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The Age of Excellence: No holding back

SCV Sports: The Decade in Review

Posted: December 22, 2009 10:54 p.m.
Updated: December 23, 2009 4:30 a.m.

Saugus High graduate David Smith, top, spikes the ball as a member of the U.S. National Team during the summer of 2009. Smith won a national title at UC Irvine in 2007.

 

Some people look for excuses not to try.

Perhaps it’s easier than risking failure, especially when a person’s dream would put him or her squarely in the center of the world’s biggest stage.

David Smith is not one of them.

Born with a hearing impairment, the 2003 Saugus High graduate has not let it hold him back from playing the game he loves.

Rather, Smith turned his love for volleyball into a career, earned himself a spot on the U.S. men’s national volleyball team and inspired countless people along the way, both nationally and abroad.

“I have about a 70 to 80 decibel loss in both ears from birth, and so I wear hearing aids every waking moment,” says the 24-year-old Smith in an e-mail to The Signal. “I am grateful that my parents never let me use it as an excuse, and I feel that I was able to grow up like a pretty normal kid.”

Often, Smith says he finds himself playing in silence as sweat disrupts the functionality of his hearing aids.

“I know when I was younger my dad could pinpoint the exact moment that it happened (in all the sports I played, not just volleyball) because I would get timid and not play as hard,” he says. “Obviously, that was a barrier that I had to overcome if I wanted to play at a higher level. I had to learn that when I lost all my ability to hear I just have to trust my other senses and my training to get me through.”

Currently living in Puerto Rico with his wife Kelli, the 6-foot-7-inch, 190-pound middle blocker has done just that and now plays volleyball professionally.

He has travelled the world and his accomplishments have been anything but normal.

“If you would have told me that I would be living in a foreign country playing volleyball five to six years after I graduated from Saugus in 2003, I wouldn’t have believed you for a second,” Smith says. “I didn’t even sign a letter of intent to play volleyball at UC Irvine until a couple months after I had already graduated from Saugus.”

Irvine head coach John Speraw saw Smith playing at a club tournament.

A former middle blocker himself, Speraw says he can be critical of those who play the position.
But Smith stood out.

“I knew immediately that he was someone that I wanted to recruit,” says the seven-year Anteater head coach. “It has happened maybe five times in my life that I saw a middle that I saw and really liked.”

While at Irvine, Smith also played on the U.S. Junior National team with former Valencia standout Tony Ker in the summers of 2004 and 2005.

Coming off a semifinal loss in the NCAA Division I  Tournament in 2006, Smith led the nation with a .559 hitting percentage, setting a new Anteater record as a senior in 2007.

“When I was at UC Irvine (Speraw) created a David Smith rule that basically said if I call for the ball, just let me have it cause I won’t hear anyone else call for the ball,” Smith says.

Moreover, his team beat Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne in four games to win the program’s first ever men’s volleyball national championship, and according to Speraw, garnered recognition that threw open doors for the entire UCI athletic department.

“I think David and the group he came in with, what they did was made history at UC Irvine, unprecedented history,” he says.
Smith had 13 kills and four blocks in the match and was named a first-team All-American and to the NCAA All-Tournament team.

Speraw says his impact was much farther-reaching than simply his teammates or the athletic department.

The coach recalls a time when Smith spoke to “several hundred” high school students at a local high school.

After the speech, Speraw says the kids’ faces were full of respect and admiration.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he says.

Thinking he had reached the pinnacle of his volleyball career after taking the bronze medal in the World University Games with Team USA in the summer 2007, Smith turned away from the sport to focus on finishing up his civil engineering degree.

Once done, he says he began to train with the national team at its headquarters in Anaheim.

Then things changed considerably.

While on his honeymoon, Smith received an e-mail from his agent with an offer to play professionally with TV Rottenburg in Germany.

He accepted, and three weeks later was on the court.

“I think being hard of hearing only makes it tough in a foreign country because it is extremely hard for me to pick up the new language,” he says. “I’ll do fine when it comes to reading stuff and figuring out what is going on, but once it comes to trying to hold a conversation I am completely lost. On the volleyball court though, volleyball is our language other than some small things here and there. We are at the level where most things are just understood.”

But with more and more sponsors dropping, European clubs began to feel the economic crunch.

So Smith took a job with Los Caribes del Pepino in San Sebastian, Puerto Rico.

“My wife and I have been here since the middle of October and I have to say I cannot complain about the beach days that we get to have in the middle of December,” he says. “However my wife and I find ourselves telling people all the time that as glamorous and adventurous as a life traveling around the world playing professional volleyball for a living sounds, it does have its share of tough spots and it really is just living ‘normal’ life in another language and another culture.”

Mere months prior to moving to Puerto Rico, Smith was invited to be on the U.S. national team’s training roster on April 15.

Since, he has played in the Netherlands, Italy and Serbia.

In August, Smith helped the U.S. qualify for the FIVB World Championships in Italy with a 3-0 win over the Dominican Republic.

He earned the tournament’s Best Blocker award and had two kills, one block and one ace in the championship match.
Speraw isn’t surprised by what Smith has been able to achieve.

In fact, Speraw says that his former athlete has a shot at making the roster for the 2012 Olympic Games in London and potentially 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.

It would be an honor well-deserved.

“I think that what David was able to achieve playing essentially deaf was an inspiration to many athletes, and he really was able to be inspirational to a whole campus community,” Speraw says.

For Smith, it would be the ultimate reward, and it would come from years of dedication and virtually innumerable miles.

“My advice to someone who is facing hardships would be the same as what my parents kept telling me as I grew up,” he says.

“Your life is what you have to live, use what you have and don’t let anything else hold you back from doing what you want.”

 

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