Elizabeth Smith walks out of the locker room and hears the crowd’s cheers echoing through the natatorium. She glances at the block above her lane and takes in a deep breath. After checking her goal time, she puts her earbuds away and begins stretching, her eyes closed and her mind numb. Meditating is her way of beginning a race.
Passing prosthetic arms and legs of the swimmers currently racing, Smith moves towards her lane, barely noticing the normality of limbs within a Paralympian meet. Snapping on the Team USA cap and her goggles, she is ready as she brings her single hand down to the block. Smith takes one more silent breath in, and the buzzer sounds.
Elizabeth Smith was born and raised in Muncie, Indiana. Born without her left hand or forearm never seemed to faze her—she played sports, attended school and lived a life similar to her classmates. It wasn’t until she was swimming at Muncie’s USA Swimming affiliated club, Cardinal Swim Club, that she realized her dream of earning a gold medal could become a reality, and her life changed.
“One of the coaches at [Cardinal Swim Club] saw her great potential on the para-athlete stage and encouraged her,” said past swimmer and classmate, Emmy Rawson. “I saw a fire ignite, and she really took her swimming to the next level.”
Smith has since traveled the world, swimming competitively. She is classified as a S9/SB9/SM9 athlete, which means Smith has a joint restriction and the loss of a single hand. She has competed and placed in the 2013 World Championships, 2013 and 2014 U.S. Paralympic Spring Can-Ams, and even broke the women’s 50m fly S9 record at the 2015 U.S. Paralympic Swimming Can-Am Open. When competing as a member of the 2015 U.S. Paralympic Swimming team at the world championship this past October, Smith placed fourth.
“I never want to taste fourth again,” Smith said. “I want to go to Rio and be on that podium.” And that is exactly what she is planning on doing.
With her training for the 2016 U.S. Paralympic Trials beginning last summer, Smith has had what she calls her “Rio Board” hanging in her bedroom. The board has all her target swim times, what she need to do to get there, and inspirational photos of past teammates and competitors standing on the podium she hopes to share come September.
“She was swimming against athletes with both arms and still beat them,” said a past coach, Steve Spradlin. “When she beat other athletes, their jaws dropped when she got out of the pool. She garnered a lot of respect from other teams.”
Smith’s past teammates, Cameron Ottinger and Sarah Connolly, both described Smith as a “hard” and “determined” individual. Ottinger said he is “an extremely funny girl … and whatever she puts her mind to, she can excel in.”
“Once she started her more intense training and no longer swam for [us],” Connolly said, “she still came to our meets to support us.”
Her younger sister, Erin, is a huge fan. “I try to go to [as many meets] that I can. I just want to say how proud I am. She’s worked so hard . . . and always looking up to her, it makes me so happy that she’s gone this far.”
Erin will follow her to Rio de Janeiro and watch her compete in the 100m butterfly, 100m breaststroke, 100m backstroke and 100m freestyle during the 2016 Summer Paralympics Games from Sept. 7-18.
Madeline Grosh is a Ball State University student and writer for the BSU at the Games, a group of 50 journalism students traveling from Muncie, Indiana, to Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. Follow them at bsuatthegames.com, @bsuatthegames on Twitter and Instagram, and facebook.com/bsuatthegames on Facebook.