Michele Smith’s athletic career almost ended after a doctor’s appointment. Something not terribly uncommon, especially among softball players who often tear ACLs or suffer arm injuries. But Smith was on her way home from an oral surgeon—asleep as her dad drove—when she was thrown from the moving truck into a roadside post. Part of her elbow was chopped off and her left tricep—the muscle that made the southpaw such a wonderful pitcher—was completely torn off.
The cliché is to say no one could tell Smith her playing days were over. However, that’s exactly what the doctors said. You know the rest. “I decided I was going to make the decision myself,” recalls Smith, ESPN’s lead softball analyst and keynote speaker at Connect Sports’ Women in Sports Tourism Forum
. She came back stronger, starring for Oklahoma State University throwing three miles per hour faster than prior to the accident.
Exactly 10 years—to the day—after that fateful return trip from the doctor, Smith stepped onto the diamond in Atlanta
for the first Olympic softball game. She helped Team USA win gold both in the 1996 and 2000 Summer Games. Connect Sports spoke to Smith about overcoming life’s unexpected roadblocks to become a pioneer, developing a softball champion in more ways than one and why she almost spent a lifetime in a doctor’s office.
Sports fans know you are an Olympic hero, but they don’t often know the full story, do they?
A lot of times when people look at professional or Olympic athletes, they think you were just born that way and are a naturally gifted athlete. A lot of people don't realize the trials and tribulations we go through. I like to call them not setbacks but set-ups for something better in the future. The trial of getting through that accident and preserving and being able to make my way to pitching after the accident gave me the perspective softball is what I do, but not who I am. It helped me become a better teammate.
How did that new perspective help you?
I learned my leadership ability and ability to impact other people is far more important than how many people I struck out. Who you are as a person is just as, if not more, important than what you do. You are a person a lot longer than you are an athlete. I’m able to tell people that it’s not always easy, and because it’s not always easy, that's what makes it so great. The close games, the ones not supposed to win, are the special victories.
Softball was not an Olympic sport when you were growing up. How did the move to the Olympics alter your path?
I always dreamed of representing Team USA and playing in world championships and playing in the Pan American game—that was a reality for me. When the sport was put on the Olympic program in the early ’90s, it made me change my entire career because I was getting ready to go to medical school. Before the Olympics decision was made, I decided to go over to play in Japan for one year. I stayed in Japan and kept playing ball, putting off medical school. Before you knew it, I realized I was making my impact by holding a softball instead of holding a scalpel. Becoming comfortable with that allowed me to excel.
What do you remember most about the Olympic experience?
When you walk in the opening ceremonies as part of Team USA, it’s very humbling. You are around some of the best athletes in the world and you know you belong in this group. We’re just as fit, just as strong and just as determined as someone from the Dream Team or track and field athletes and swimmers and gymnasts.
Why did you make it a point to lead the charge to get softball back into the Olympics after it was taken off the program?
It was very disappointing when the IOC made some very political decisions. Softball as a sport can be very nondiscriminatory toward body type. You can be fast or slow. There’s a position for everybody, unlike some sports where you have to be fast or tall. It was very depressing to know all those younger generations couldn't have the Olympic dream. I made it a point to go out and try to get sport back into Olympics
. It was as a lot of work and it didn't happen right away, but being back on the Tokyo 2020 games program is huge for our sport and for a whole generation of female athletes.
In 2012, you became the first woman to broadcast a major league game when those same teams played. How far have women come since then?
That was a big moment—a celebration of Title IX. TBS did good job of being ahead of curve. I love that one my friends and teammates, Jessica Mendoza, is now calling “Sunday Night Baseball” for ESPN. She brings a lot to the table it opens the possibility for more women. A lot of things are changing for women, and that's important. Opportunities weren’t given to women and that was unfortunate, and now we are showing women can make a difference in every field.