."

Smith's crew team crossed the finish line at the NCAA Division III championship in California, taking the silver medal and finishing the team's best season in college history. Photo courtesy Karen Klinger.

The crew team's success was one in a yearlong string of team sports achievements in 2003-04. The hallmark year began last fall when the soccer team kicked to a 13-5-2 record before storming to the semifinals of the ECAC tournament in November.
"I really think they set the tone for the year," Lynn Oberbillig, director of athletics, says of Smith's soccer team. "I think it's contagious. When one team starts winning, everyone tries to do better. Soccer is a fall sport and that got everything rolling."

Following the soccer team's strong season, the basketball team posted one of its best seasons in recent history with a winning record in conference competition. Track and field took third place in the NEWMAC championship. In March, the softball team continued Smith's success with a strong season and its first win of the ECAC softball championship.

"This has been the most successful year for team sports at Smith since 1998," says Oberbillig.

The recent achievements of Smith's athletes are not a coincidence, emphasizes Oberbillig. Rather, they're the result of an increased focus during the past five years on recruiting strong student athletes, encouraging athletes to visit campus and showcasing Smith's competitive athletic facilities and resources, including the Olin Fitness Center, which opened in February.

Team and individual sports competition had been consistently strong at Smith in the 1980s, says Oberbillig. On the heels of the construction of state-of-the-art facilities like Ainsworth Gymnasium and the Indoor Track and Tennis facility, recruiting of student athletes peaked. "Then in the 1990s, that tapered off," she says, until the recent renewed emphasis.

Smith College's sports teams joined the NCAA as a Division III program, which is distinguished from the organization's two higher divisions by its emphasis on a balance of academics and sports and on the student-athletic experience, as opposed to a heavier focus on athletic competition. Division III sports programs do not offer athletic scholarships.

"The NCAA offers Smith the chance to compete against other like-minded schools that emphasize the student-athlete experience over simply wins and losses," says Oberbillig.

Smith's coaches work closely with the admissions department in recruiting their team members from among students accepted to attend the college. It's an important cooperative arrangement, says Audrey Yale Smith, dean of enrollment and former director of admission.

"Admission and the coaches have always worked well together, but have increased our cooperation in the past few years," she says, "and recently decided to link an admission officer to each sport to further improve communication and understanding."

It can be a challenge to maintain a healthy balance between competitive sports and the concentration on academics that Smith demands, admits Oberbillig, in order to derive the most benefit from each aspect of student life.
"We've really been able to maintain the balance of academics and sports here," she says. "I think we're positioned just right. It's a nice balance here. We're getting the kinds of kids Smith wants."

"Smith does an extremely good job of balancing the commitment to a demanding athletic schedule with a rigorous academic program," agrees Smith.
Maintaining a competitive athletic program provides benefits to the entire Smith community, says Oberbillig. Team athletes learn important life skills, such as how to successfully cooperate with others to realize goals and work effectively with a diverse group of people, not to mention the required values of discipline, commitment and flexibility.

"These are all things that will serve (student athletes) well in the work force and throughout their lives," Oberbillig notes. Potential employers often seek employees who have participated in sports for those very reasons, she continues. "We take pride in teaching those things."

As strong as 2003-04 was for Smith sports, Oberbillig believes that this year could be even stronger.

The successes of the crew, soccer and softball teams were won mostly by non-seniors, she points out, and the teams returned this fall largely intact. "We're looking strong, to repeat that success or do even better this year."

Klinger's silver medal crew team, which graduated only five varsity athletes, expects to at least match last year's success. "We're poised for a return trip to the NCAA championship," she says. "The potential is there to do really well."

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