It was a golden year for Lily Smith. She was crowned Region 7 all around champion, became the national all around silver medalist and posted a near-perfect 9.975 on floor. Additionally, she was chosen by Katelyn Ohashi as the model for her first GK leotard collection and committed to Alabama for the 2023 season.
Given the plethora of accomplishments, it’s hard to believe that Smith started competing as a level 10 in only December 2019. Her rise to the highest club level was so quick that she still gets overwhelmed when she’s celebrated as one of the best gymnasts in the class of 2023. “There are so many amazing talented gymnasts in this 2023 class, so to be labeled with ‘one of the best’ is an absolute honor,” she said.
Entering 2020, Smith was feeling really good about her gymnastics and was excited about her first year as a level 10. The pandemic, however, cut her season short, leaving her disappointed and struggling with motivation. “The pandemic was probably the most difficult [challenge of my career] because I couldn’t be in the gym at all practicing with my team or on events,” Smith explained.
As her gym was closed for a few months, Smith and her teammates had Zoom practices and did workouts on their own. Given that Smith loves the team aspect of training, though, she found it difficult to stay motivated even when Sylvia’s finally reopened. “When we finally got back to the gym, I was thrilled, but we were only practicing with three or four girls in the gym at a time, so we were basically practicing by ourselves,” she said. “I really love the team aspect of practice, so that made it a little difficult.”
Additionally, Smith grew two inches during the pandemic, which made her struggle with her skills on vault and bars.
Thankfully she had the necessary support system that helped her stay focused and determined during the tough times. “[My coach] Maia [Mitova], my teammates and my parents were definitely the ones who helped keep me positive,” Smith said. “There were a few tears along the way, but on those really bad days I had to just keep telling myself, ‘Tomorrow is another day; tomorrow will be better.’”
And it did get better. In the summer of 2020, Smith’s mother answered a GK model application call on a whim, submitting Smith’s picture. As they soon found out, UCLA alumna Ohashi was just then getting ready to launch her first leotard collection and was looking for a new model, ultimately picking Smith. “I was so excited and completely honored,” Smith said. “Katelyn is so creative and really fun to work with. I had never modeled before, so she was a great teacher—helped to make me feel comfortable and really taught me to just have fun in front of the camera.”
Ohashi’s story and personality were inspiring to Smith, too. “She has had some struggles along the way and yet she never stopped learning and reaching for excellence. That to me is someone who is truly physically and mentally strong,” Smith said. “[And] she is also a kind and genuine person who is extremely creative and talented. I love how she puts herself out there with confidence and strength.”
As competitions resumed in 2021, Smith also burst onto the gymnastics scene, posting career highs on bars, beam and floor, winning medals at both regionals and nationals and helping Region 7 win the national team title. “One of my favorite moments [of my career] was my Region 7 team winning nationals,” she said. “We had a great, talented team, so we just kept cheering each other on and kept each other positive. It was my first time competing at level 10 nationals, so it made it extra special.”
Together with winning nationals with her team, Smith’s favorite moment of her career so far is verbally committing to Alabama on a full-ride scholarship. Her interest in the Crimson Tide was longstanding, but just before starting to contact colleges last June she took on her parents’ advice to look at the virtual tours of each university she was considering. She was mesmerized by Alabama. “Immediately I was blown away by the beauty of the University of Alabama’s campus and the excellence of both the academics and athletics,” she said.
When she started talking with the coaches and went on an official visit, she really felt she belonged there. “Once I started talking to the coaches, I knew they would take care of me as an athlete, a student, and really help me reach my full potential as a gymnast,” Smith said. “When I finally had my official visit, that is when I instantly felt like I was at home. The team was amazing and so welcoming, and Dana and I just connected. I truly felt like I had found my second family.”
During her official visit, Smith was able to see the team practice, which reinforced her good feeling about the coaching staff. “Dana [Duckworth] is so caring, so energetic and motivating, Ryan [Roberts] can be serious but also has a funny sense of humor and Gina [Quinlan] and volunteer coach Oleskii [Koltakov] were both so calming and easy going,” Smith said. “In the end, they all have the same goal, which is winning championships while taking the best care of their team.”
Smith believes that Alabama’s SEC championship victory last March reflected the quality of the coaching staff, and she’s convinced that watching the Crimson Tide win the title increased her interest in joining the team because, she explained, “I knew I wanted to be a part of a championship team like that.”
The team was honored for its SEC victory during Smith’s visit, prompting her to set high goals for herself and her future teammates once in Tuscaloosa. “As an individual, I hope to have lots of success as both a student and an athlete. I would love to compete as a freshman and make a significant impact on the team to help them secure another championship,” she said.
“There is a strong team bond of support, encouragement, accountability and family pride that shines through this team,” she added. “I hope that continues because it is what really attracted me to this team.”
Article by Talitha Ilacqua
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