Sept. 27, 2013
BY: SEAN CARTELL
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. - Balance.
It's a talent at which many marvel, often because it is so difficult to attain.
It is demonstrated by the gymnast gracefully executing her routine across a four-inch beam. It is exemplified by the juggler who can keep three objects perfectly in sync in the air at the same time. It is shown by the ballerina gliding across the floor and telling a story with her every movement.
And it is the epitomized by the individual who is able to keep her life in perfect equilibrium despite the many obligations that fill her busy schedule.
Alabama's Laura Lee Smith is one of collegiate soccer's best embodiments of balance - an individual who exudes excellence in three very distinct aspects of her life. Each facet compliments the others, while seemingly never interfering.
"When you love all of it, it makes balancing it very easy," Smith said by telephone on Wednesday. "You have to really like everything. The biggest thing is time management. You have to have a plan every day and you have to be very, very organized."
The in-season life of a collegiate athlete can mean countless hours riding busses and staying in hotels. The arrival of a weekend means only that there are likely a pair of soccer matches to be played.
It would be easy to lose focus with one's life seemingly always in motion, moving from one location to another as the pages of the calendar turn throughout the fall.
That's not the case for Smith, who has seemingly mastered the ability to get the most out of any 24-hour period.
"As coaches, we don't sleep a lot during the season," said Todd Bramble, Alabama's head soccer coach since 2008. "When I go down to the lobby of the hotel at 5:30 or 6 o'clock in the morning, I'm never surprised to see Laura Lee downstairs studying while we're on the road, and she's always studying on the bus. She is just super determined to do whatever it takes."
Smith was a National Merit finalist at Jackson Preparatory School in Mississippi, where she also was a two-time Mississippi Gatorade Player of the Year in soccer and a state record-holder in track. No matter how great her accomplishments were in athletics, Smith has always placed an emphasis on academics.
"She's got superior intellectual ability," Bramble said. "Academically, her record speaks for itself. She came in as a National Merit finalist and was highly recruited, not just by us, but by many of the prestigious academic institutions in the country. That speaks really well to the University of Alabama's capability to attract a student and soccer player of her caliber."
Not surprisingly, Smith is a 4.0 student and a pre-med major. Part of the decision to pursue the medical field comes from a desire to help better her home state.
"As you know from reading any statistics, there are a lot of negative ones from Mississippi," Smith said. "One of the biggest issues is that there are not enough primary care physicians to meet the needs of the population. A lot of the physicians live in Jackson or on the gulf coast, so there aren't as many as they need in the Delta or north Mississippi. I see that need and, combined with my shadowing and volunteering that I've done, I'd like to get into medical school and practice primary care in a smaller market."
Bramble thinks his pupil's career choice is one that suits her well.
"It's going to be a natural fit for her because the qualities that the profession requires are all qualities that she possesses naturally as part of her DNA," he said. "There are three things, I think, that somebody needs to have to work in the medical field - intellect, work-ethic and organization, and compassion. I've seen examples daily of her possessing all of those qualities. She is going to be excellent."
It is fitting that Smith has chosen a career path that is all about helping others.
"The entire profession of medicine is about others," she said. "What matters is whether I can make this patient feel better - that's why they're there. Medicine, when it comes down to it, is all about caring for a patient."
If Smith's ability to wear a number of different hats is one of her defining traits in life, perhaps her most helpful trait on the soccer field has been her versatility.
On Friday when the Crimson Tide square off with conference foe Vanderbilt, Smith is expected to play her third different position since arriving at Alabama, as she will see time in the midfield.
"It's a credit to my coaches growing up," Smith said. "I was told not to try to be a forward. I was told to train to be a complete soccer player. Growing up with that mentality really helped. I believe that I need to play the role that the team needs me to play. I think that attitude combined with my belief in the team and coaches makes the changes really easy."
Smith arrived in Tuscaloosa as a forward who had been a four-time Mississippi Association of Independent Schools all-conference player, a two-time MVP of her team, and a two-time first-team all-state selection.
The transition to the collegiate game was seamless, with Smith earning SEC Freshman of the Week honors following the first weekend of her college career. Smith, who scored 32 seconds into her first match in an Alabama uniform, scored three goals and totaled 12 points in her first seven matches, before sustaining a broken collar bone and missing nearly the entire SEC schedule.
"That was really tough," Smith said. "I had never suffered a major injury up until that point. Our coaching staff and trainers did a good job of making sure the other parts of my body didn't lose their fitness or strength. Emotionally, that was a tough period. But when you are out for six weeks, you think about the fact that you've got this big date that you're working towards and that drives and motivates you."
That Smith wasn't able to be on the field for the Crimson Tide during that stretch didn't change her determination or team-first mentality.
"Laura Lee showed tremendous selflessness by how she handled herself on the sidelines," Bramble said. "She realized that maybe she couldn't physically help the team, but she could, at least, help the team emotionally."
There was no doubt in anyone's mind that Smith's return would take longer than the expected six weeks.
"She took her rehab really seriously," Bramble said. "Sometimes when you're coming back from injury, you have that subconscious fear of putting yourself in contact situations, but she played without fear and did whatever it took to bring success to our team. That was the last year that Alabama went to the NCAA Tournament and she played a big part in our success."
Entering Smith's sophomore season, Alabama needed help at the defender position and she was called upon to move to that spot, despite having been a forward her entire freshman campaign. It didn't matter that Smith was adjusting to a new position; she led the team in minutes played with 1,175, scored a pair of goals and helped the Crimson Tide post five shutouts on the year.
"She's just a really good athlete - strong, well-built, fast and tough," Bramble said. "That gives her the ability to do a lot of different things for us. Before you talk about her as a soccer player, you realize that she's just a really, really good athlete."
Eight games into the 2013 campaign, Smith has made six starts and logged 576 minutes played. She will answer the call again this weekend and, no doubt, quickly find success in the midfield.
"This weekend will be the first time we will use her in the midfield," Bramble said. "She'll probably never play in goal for us, so this weekend will cap off the cycle for her."
The decorated list of accomplishments both on and off the field doesn't begin to crack the surface of who Smith is at the core.
As driven as the 5-foot-7 Jackson, Miss., native is in every aspect of her life, she also makes sure to take time to enjoy herself along the way.
"I'm much more laid back than a lot of people who take the classes that I'm in," Smith said. "A lot of the students who want to go to medical school are extremely intense, but I laugh and have a good time in my classes and my organic chemistry lab."
As if her schedule weren't already busy enough, Smith also is a member of the Chi Omega Sorority on campus.
"If I didn't already know that she were in a sorority, there would be no way to tell," Bramble said. "We haven't had too many players who have been members of sororities, which can create conflicts with choices that you have to make. But there is never a team activity where she's not one of the first there and one of the last to leave, and she's fully into it. That's a whole third of her life that she takes advantage of and enjoys that doesn't affect anything about her academically or being a member of the soccer team."
It didn't take long following Smith's arrival to the University of Alabama campus for Bramble to get a true sense of her character.
Fellow freshman Pia Rijsdik was one of the first international athletes - outside of Canada - that Bramble had brought to his program. With Smith as Rijsdik's roommate, he didn't have to worry about how his rookie from the Netherlands would adjust to her new surroundings.
"She has really got a compassionate side to her," Bramble said. "That was something new for our program, bringing somebody international into the fold. When Pia got here, even with everything else going on in Laura Lee's life, she really shed her compassionate side and made sure Pia was well taken care of. On breaks and school holidays, she would take her home with her. Her family did a really good job of making Pia feel comfortable. That's one tangible example that was really powerful for me."
Smith is in the midst of her junior season at Alabama where, by all accounts, she is thriving in all aspects. It would be accurate to say she has seen her fair share of adversity during her playing days - but don't tell her that.
"I don't think of it as adversity," Smith said. "The second you label something as adversity, it creates an enemy. You just have to see it as just another thing in your life."
Smith's attitude, discipline and will to succeed are not lost on Bramble, who considers her one of the best he's ever coached.
"She's got to be one of the most well-rounded student-athletes I've ever been fortunate to associate with and I've been around a lot of good ones," he said. "She has unwavering passion to our team and, because of that, that puts her in situations where she thrives on pressure. She welcomes the challenges we put before her."
She has goals of daily improvement in each of the three areas of her life, listing her primary goal as attending medical school upon graduation.
"I could not be happier at the University of Alabama," she said. "I have a great social life, great professors and we have a great athletic department. I stick with the philosophy that I need to give my best no matter what and not make excuses."