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All The Way Back

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

By Jack DeGange, Dartmouth Sports Information

It’s a turning point that Jamila Smith would sooner forget. But she can’t. Probably never will.

It was October 3, 2004. The fall term of her junior year was unfolding as Smith and some friends were out for a casual run around the Dartmouth campus. As she planted her right leg to change direction, she felt a “pop” in her knee.

She didn’t think it was anything serious. The Sunday afternoon run continued but, in the following days, an MRI revealed otherwise.

Doctors told Smith that her knee had probably been weakened by a forgotten (if she ever knew) strain. It was an accident waiting to happen.

She had torn ligaments and suffered other damage. A career in track and field that held nothing but promise was now in jeopardy.

Encouraged by her basketball coach who also coached track, Smith took up the throwing events in seventh grade at Hutchison School, a private K-12 prep school for girls in Memphis. By the time she graduated, Smith had become a four-time state champion in the shot put with distances that were the best among competitors at all interscholastic levels in Tennessee.

Several colleges, including Dartmouth, had Smith in their recruiting sights. “When I visited Hanover it seemed so far from home,” Smith recalled. “But, things clicked when I met the coaches and members of the team. I said, ‘This is where I’m supposed to be.’”

Smith began to make her mark as a sophomore. At the 2004 Heptagonal indoor meet she took second in the shot put (43 feet, 9 inches). She was also second in the 20-lb. weight with a throw of 57-8 1/4, the current Dartmouth women’s record.

Outdoors, Smith uncorked a hammer throw of 173-11 that’s still second best all-time among Dartmouth women. At the outdoor Heps she was third in the shot and qualified for the NCAA regional meet.

After the injury diagnosis, “I didn’t want to face a winter in Hanover on crutches,” said Smith, now a fifth-year senior and co-captain of the women’s track and field team. She took a leave of absence and returned home to Memphis, Tenn., for surgery and the long, painful process of rehabilitation.

It was a painful, nine-month ordeal of therapy to restore flexibility and extension to her knee. “ACL recovery is a bear,” she said. “You’re on crutches for so long. It was tough to get on a treadmill to learn to walk and jog again. Even now, I have to think about not walking with a limp.”

Smith returned to Dartmouth for the 2005 fall term. “I was more mature and focused but also more cautious,” she said. “But, I was also throwing better than ever.”

Smith has improved from the day she resumed training and results came faster than she expected. At the 2006 indoor Heps in Leverone Field House, her last put earned her second place in the shot with a personal best of 46-4 3/4.

At the 2006 outdoor Heps at Penn, Smith was first to throw in the final round of the shot put, falling to a knee to avoid fouling. As the competition unfolded, her distance of 45-11 3/4 was unsurpassed.

“After the last throw, it took me a minute to realize that I’d just won the Heps. (Coach) Carl (Wallin) gave me a big hug.” Barely a year had passed since Smith had been learning to walk again, she added, “This made me remember why I love this sport.”

Smith’s parents, Jerome and Pamela, have urged their children (Jamila has three older brothers) to aim high in education, then in athletics. Said Jamila, “My mother says, ‘Strive to be at the top and go for it.’”

Smith has done that academically at Dartmouth. She’s majored in Arabic and plans to attend law school next year.

As she completes her academic career, Smith’s mind will also be on making her mark in the throwing events this winter and spring: indoors, the shot and weight; outdoors, the shot, hammer and discus.

Her repaired knee is stronger than ever. “The hardest part is the mental game,” she said. “Distance comes from technique and being relaxed. Don’t think about numbers, just focus on the moment. Develop a rhythm and don’t get excited. Anything is possible.”

That mind set brought Smith back from a debilitating injury to be a Heps champion in 2006 and a contender in 2007. It’s why Carl Wallin, her coach, says, “Jamila’s the best of the best.”