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Olympic Hopeful Taps Own Experience to Help Students Overcome Challenges

Mary Dempsey
By Mary Dempsey

Amina Smith, a University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) success coach, has a formula for achievement. She used it to build herself into a national standout competing in the high jump in high school and college, and she hopes the strategy will carry her to the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.

It’s the same formula she uses when she talks with UMGC students who worry about staying on track toward their degrees.

“Life happens to working adults, working moms, military dads, military families,” she said. “Students will call in feeling like … things are overwhelming. I can use my experience and say, ‘Hey, I get it. I’ve been there. I’m still there. But know that you have an opportunity to work with us on a plan to keep you successful.’”

One part of her formula is remembering “to be OK with making a mistake.” Another is a commitment to getting back to the challenge. And the third element? “Give yourself some grace,” Smith said.

“Sometimes you are trying to do your best but you fall short,” she explained. “You reorganize. You just keep going. That’s the most important thing.”  

As a freshman at Patuxent High School in Lusby, Maryland, Smith was a cheerleader and took part in ROTC. And although ROTC got her out of taking gym class, it was during physical training that her performance caught a gym teacher’s attention.

“Mr. Walzer was like, ‘You have some underlying track talent. We’ve got to cultivate that,” she recalled. “I could not tell him that I had tried track back in middle school.” So, she gave track another shot.

By the end of her freshman year, although happy competing in running and long jump events, she decided to give the high jump a try.

Smith was doing “two-a-days,” with her mother having to travel from her job in DC to take her from her high school practice in Calvert County to workouts with her club coach at Bishop McNamara High School in Prince George’s County, which enabled Smith to test her ability in other areas of track and field, including the triple jump and hurdles. She rose to become a state champion in high jump. In her senior year she was state champ in triple jump.

“And then I found out there were opportunities to go to school for free” on a sports scholarship, she said. “I didn’t want the higher education burden to be on my parents. So that’s when I went full throttle and decided, whatever it took, I’m going to be the best at what I’m called to do.”

However, as a college student at the University of Maryland, Smith quickly discovered that competing at the top among high school students didn’t mean she would be a champion at the university level.

“What I thought was going to be a breeze wound up being a very harsh reality check,” she said. “I was befuddled. I was completely taken aback. Suddenly no one told me I’m the best.”

Her coach sat her down and explained that she was competing with and against student-athletes at the same caliber as her, and that meant she had to do better.

“Having to learn that I’m not the best … helped me develop into never settling, into wanting more for myself in every aspect,” she said. “That might have been one of the first things I learned, that in order to be the best you have to know you’re not the best and always do more to excel.”

She began to ask questions, to work on improving. “I knew there were more opportunities out there for me. I knew I didn’t go to school on other people’s dime just to be mediocre.” During her collegiate years, she was an Atlantic Coast Conference champion in the high jump and an NCAA Indoor and Outdoor All-America athlete.

Coming out of college, she realized that she needed to “find a balance and prioritization for my athletic goals.” She had a series of jobs—in a gym, as a waitress—before becoming an assistant Track and Field Coach at Bishop McNamara High School, a volunteer track and Field Coach for Vertical Jumps at Princeton University, and an assistant jumps coach at University of Maryland.

Smith has spent the past years working to elevate her personal bests by continuing to compete, including now gearing up for the 2024 U.S. Olympic Trials. On the way to her first championship in 2015 at the University of Oregon’s Hayward Field, her luggage was lost. The operators of her lodging took her to a Costco so she could get what she needed to practice and compete but, by her own admission, she did not do well. At the trials held the next year (again at Heyward Field), she came in fourth (one spot away from making the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro). The next trials would be delayed to 2021, and Smith would take seventh.

Then she took a year off to get accustomed to her job as a success coach at UMGC.

“I’ve been recluse, completely from the whole entire thing.  I really miss it, so I’ll be diving right back in as if I never left,” she said. “For now, I am looking forward to any opportunity to compete again. I really miss it.”

Between now and the Paris Olympics, she will compete in international competitions to build her record, while working at UMGC and also taking courses toward a master’s degree in communications.

Smith said one of the most exciting parts of athletic competition at such a high level is the places she has traveled and the “amazing people” she’s met through her sport. But there is also a downside. There is not much money in track and field and she said she is unlikely to ever attract the lucrative sponsorship deals of a superstar like Jamaican runner Usain Bolt.

“I am more than just an athlete. And although I love being an athlete, I know that this is going to come to an end just as anything good comes to an end,” Smith said. “So, I decided that I want to use what I’ve gone through to show people what they can do—no matter the situation, no matter where you come from, no matter what you’re doing now. There’s always opportunities for you to grow, to learn and to do what you love.”

She sees her UMGC job as one of her opportunities.  

“Everyone at UMGC has a role to play, but I think when we’re in student-facing positions, you have a beautiful opportunity to have a positive impact on a student … when a student says ‘I really needed that conversation, I thank you so much for just giving me what I needed.’”  

Being able to help a student achieve also means she is closing a circle.

“I attribute all of my success to everyone who’s had a hand in my journey.”