Jan. 15, 2009
By Larry Watts
If there's an accident waiting to happen, Allie Smith knows she will be there. But not even a medical history, which includes eight broken bones, could prepare her for her latest twist of fate only a few months ago.
"I had been struggling with a lower back problem for over the past year," the Purdue University sophomore says. "I must have gone to about four doctors and every one of them told me I had a muscle tear."
Finally, she visited a specialist in Indianapolis, who immediately recommended a second specialist. That second specialist dealt with tumors and the so-called "muscle tear" turned out to be a tumor, measuring six inches long, three inches wide and a half-inch thick.
"Now I have a pretty six-inch scar on the lower left side of my back," says the Boilermakers' swim standout. "Right now I'm using that scar to intimidate other swimmers. A ton of people have told me I should go get a tattoo, but I'm not so sure my parents would appreciate that."
Smith, who broke Purdue's 200 backstroke record as a freshman last year, has wasted little time recovering from the November surgery. Still not in 100 percent physical condition, she has already posted Purdue's top times in both the 100 backstroke and 200 individual medley this winter.
"I was seeing a physical therapist last summer because we all thought I had a torn muscle," Smith says. "By the end of the summer, I was in the best shape I've ever been and I had abs of steel. However, the surgical recovery period has made those abs a little less steely."
Although the early diagnosis on Smith's back problem turned out to be false, the Green Bay, Wis. native says she found her new calling in life after working with the physical therapist.
"I had been shadowing doctors and surgeons last summer, but they didn't really seem to have that one-on-one relationship with their patients like my therapist had with me," she says. "I figured I had enough experience on the patient side of things while rehabbing and going through all those broken bones, so I might as well try the therapist side."
According to Smith, the Purdue team itself was in severe need of a different kind of therapy last year. Never having finished higher than fourth since the start of the Big Ten Championships in 1982, the Boilermakers were in the midst of another downhill spiral.
"Before the year began, we had three or four seniors leave the program and then three more girls left during the season," she says. "The day before our first meet, I fell down some stairs and broke my wrist so my season didn't get off to a great start.
"With all the drama that was going on around our team, I was seriously thinking about leaving the program. This wasn't anything like I thought it would be like when I decided to accept the scholarship to Purdue. However, during Christmas break I decided I had made it this far in the season, so I might as well finish it and then move on."
Smith's outlook on her future at Purdue got even brighter when she found out John Klinge would become the new head coach.
"The swimmers were allowed to take part in the interview process among the finalists, which really showed the administration was very interested in doing what was best for us," Smith says. "And after he was named head coach, John made sure he called each one of us individually in order to get to know us. I was really impressed."
One of the new aspects Klinge brought to the program was a core of 12 values.
"This core of values is something we have adopted to apply to all phases of our life at Purdue, not just when we are in the swimming pool," Smith says. "A lot of it applies to our academics and how we represent Purdue and ourselves.
"I know our history at Purdue isn't the best, but we are in the process of changing things. This team is very young right now (one senior and three junior swimmers), but we really believe by the time we are juniors and seniors we'll be able to take Purdue to the next level. We've got a great group of freshmen right now and I hear next year's class is going to be very good as well."
Before the end of the season, Smith hopes to erase the current 100 backstroke record.
"From Day One when I got here, I had my eyes on the 200 (backstroke) record," she says. "Every time I did a kick set in practice, I was staring at that record. Now I'm focused on the 100 backstroke mark."
Growing up, Smith had a preference for the breaststroke. But now that stroke has become her weakest.
"I broke my left leg playing indoor soccer during gym class while I was in middle school," she says with a laugh. "By the time I got back in the pool, I had lost my breaststroke. I found it in high school (winning the Wisconsin state 100 breaststroke title as a sophomore), but now I've lost it again. Maybe someone will find it for me."
Admitting the Purdue program will have to take small steps to reach its goal, Smith is hoping to be part of relay team in the finals of this year's Big Ten Championships.
"That would mean a lot more to me than placing in any individual event," she says. "That would be something I could share with three of my teammates and it would mean a lot to our team."
Although she is a huge Packers fan, Smith doesn't anticipate a return to Green Bay when her days at Purdue are over.
"There is nothing like Packer Sunday in Green Bay, it's the craziest experience," she says. "I probably have as much green and gold in my wardrobe as I do black and gold. But I hate the snow.
"I've already told my parents I'm not coming back and they've told me I'm welcome to come visit on Packer Sundays and during the summer. I like the warm weather, so I'll probably head south. And I'm not worried about missing the Packers because you can always find a Packers bar somewhere."