Ellie smart is a rising sophomore at the University of California-Berkeley. She is a D1 athlete and is currently pursuing her dream of diving professionally (or in the Olympics!)
What do you do currently and how did you get here?
After my freshman year I decided I was going to move away from home and start training for tower. I moved to college station, Texas and trained with a club team at Texas A&M. I was there my sophomore year and junior years of high but then in October of my junior year I decided I wanted to go to college a year early. I started taking online classes and looking at some different schools for diving. One of my best friends’ old coach coached at Cal, which happens to have one of the top teams in the country and so I got the idea to go to California. I called the coach and then I took a trip out there and I just fell in love, so I committed to go to Cal and that’s how I ended up diving there.
What has been the “highlight” of your career thus far?
I would say the moment I realized it was really all worth it, was this season. We had a home meet and I was standing on the diving board, and we’ve had a lot of Olympians on the swim team and what not, so there are a lot of people that come to our swim meets. There were some ups and downs in Texas and standing on that diving board and having a big team behind me and seeing everyone there it was just like this moment of realizing it was all worth it and that I’m where I’m meant to be; I made it!
Do you believe in specific moments or points in time when your purpose just clicks? Maybe when you decided to transition from gymnastics to diving? If so, what has been one of your ‘aha’ moments? How did you seize that moment?
I think it’s both a gradual and a moments thing. You train so many hours a day, so many days a week and it gets hard. You have lots of meltdowns when things aren’t going the way you want and it gets really frustrating. Sometimes I question why I’m doing what I do, even just the other day in practice I was standing up on tower (10m high!) and there is this sense of peace like “I love this; I love what I’m doing.” It’s those little moments that reassure you that harder times are all worth it and they are carried along with you until you have another special moment.
Who has been helpful in supporting you and your dream to be an Olympic diver?
First and foremost I would say my family. If they hadn’t given up certain things I never would be where I am today. The whole experience of moving away from home and graduating early all helped me get where I am today. I would not be here if they hadn’t let me do all of that. Also, I’ve had really great teammates this past year who have just reassured me that I love what I’m doing and I want to keep doing it. I think just having those people by your side with the same goals and the same dreams, you can really push each other to do better, it’s hard because not everybody in high school has the same dream and understands what its like to go through the things that you go through.
If not, what was the most challenging obstacle that you faced? How did you handle it?
I would say that the most challenging obstacle that I faced was moving away from home. I was fifteen years old and my parents had jobs and they couldn’t move with me so to a little school. There were twenty kids in my grade and I was in a boarding school program, so I actually ended up living with kids from China. None of them spoke English and none of them really even ate the food I ate. I almost felt like I was living in a whole different country, in my own country, because I was surrounded by these foreign kids. It was really tough. I didn’t have my family or my friends with me; I just kind of packed up my bags and moved. That was definitely the hardest part, not knowing anyone and not knowing if I was going to find happiness or fulfill my dreams.
I would go home and visit and I had a lot of long talks with my parents about whether or not I had made the right decision. I really debated moving home and just driving five hours a week to train. I felt like even though it was tough, being away from home and training, I was achieving something that I was meant to achieve and that in the long run it would get me where I wanted to go. So as tough as it was, it was just this feeling inside of me that just told me “you are doing the right thing” and “you just have to keep hanging on and pushing forward and it will all be worth it.”
If you could go back in time and give yourself one piece of advice what would you say?
Honestly I don’t think I would do anything different; there were a lot of hard times and I made a lot of mistakes and a lot of things I would change, but also if I changed those things I wouldn’t be where I am today. Every mistake, every lesson you learn, teaches you something about not only yourself, but about the world and the people surrounding you. I think you grow from those lessons so without them I wouldn’t be where I am today.
What is something that you never expected to happen but ultimately helped you live your dream?
I’ve known my whole life, since I was about three years old, that I wanted to go to the Olympics. That’s been everything I’ve ever wanted. I think one of the things that surprised me a lot was that when I did get in to college, I realized I love this sport and everything that I’m doing but that I also love myself and my friends and I love my life. And for the first time in a really long time I was able to find that balance between having a social life and being a normal person. I really just enjoyed the moment, not worrying so much about whether or not I’d make the Olympic team, and instead being happy with every moment. I think once I did really start living in the moment and enjoying everything, it really helped me realize how to become a better person and a better diver.
Tell us an embarrassing or funny story!
Okay so this isn’t really embarrassing but being sixteen years old and not at home I had a lot of pressure from outside people to do things that you probably shouldn’t be doing as a young girl. And so I was training with kids older than me so naturally I was constantly around them. They’d always try to get me to drink or do this or do that. As an athlete you know that’s not great for your training but as a young girl trying to fit in, you want to fit in and you want to make friends. I never had anyone tell me that you don’t have to do those things to fit in, that you don’t have to give in to peer pressure. So I made those mistakes and I did give in to it and I did some things that I regret. I think it’s definitely important for young girls to know that they are not alone and that if you are doubting something, don’t do it. Remember what’s important to you.
If you could share just one piece of advice to all young girls what would it be?
I would say to follow your dreams. At the end of the day, if you don’t make the Olympics, no one’s really going to care, it’s more about the process of following your dreams and pursuing something greater and important. You might have some bumps and along the way, but at the end of the day, working hard and following your goals will let you get something more out of your life. Just go for it!
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