Peering at Katie Smith in the Storm locker room post-game is quite a sight these days.
With big bags of ice wrapped from her heel to just below the knee, from a distance the veteran looks more Megatron than mega-star shooting guard.
However, Smith’s three Olympic gold medals and two WNBA championships, to go along with a spot on the league’s all-time top 15 players’ list, easily makes her one of the most accomplished basketball players on the planet -- male or female.
While she was with the Detroit Shock, then-coach Bill Laimbeer -- himself an NBA legend as part of the Detroit Pistons’ ‘Bad Boy’ teams of the late ’80s and early ‘90s -- once said, “Katie Smith is damn-near the best of all-time.”
Pretty good for a pre-dental student who couldn’t imagine making a living off of basketball until her senior year at Ohio State, where she became the first female Buckeye to have a jersey retired in 2001.
But, in the midst of her 14th season in the WNBA, the 38-year-old knows she’s in the twilight of her sparkling career.
“Basketball’s kind of year-to-year depending on how I feel,” said the seven-time All-Star, who has battled back, knee, Achilles and ankle injuries over the course of her career, though she claims to “feel pretty good right now.”
“[My career is] definitely at the tail end.”
Smith certainly never envisioned that career lasting as long as it has when she joined the American Basketball League’s Columbus Quest in 1996. “When I started in the ABL, it was all right, we’re getting paid to play here in the states, you get to stay home, but my main goal was to be an Olympian.”
She achieved that goal in 2000, helping the U.S. to a gold-medal game win over the host-nation Australia in Sydney. She was a staple of the roster for the games in 2004 and 2008 as well.
Now, however, a new, non-basketball-playing chapter of Smith’s life story is on the horizon with a glance at the U.S. Olympic team roster for this summer’s games in London. The name Katie Smith is conspicuously absent.
Though she retired from the national team following the in 2008 games, this will be the first time she won’t be wearing the red, white and blue on the biggest international basketball stage since 1996. “There’s nostalgia in the sense that, yeah, the experience, the excitement, the atmosphere is unbelievable at the Olympics,” Smith said. “And to share that with your teammates and your family, it’s very, very special.”
photo by Neil Enns/Seattle Storm
Still, Smith says that she’s very much looking forward to resting up during the WNBA’s month-long Olympic break, which begins on July 14. “I’m so thankful for the experiences that I had that it’s like more of the ‘man, remember when I did this,’ or ‘ahh opening ceremonies.’ It’ll just make me look back at what experiences that I had and remember just how amazing they were.
“I’m excited for our team and their little journey. For some people it’s going to be their first time, so it’ll be so fun for them.”
Smith said she was glad to leave the national team on her own terms and plans to bow out of the WNBA the same way.
But she takes solace in the fact she will be prepared for life after basketball and have options once the clock strikes midnight on her career and she can no longer fit into her glass sneakers. Smith said she started thinking seriously about her career’s mortality two-and-a-half years ago following her final season in Detroit, but figuring out a plan wasn’t cut and dried.
“I wanted to have something else to fall back on and go after that I really enjoyed, so it took a little brainstorming, a lot of talking with people -- mentors, friends, my parents -- kind of working through it,” she said.
In the end, Smith decided to channel her inner Rodney Dangerfield and head back to school. “I’ve always kind of known that school was probably something I was going to end up going back to school. Coaching -- I’m not opposed to coaching. I’d actually would like to try coaching women’s basketball, but it’s not something that I’m going to chase per se. I wanted something that I could do outside of basketball. I just don’t want to have to be a coach because that’s all I know. I wanted to have something else to fall back on and to go after that I really enjoyed.”
Smith considers food to be an integral part of her life -- both keeping her healthy and pleasing her taste buds -- and chose to enroll in the Coordinated Dietetics program at her alma mater Ohio State. According to the program’s handbook, dietetics “combines the study of food, nutrition and health in relation to proper diet and food choices.”
At the end of the three-year program, she’ll receive her master’s degree and be prepared to take the Registration Examination for Dietitians and become a Registered Dietitian.
Classes began last fall, but Smith missed the first couple of weeks of the year due to basketball. From the end of the season to the beginning of this one, Smith was in the classroom full-time.
The spring was more difficult for Smith as Storm duty took her away from Columbus prior to the end of the school year. Her professors agreed to administer the final two and a half months of the curriculum via a distance learning plan. Classmates would scan and email their notes, Smith would study them, and then take exams in Seattle one-on-one with a proctor.
“It turned out to be a lot harder,” said Smith, who didn’t want to take the quarter off lose the momentum she had gained while on campus. “I wish I was in class. The faculty was really, really helpful and willing to work with me. I’m really thankful and appreciative that they helped me out so I can keep on moving in that direction while I’m still finishing up basketball.”
Smith said she is still undecided about the topic of her dissertation, and doesn’t know what avenues she will explore as a dietitian, but is confident of finding a way to help people.
"I'm not sure exactly how I'll use it yet,” said Smith. “I'm excited about the information that's constantly changing, more and more new information is coming out about food and about certain things. It's just something that has an impact and something people can change to help them live a better quality of life and a healthy life.”
So when teammate and face of the Storm, Sue Bird, was passing out Rice Krispie Treats in the locker room following a 72-55 home win over the Washington Mystics on June 24, did Smith admonish her backcourt mate?
“I did not have one,” said Smith, who admitted to having a significant weakness for cake, “but that’s not too bad. Honestly, we all indulge. We know what’s going to kill us. It’s just understanding moderation and understanding you and what you’re trying to do.”
Sound advice from the burgeoning medical professional, and if she treats being a dietitian like she does basketball, she’ll not only have her cake, but she’ll eat it too.
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