On Saturday, September 24, the tiny village of Williston Park gathered together to celebrate the return of Jaclyn Smith--a friend, a neighbor and most recently, an Olympic athlete. Smith arrived at Kelleher Field sporting her Olympic medal and the smile of a true champion. She then proceeded to personally address each one of her fans, hugging her young admirers and posing for countless photos. I, along with the whole town, could not be prouder to call this determined and kind-hearted olympian a fellow Williston Parker.
In addition to speaking with me at the event, Smith also took the time to complete a short interview about her life and accomplishments. Her responses can be found below.
Can you tell me a little bit of background information?
Jaclyn Smith: I went to St. Aidan’s for elementary school and Our Lady of Mercy Academy for High School. Growing up I played sports for the CYO, PAL and Williston Park Little League.
What made you interested in rowing and at what age did you start?
Smith: Growing up in an athletic family, I played any and all sports; soccer, basketball, lacrosse, softball. You name it, I played it. I was always an okay athlete. I was fast, but as I got older and my teammates became better athletes, I began to fall behind because of my vision. I had a tough time with following the ball in different lightings and depth perception had always been a problem for me. So I knew going into High School that I probably could have made a few teams, but I probably wouldn’t have started, and there was no chance that I would be able to go onto college and continue playing the sports that I was in. When I got to High School, Mercy offered rowing, and although I didn’t know much about rowing, I knew that it didn’t involve a ball, so I figured let me give this a shot. I started rowing when I was 14. It was the beginning of my freshman year, and I got hooked and fell in love with the sport.
Can you tell me about your first rowing experience? What was it like/ how did you feel?
Smith: I remember showing up to the first day of tryouts at Mercy. There were a lot of girls there and they made us hop on an erg machine which is a stationary cardio machine that is basically a way to row on land. Like I said, I didn’t know much about rowing as a sport in general, so when they had us hop on the ergs, I really had no idea about the technical stroke that I was going to have to take. But lucky enough, they she just wanted us to do what we can, so I pulled as hard as I could, and remember the girls that were on the team standing behind me and being impressed. So I knew I was in a good place, and then we were told that we were going to be sent on a run, so I knew I had it in the bag!
How many hours a week did you practice?
Smith: In college, I would practice about 20 hours a week, throwing a few extra workouts on top of team practices. But with the national team, we practice about 30 hours a week.
Were the olympics always an end goal, or was there a specific experience that made you consider trying out?
Smith: I think that I was pretty realistic growing up. I knew that it took some pretty great talent, with a side of a lot of sacrifice to make it to the Olympics, so I never really thought about it because I knew I was okay, but never thought I had what it would take to make it that far. What I did know was once I got to college and was rowing for Sacred Heart University, that I didn’t want rowing to be over for me once I graduated. So I kind of started looking into my options and came across information on a development camp that was going to happen later in the year in Oklahoma. So I applied for it, got invited, and then headed out there, and to my own surprise, I performed really well, and ended up getting my first invitation to try-outs just a few weeks later.
What is it like to try out for the Paralympics ? How many people were there and how many races did you have to compete in?
Smith: You have to try-out every year, which can be nerve wracking, but it is also cool because it keeps everyone on their game all year round. Every year try-outs have been different, but for the most part, we show up in Boston and we are thrown into different lineups and race until the coaches find out who makes up the fastest lineup. It is about a week and a half of torn up hands and exhaustion, but God willingly, every year I have been able to perform well and make the team. In 2014, 17 people were invited to try out, but this past year, only 6 people were invited to try out because there was so much more at stake this year.
You grew up in the same small town as me (Williston Park), how does it feel to have made it to such an important world event?
Smith: I love Williston Park, the town and the people who are from there have really shaped me as an athlete and a person. It means a lot to me because of all of those who root for me, and I’m just glad that I can make them proud in some sense because I appreciate every single person who has supported me and wished me well throughout the years.
What is the most difficult part of rowing/competing in the Paralympics?
Smith: The most difficult part about rowing or competing in the Paralympics is the stigma that comes along with it. Many people do not understand what Para means, and what disabilities qualify to participate and which ones don’t. So we get a lot of “what’s wrong with you?” kind of questions. The rowing and competing is the easy part. We know what we are signing up for, and look forward to training because we know that that is the only way that we are going to get stronger and ultimately row and compete to our best potential.
What advice would you give to others who dream of making it as far as you have?
Smith: Never give up! You may not be the best, you may not be the fastest and you may not be the biggest, but where there is a will there is a way. Step out of your comfort zone and get uncomfortable. If you don’t face your fears and push the limits, you’ll never know what great things can happen. Just keep going and don’t stop till you get where you want to be!