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Olympian David Smith: An incredible journey

Saugus grad goes from relative unknown to Olympian in a decade’s time

Posted: July 19, 2012 1:55 a.m.
Updated: July 19, 2012 1:55 a.m.
U.S. Men’s National Volleyball player and Saugus High graduate David Smith, center, competes during a World League match on June 15. U.S. Men’s National Volleyball player and Saugus High graduate David Smith, center, competes during a World League match on June 15.
U.S. Men’s National Volleyball player and Saugus High graduate David Smith, center, competes during a World League match on June 15.

When David Smith was in high school, he wasn’t exactly a household name in the volleyball world.

He wasn’t even the best volleyball player in the Santa Clarita Valley at the time.

But beginning July 29, Smith, a Saugus High graduate, will do something no other volleyball player from the area has done before — compete for team USA in the Olympic Games.

“I still don’t think it’s fully registered that I’ve been given the opportunity to represent my country in the Olympics Games,” Smith says in an email exchange with The Signal. “I am super excited and it makes the long road to get to this point more than worth it.”

And what a road it’s been to lead up to the day Smith was announced as one of the 12 members of the Olympic team on July 6.

When he graduated from Saugus in 2003, he left the valley as a relative unknown outside of local circles.

Though Smith was a standout player for Saugus and had the size and skill to play at the next level, he was hardly recruited by colleges.

But just like every other challenge in his life, he found a way to overcome it.

Smith, 27, was born with severe hearing loss in both ears, and has had to wear hearing aids his entire life.

He says that sometimes during matches, he often plays without being able to hear at all because sweat causes his hearing aids to malfunction.

It creates an obvious disadvantage with communication on the court, but his work ethic and dedication have all but made it a non-factor.

“To his credit, there hasn’t been a lot of adjustment,” says USA head volleyball coach Alan Knipe. “He’s very much overcome his hearing loss, and he very much wants to be another guy on the team. So he goes out of his way to makes sure it doesn’t hinder the team in any way.”

Certain rules have to be implemented to factor in Smith’s disability.

For instance, if he calls for the ball, the setter has to give it to him every time since there’s no way to call him off.

His former college coach at University of California, Irvine, John Speraw, coined it, “the David Smith rule.”

Other than that, you’d hardly notice the 6-foot-7 middle blocker has an impairment. His lip-reading and expert knowledge of the game make up for any other potential barriers.

Smith is unique in his versatile abilities at a middle blocker position often reserved for tall, but less athletic players.

Through the years, Smith has learned how to do everything on the court from digging, setting, passing and displaying excellent ball control.

“He is a guy who is very focused on being a great volleyball player and he’s incredibly professional,” Speraw says. “He’s always been a professional even before he could be a professional.”

That’s why the U.S. coaching staff picked him to be a part of the defending gold medalist U.S. team.

And it’s also why Speraw first took an interest in Smith in high school.

“I saw the raw athleticism is what I first saw, and it wasn’t subtle. It jumped out at me — literally,” says Speraw, who is an assistant on the Olympic team and recently took over the UCLA men’s volleyball program.

Coming out of high school, Smith’s initial plan was to try to walk on for the UC Santa Barbara volleyball team, but Speraw saw something in him and recruited Smith to UCI at the last second.

That’s when his career began to take off.

“It would have been tough to try to break onto (the UCSB) team, so I am glad that John Speraw gave me that offer to come play at UC Irvine,” Smith says. “I owe a lot to him for shaping me into the volleyball player that I am today.”

In the summer of 2004, Smith made the U.S. Junior National team, an Olympic development group of mostly college players who compete in tournaments around the world.

He played on that team for two years during college before winning an NCAA Division I championship with UCI as a senior in 2007.

Since then, he’s moved around the world to play for professional teams in France, Spain and Puerto Rico.

He first landed a spot on the U.S. National team in 2009, and he’s been splitting time between his pro teams and training in Anaheim, the official host city of the U.S. squad.

“He’s really good in the weight room and he’s a really high volleyball IQ guy,” Knipe says. “And I think at the end of the day, when you add it up, he’s just been able to stack a lot of really good work over a lot of years.”

All that work will lead him to London, where the U.S. team will open pool play against Serbia on July 29.

The gold medal match is scheduled for Aug. 12, where the team hopes to capture its second straight Olympic gold.

It would be the completion of an incredible journey for Smith, who will be traveling with his wife Kelli and his newborn son Cohen.

“He’s an incredible guy, a great teammate and an incredibly easy man to coach, and the best thing about him is just his determination,” Knipe says. “Nothing is going to get in the way of David’s gold and nothing ever has.”

To think, it all began so modestly in the gym of Saugus High.

Even Smith admits it’s hard to believe.

“If someone were to go back and tell the 14-year-old me that volleyball was going to take me to college, around the world, to the Olympics and beyond, I am pretty sure I would not have believed them,” Smith says. “This sport that started out as just something fun to do has been a blessing far beyond what I could have ever hoped for.”



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