The summer sun is hot, but the sand is hotter. I stare through the net across the court, trying to predict where senior Sydney Smith will hit the ball. As the play progresses, I watch Smith move swiftly, following the ball wherever it goes. Before I can make another move, she notices I’m back on my heels and tips the ball short, ensuring I won’t be able to pass it. Like clockwork, Smith anticipates the winning shot and takes it.
Similar to how I spent my vacation, many of Smith’s days last summer were spent like this, on beach or grass volleyball courts, getting her hands on whatever volleyball she could find during the pandemic. “I knew if I wanted to up my game, I had to use what was available to me,” she said. “So, I played lots of grass and beach, and I fell in love with it. That’s honestly one of my favorite things to do.” Over the course of the outdoor season, Smith and her various partners competed at around 15 tournaments. On a number of those weekends, Smith and I found ourselves across the net from each other.
It is Smith’s drive to improve on the court and her great love of what she does that sets her apart from other athletes and makes her so fun to watch. She carries this mindset of yearning to grow and improve into all of her endeavors as an accomplished squash player, artist, and student, in addition to her success in volleyball.
Smith explained that involvement in extracurriculars and athletics were always emphasized in her family, but when she was younger, she had no intention of getting involved in volleyball; in fact, she initially hated it. Smith was introduced to the sport of volleyball through her sister, Emma Smith ’18, who played for Husky Volleyball’s Pups program at a young age and then continued to play on KO’s volleyball teams. “I knew volleyball, but I hated it,” Smith said with a giggle, “and I made that clear to everyone. I was like, I’m never gonna play volleyball. That’s Emma’s thing. I want to play soccer forever.”
After realizing she had a natural talent when it came to volleyball, she decided to continue playing the sport. “Ever since, I just have fallen in love with the sport, and I’m always doing indoor volleyball, grass, beach,” she said, “like anything I can get my hands on in terms of the sport.”
Over the course of the last few years, Smith has accumulated numerous awards for her performances. The impressive list includes two awards for performance of the season for volleyball; one for squash; multiple MVPs; a win at New England’s for squash in the sixth division in eighth grade; and an appearance in the finals of the third flight of New England’s during her freshman year.
With success comes sacrifice, a lesson Smith has learned over the course of her many years competing in athletics at a high level. While Smith has had to miss certain social events, learning to manage her time effectively has allowed her to still hang out with friends, despite her packed schedule. “There was a long period of time last year, it hasn’t been as busy this year, where every weekend, I was at a tournament,” she explained, “and my friends were like, ‘When do we ever get to see you?’ because I was always out doing stuff. But honestly, I love it. I wouldn’t change it.”
The juggling act Smith performs every season with all of her commitments has taught her how to manage her time very efficiently, a skill she is grateful to have acquired. “Just knowing that I have a practice to get to later will help me eat better because I want to be able to play well,” Smith continued, “and help me do my homework on time because I know I’m not gonna have any time later.”
Despite being very busy with her athletic pursuits, Smith makes time for her art, which she feels is her outlet and a source of relaxation in her often chaotic schedule. She is very involved in KO’s arts department and even has a small business based on her work, aptly named sydneyscustomart (found on Instagram under the same name). She customizes sneakers by painting on them and adds embroidered details to hoodies.
Smith emphasized the importance of an athlete’s mindset when competing. By playing both with and against Smith, I have learned just how much the mental aspect of the game will either elevate or bring down the overall performance. Smith is such a smart and purposeful athlete, most of which she attributes to being a multisport athlete because it gives her an additional set of techniques to draw from during games.
Husky Volleyball 18 National Coach Ryan Woodcock, who has been Smith’s coach for two years and known her for four, shared an inside joke about his team attempting to make the shots that Smith can make easily. “Smith has the uncanny ability, and it is uncanny because there are so many times that her arms do the Go-Go-Gadget thing, and her hands are robotic and will go in 18 different directions,” Coach Woodcock said as he burst out laughing, “and Smith is the only one that can get herself into these crazy bendy we call them “squash moments” in volleyball.”
Smith went on to say that when she knows she’s not playing at her highest level, she gets frustrated because she wants to play well for herself and her teammates. “My biggest motivators in volleyball are my teammates,” she said. “I see Riley Donahue [South Windsor], who has a 40 inch vertical and I see Camryn Luginbuhl [Tolland] who can bounce the 10 foot line from anywhere on the court and that’s just my other outsides. And so seeing them play at such a high level, I don’t want to be the weak link.”
It was so interesting to get to talk to Coach Woodcock about Smith because he has been such a significant figure in her volleyball career and has coached both her and her sister Emma. Throughout our conversation, Coach Woodcock’s pride in not only the athlete, but also in the person Smith has become was evident. One of the first things Coach Woodcock noticed when he first watched Smith play was her intelligence as an athlete. “The fact that she had the ability to be so smart on the court made it nice because that was really what I could see as a continuing thread or connecting thread between Emma and Smith was they’re both very intelligent, or what we would call cerebral athletes.”
Smith’s enthusiasm is one of her most distinctive characteristics as an athlete. Whenever you watch Smith play, you can see her not only celebrating her own points, but hyping up her teammates, creating an on-court environment that is almost unreal. Coach Woodcock brought up this electricity that Smith has. “She’s got that type of charisma that makes you want to be better,” he said, “and then you end up being better because you’re just so bowled over by inspiration, by her reaction to what you do, which is just uncanny that somebody else would have that much excitement and care for somebody else’s success.”
Smith’s skill, enthusiasm, and leadership will be missed next year and leave a hole in multiple varsity teams at KO after she graduates this spring. Junior Mackenzie Caruso has played both squash and volleyball with Smith for the last several years and feels that Smith has had a profound impact on her as an athlete and as a person. “She’s one of the best volleyball and squash players I’ve ever seen, but aside from that she’s one of the best teammates I’ve ever gotten to play with,” Caruso said. “She really cares about everyone else on the team and takes everyone with her and doesn’t only focus on her individual success, which can be really hard to do when you’re at that level.” Mackenzie shared similar sentiments to those of Coach Woodcock, saying that being on a team with Smith has motivated her to be a better teammate.
Next fall, Smith will begin her career as a collegiate athlete at Wesleyan University, where she is committed to play both squash and volleyball. Her absence from KO’s athletic teams and her club volleyball team will certainly be noticeable, but Coach Woodcock eloquently reframed this farewell. “When they leave me I know they’re not really leaving me. They’re just becoming extensions,” he said. “So it’s not a goodbye. It really is a ‘see you later,’ as cliche as that is. But it doesn’t mean I won’t be a blubbering idiot, as I usually am on the last days of the national tournament.” He laughed as he said this, though it was clear the thought of no longer coaching Smith made him emotional.
Smith is looking forward to continuing her athletic career in college and beyond. She believes that her love of athletics and staying busy will keep her involved in sports long after college. When asked if she had any advice for young athletes, her response was demonstrative of how genuine and humble Smith is. “I don’t think I am a high enough level athlete to share anything to be completely honest,” she exclaimed as she contemplated the question. “I don’t even know what I would say – just put your head down and work if it’s something that you want to achieve. If you really are dead set on something don’t make excuses just go out and get it.”