Jill Smith said it was the support of her parents, and the life lessons she learned from her coaches that enabled her to reach the pinnacle of synchronized swimming at the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta.
It was there that Smith (then Sudduth) and the U.S. captured a gold medal in the team event’s Olympic debut; the defining moment in a brilliant career that culminates Saturday, when Smith joins the 48th class to be inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
“It’s kind of surreal,” the 1989 Live Oak High graduate said Wednesday from her home in Austin, Texas. “It’s one of those things [where] you compete your whole life, and it’s done, and you go on with the rest of your life, and you don’t think about it much. It’s a huge honor. It brought back a lot of memories.”
The older she gets, the more appreciative Smith, 40, is for the “exceptional situation” she was in while growing up in Morgan Hill.
At age 6, Smith and her sister were signed up for the Santa Clara Aquamaids by their father, James Sudduth, who saw an advertisement for the team and wanted his daughters to be “involved in something.” Smith loved synchronized swimming, and, from then on, trained year-round with one of the best coaches, Chris Carver, at one of the most prestigious venues, the George F. Haines International Swim Center in Santa Clara.
“All the people I trained with were just amazing,” Smith said. “They’re still my best friends in the world and just awesome people.”
During the school year, Smith would wake at 5 a.m., train until she had to leave for class, practice again from 4 to 8 p.m. She trained an average of five to seven hours six days a week.
“Jill would swim all day, drink water and eat ice – we called her Aquawoman,” said her sister, Jennifer Pace, who lives in San Jose. “It’s amazing to see her come this far. We’re so extremely proud of her.”
The Sudduth sisters did everything together until Smith’s career took off in the mid-1980s. She was out of the country for 11 months at a time, Pace recalled, competing in parts of South America, Europe and the Soviet Union.
Like with any Olympic sport, the synchronized swimming season never ends.
“It’s a very demanding sport, but it’s very tedious,” Carver said. “If you don’t like that tedium and repetition, it’s not for you. It was her.”
Carver knew that the second she met Smith, who grew to a long and lean 5 feet, 8 inches.
“You could see it,” Carver said. “She was tough [and] so capable and persevering, very athletic – all the qualities you need to be in the Swimming Hall of Fame. She was high spirited and a great kid.”
The training was intense, Smith said, and as regimented as one would expect for a sport that combines swimming, gymnastics and dancing, done with precision. The best make it look effortless.
“A lot of people would have given up,” Smith said. “But so much of my childhood was, when things get hard, you work harder. I was surrounded by it. It was the norm. … I’m really grateful I learned that at a young age. If I hadn’t learned to work hard, I would never be where I am.”
Smith competed for 19 years, most notably with her duet partner and club teammate, Becky Dyroen-Lancer. Together they won several duet and team world championships.
Lancer was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2004.
“I’m really happy to see them both in,” said Carver, who will be at the ceremony on Saturday.
Smith and Lancer took first in the 1995 Pan American Games and would have been favored in Atlanta, but the IOC took out solo and duet competition in favor of team competition. (Duet competition was restored for the 2000 Games in Sydney.) Instead they helped the U.S. win gold with a score of 99.72, including nine perfect 10s, for a thrilling five-minute free routine.
“When we were done and receiving the scores, it was just such a huge relief,” Smith said. “It was incredibly stressful leading up to our final swim. … We were favored to win gold. We had been together for four years and had won everything, and there were a lot of risky moves.
“Our coaches [Carver and Gail Emery] made us a great team. We were close. Everyone could correct each other, and there were no hard feelings. We pretty much left all egos at the door to make it the best we could be.”
Smith, who married her husband, Jason, in 1997 and has two sons, Ethan, 9, and Luke, 7, hadn’t thought much about her competitive career until she was told in November that she was going to be inducted. Since then, she has been a hot topic of conversation at Bedichek Middle School, where she teaches sixth-grade math.
Smith finds herself teaching her students the same lessons on humility and work ethic she learned from Carver.
“A lot of people I deal with on a daily bases have no idea who I am,” Smith said. “It’s not me to go around telling people about it, but it does come up in conversations. It’s been fun to relive it.”
NOTE: The Aquamaids will hold an exhibition at the Haines International Swim Center on May 28. It will feature several Olympic guests.