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Title IX Paved Way for Softball Olympian Michele Smith

By Nate Perry on November 10, 2021 hst Print

As part of the NFHS’ yearlong celebration ahead of the 50th anniversary of the passage of Title IX, High School Today is featuring the three female inductees in the most recent National High School Hall of Fame class – Karyn Bye, Maicel Malone and Michele Smith. In this issue, Michele Smith reflects on a high school athletic career made possible by Title IX, and how it helped shape her future as a collegiate and Olympic softball player and broadcaster. Wisconsin’s Karyn Bye and Indiana’s Maicel Malone appeared in the September and October issues, respectively.

Michele Smith was an accomplished three-sport athlete at Voorhees High School in Glen Gardner, New Jersey, in the early 1980s.

As a pitcher in softball, she was 51-6 and recorded 11 no-hitters. She helped her team to the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) Group 3 state softball title as a junior with a 23-1 record, 0.17 earned-run average and 229 strikeouts. She was selected to the all-state softball team three consecutive years. In field hockey, Smith was named first team all-conference as a junior and senior, and in basketball, she scored 1,114 points in her career and was a two-time all-conference selection.

At Oklahoma State University, Smith compiled an 82-20 record as a pitcher, and her career batting average was .343 with 15 home runs. She was a three-time All-Big Eight Conference selection and was a two-time Division I All-American. She was a member of the U.S. Olympic softball teams in 1996 and 2000, and she was the starting pitcher for both gold-medal winning teams. She also played on three gold-medal winning World Championships teams and two teams that won gold medals at the Pan American Games.

Smith joined ESPN in 1995 and has been the lead college softball analyst since 1998. In 2012, she was the first woman to serve as commentator for a nationally televised Major League Baseball game.

Question: What are some of the things you think about when you reflect on your playing career at Voorhees High School?

Smith: One of the things I always think about when I look back at my high school career is that we played on a (softball) infield that was not skinned, so there was grass, and you would always worry about ground balls that were hit on the ground and if they were going to take a bad hop. But I had a great defense behind me. When I first started to learn to pitch, it definitely was nerve-wracking, but having Amy Stout as our shortstop who was just outstanding and would go in the five/six-hole or up the middle to get ground balls; Amy Geist in the outfield, or at first base, and Becca Fuchs was my catcher who just was rock solid. She was a tough cookie. She would catch the ball, and even if it hurt her thumb, she would stick that pitch and get the call from the umpire for me. Just really great teammates. And I think about that all the time that I was very fortunate that I had a great experience because it laid the foundation for me to continue to want to play a sport that I just loved.

Question: We will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of Title IX at next year’s NFHS Summer Meeting. What comes to mind when you think about the impact Title IX had on your athletic career?

Smith: Title IX was life-changing for many, many women, especially those in team sports. When President Nixon signed that bill into law in 1972, it truly impacted the ability for girls – especially for girls in high school sports – to have funding to be able to play team sports. For the sports that are more individualized, I think there was always a way for girls to be able to compete, but to be able to bring together a group of girls – a basketball team of 10, a field hockey team of 20, a softball team of 20 to 25 – and be able to fund it and have those opportunities for those girls to play organized team sports was a game changer for everybody. And that’s one of the reasons why the 1996 Olympics was such a big deal for all the women’s team sports that won gold medals, because it’s that generation – my generation of the youth through the ‘80s and early ‘90s – that had the opportunity to play team sports at the youth level, at the high school level, and to then go on and become elite athletes. And so, without Title IX, the world of sports for women looks completely different. I’m super blessed to have been able to be impacted by that, and unfortunately, women just a generation earlier than me didn’t have the opportunities that my generation had. And today’s generation is even better, and it should be; it should get better every year, every decade for young boys and girls to have opportunities just to compete and to share and to learn. But Title IX was super impactful. I’m super grateful for it.

Question: Thanks to the growth of opportunities as a result of Title IX, you were able to play softball, field hockey and basketball at Voorhees. Do you believe playing multiple sports made you a better all-around athlete?

Smith: When I was younger, I played a lot of different sports. And then once I got into high school, I played three sports. I played field hockey in the fall, basketball and softball. I had always played basketball and softball as a younger child but I never really played field hockey, but I thought I needed a fall sport to stay in shape for basketball, especially for conditioning. And field hockey is a big sport in New Jersey. And so, I thought, “what the heck? I’ll give it a try.” And I played my freshman year on the freshmen team, and then my sophomore year I made the varsity team. I enjoyed it. It was a lot of running, a lot of conditioning, but it really helped me for basketball. And, of course, both field hockey and basketball helped me for softball. So, I’m a big advocate of three-sport athletes in high school, especially because I think it really makes you a well-rounded athlete.

Question: And aside from helping you develop your athletic ability, Title IX opened the door for you – and countless other girls – to learn the lessons and the life skills that have a lasting impact later in life. How would you describe some of those benefits?

Smith: I think it’s the mentality of learning to deal with adversity – learning that you’re going to throw a pitch and it may not always be a strike, or a ball’s going to get hit and it might not always be fielded cleanly. There are so many life lessons that sport, in general, teaches you. And that’s why I’m always a big advocate for young athletes to play sports, even if you’re not the best at it or it’s something that actually challenges you. To me, that’s usually a great sign because anything in life that is of value is typically something you have to work hard for. So, I think that learning all those lessons when you’re 14 to 18 years old helps you throughout the rest of your life, especially for girls because I think a lot of girls need to learn to support other girls instead of competing against other girls for the boyfriend or being the most popular – all the things that don’t really matter but you think matter when you’re that age. So, I think that team sports help young girls learn to participate, learn to support each other, learn to be joyous for other people’s success. And those are life lessons that you learn and take with you throughout all aspects of your life.

Question: You were also able to play NCAA Division I softball at Oklahoma State, something that many female athletes did not have the opportunity to do prior to Title IX. What was your college career like, and how did it help you continue the process of learning about yourself?

Smith: To have the opportunity to play Division I sports was truly a blessing for me and set the path for me to go on and excel throughout the rest of my career. I got to see what it was like to really have a support staff and have an institution that was really there to help me be as successful as I could be on and off the field. Traveling out to Oklahoma State taught me the ability to be reliant on yourself at a young age while being away from home. I think it’s also something that taught me to really have to stand up and ‘take the bull by the horns’ and say, “alright, this is my position. I’m a pitcher, and I have to help lead this team.” So, I grew up very, very quickly.

Question: You mentioned one of the things you learned that started with your participation in high school athletics was the ability to overcome adversity. What were some of the instances of adversity that you had to get through on your way to achieving Olympic Gold?

Smith: For me, the ‘96 Olympics were super impactful because, in between my freshman and sophomore years in college, I was in a pretty severe accident where I fell out of a truck moving 35 to 40 miles an hour. I worked really hard, and I sacrificed a lot of things, and I still can’t straighten my arm all the way or bend it all the way. But I got it to work well enough for me to be able to pitch and I lived with it and took care of it. And ironically enough, after I made the ‘96 Olympic team and we started looking at the schedule for opening ceremonies, we saw the first-ever Olympic softball game was July 21, 1996. It was 10 years to the day of that awful accident that I was lucky to survive, and (afterward) was told that there was a good chance I may never pitch again. So, to come back and be able to walk into that Olympic venue to play in the first-ever Olympic softball game, I realized at that moment why I went through everything that I did.

Question: You have worked as a softball commentator for ESPN for more than 20 years now. How have you seen the game continue to grow during your time there?

Smith: The first game I ever commentated was in 1995. It was the Junior World Championships, and it was Team Japan against Team USA. It was a crazy experience, but I enjoyed it. I felt like I got to talk about softball, which was great, and I got to share the game, which was great, but I didn’t get to do it a lot because there wasn’t a lot of softball on TV in the ‘90s. But, little by little though, there were more and more games. ESPN would have the Women’s College World Series, and they would do the semifinals and the finals, and so every year it grew a little bit larger, and I would do more and more games every year. And it’s become a great second career for me to stay connected to the game and continue to share the game with youth and with the players and parents who are in the same position I was in 30 years ago when I was trying to watch softball with my father and my coaches. So, I feel super blessed to have the opportunity to work for ESPN.