Oct. 18, 2013
By Lucy Negash (’15)
When Nicole Smith came down on one leg and it gave way, she instantly knew. Another knee torn, another long stretch of rehabilitation and months of practice relearning the sport she loved so much.
“I couldn’t stop shaking, which was probably the worst part,” said Smith. “My whole team surrounded me and I just wanted to say that I was fine, but I knew I wasn’t.”
During her junior year of high school, Smith tore her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and meniscus in her right knee, which required almost a year of therapy. She later needed more surgery to repair the healing and had to relearn how to jump, dig and smash hits like she used to.
Her sophomore year of college, when she came down wrong on her knee during preseason workouts, all she could think about was her previous injury and what she would have to endure again. Her torn ACL, medial collateral ligament (MCL) and meniscus in her left knee meant not walking or bending for four months, as well as rehab and many athletic trainers’ visits for the next year.
“I accepted my injury quickly and just had to come to terms with what had happened,” said Smith. “I had been through it once before, so I knew what I had to do and what was ahead of me.”
The recuperation process was difficult and lengthy, and Smith had to miss out on away games and a team trip to Hawaii in order to get better. Smith was able to learn a lot about the game by watching her teammates in practice and got “really skilled with using a scooter” Smith said with a laugh, but it was frustrating to not be out on the court playing alongside them.
Smith mentions that “one of the hardest moments was when [associate head coach] Robin Davis asked me if I wanted to play volleyball again. I hadn’t even considered not playing because I was already recovering quickly, and I could never imagine not playing volleyball. It was so hard to hear those words, and even though it wasn’t said in a negative way, it just made me really think.”
When her knee brace came off during the spring of her junior year, Smith faced many of the same uncertainties that she encountered during her first transition back into volleyball during high school. Her confidence in her ability to play was low and there was a “lack of understanding” from colleagues that didn’t understand what strain the injury caused.
“I had had such a difficult experience previously that I was nervous getting back into practice. I felt pretty behind, so it was frustrating having to reteach my body how to do things it used to know how to. I wasn’t as fast and I couldn’t bend and jump like I used to.”
Now after a year of relearning the basics, Smith feels as “100 percent as she can be” for her senior year and has felt great in the non-conference games and into the ACC slate. In her last nine games, Smith has recorded eight or more kills seven times and has reached double digits four times. In last Saturday’s ACC win over Georgia Tech, Smith was second on the team with nine kills and hit at a team-best .500 clip.
The transition to the ACC has proven to be difficult for the Fighting Irish thus far with a 1-5 record, especially with their upcoming weekend against the University of Miami and Florida State University (No. 19) who are tied for first in the conference.
Smith was confident in her team’s growth during the preseason, but “the start of our season was tough. Even though we fought hard it wasn’t quite enough.”
“It’s always fun playing top 25 teams, and this weekend is no exception. It’ll be hard but we just need to focus on our side of the court, playing together in sync and being confident and aggressive. We want to fight for every point like it’s our last,” Smith explains.
With her high hopes for this weekend and for the future of the season, Smith has also learned a valuable lesson from one of her biggest inspirations: her mother. She will get frequent inspirational texts from her mom, but a recent book she had been reading taught her the value of staying true to oneself.
“One chapter I particularly liked was about being humble,” said Smith. “No matter what good things happen to you, like winning a good match, you have to stay focused, work hard and give credit to your team and the people that helped you get there.”
Staying humble was a crucial mindset that Smith needed to have to overcome not one but two torn knee ligaments, a host of surgeries and many people doubting whether or not she could get back on the court. Her commitment and love of volleyball helped her overcome her concerns about playing and is now leading her towards a very successful season.
“A lot of what I went through was a mental thing, and honestly still kind of is,” she said. “I didn’t want to hurt myself again, but now I trust my body and I know what I’m really capable of.”