Captain to Row for Team USA in Athens Games
By Tim Hipps
Special to American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Aug. 4, 2004 Capt. Matt Smith had planned on retiring from competitive rowing before he discovered the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program.
Left to right, Capt. Matt Smith teams with Erik Miller,
Steve Warner and Paul Teti to win a bronze medal in the 2003 FISA World Rowing
Championships in Milan, Italy. Smith, a member of the U.S. Army World Class
Athlete Program, will compete in Team USA's lightweight four with Warner, Teti
and Pat Todd in the Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. Photo by Joel
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
"I wouldn't be here without WCAP, plain and simple," Smith said July 6 after learning he was selected to join Steve Warner of Livonia, Mich., two-time Olympian Paul Teti of Upper Darby, Pa., and Cincinnati's Pat Todd in a boat backed by the red, white and blue.
"The Army has allowed me to train full time and to focus on this one goal," he said. "Without WCAP and (the Army's Morale, Welfare and Recreation program's) support, this dream wouldn't come true at all -- I can say that for a fact."
Team USA also will feature Navy Lt. j.g. Henry Nuzum, a two-time Olympian who will team with Aquil Abdullah of Washington, D.C., in men's double sculls.
Smith, 26, said Olympic dreams never crossed his mind while rowing for Woodbridge Senior High School in Virginia or as one of the lightest competitors on the heavyweight squad for the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where he earned a bachelor's degree on an ROTC scholarship.
"I just thought this was the end of one chapter of my life, and I would begin the next chapter," Smith said. "I wasn't sad and disappointed. I was just ready to accomplish new goals."
Looming in the back of his mind, however, were thoughts of competing in the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program.
"In the last quadrennium, I knew a couple of soldier-athletes who were rowers and were in WCAP," Smith said. "They were the ones who told me about the program. While I was at Fort Benning (Ga.) during all my infantry school, I contacted WCAP and sent in my application showing them my past history of accomplishment on the U.S. National Team and in college. I just tried to show them that I had the potential to make the Games, and they supported me."
While driving to Fort Carson, Colo., in November 2001, Smith received a phone call informing him that he was accepted into WCAP. "That started a whole new kindling of spirit within me," Smith said. "I started thinking, 'Wow, I think I can do this.' With the Army's backing, I thought maybe this is an actual possibility."
While at Wisconsin, Smith, who stands 6 feet tall and weighs 160 pounds, learned to hold his own against men several inches taller and 40 pounds heavier.
"I had to fight every day for every inch on every seat if I was going to make the varsity boat," he recalled. "A lot of determination and hard work will go a long way. I definitely had to do some extra work to stay on top of my game."
Born an "Army brat" in Berlin, Smith was one of the U.S. lightweight four rowers who won bronze medals in the 2003 World Cup in Milan, Italy. He also won silver medals that year in lightweight pair at National Selection Regattas 1 and 2.
In 2002, Smith helped Team USA's lightweight eight win a bronze medal in the Federal International Society Aviron World Rowing Championships. Since that spring, he's been working out at Princeton Training Center in New Jersey with his oars pointed toward Athens.
An infantry officer, Smith began rowing in the fall of his freshman year of high school. As a senior in 1996, his Woodbridge High crew finished fifth in the Scholastic National Regatta on their hometown Occoquan River.
From November 2003 until late March, the elite rowers trained at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in San Diego. They returned to Princeton in the spring and spent most of June competing in Europe before the team roster was finalized July 7 for the Olympics.
In early May, the group was whittled from eight to six candidates for Team USA's four-man boats. They placed eighth in a World Cup event in Munich, Germany, and seventh in another World Cup stop in Lucerne, Switzerland, with Smith in the boat both days. The crew in Lucerne was the same quartet that will row for Team USA in Athens.
"The Army had faith in me, and WCAP had faith in me," Smith said. "Now it's allowing me to pass along the goodwill of the Army and to show that we're doing positive things. While we're all individuals, it's also one giant team accomplishing a lot of different missions around the world -- and one of them is competing and doing well in the Olympic Games."
Smith's quartet will begin rowing Aug. 15 with a chance to compete again Aug. 17, 19 and 21 in the B final or Aug. 22 in the A final.
"Each day, as it gets closer, it becomes a little bit more real," Smith said. "It's just a matter of who's performing to their best potential on that given day. Our goal is definitely to make the A final and be in the medal hunt."
Smith also has another mission in mind.
"I hope to succeed on the water but also to represent the Army, MWR and WCAP in a positive light and show the world that the U.S. is one of the better countries out there in rowing and in general -- to show what freedom will do for you," he said. "It allows you to succeed."
(Tim Hipps works for the U.S. Army Community and Family Support Center.)