UVa Law Student Blazes Trail on Track Team
April 16, 2015
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Less than a mile separates the University of Virginia Law School and Lannigan Field, home of UVa’s track and field team. Kyle Smith can probably make the trip blindfolded.
An All-America candidate in the javelin, Smith is also a first-year student at one of the nation’s most prestigious law schools, and he’s never been one to avoid a challenge. He was a two-sport athlete at Central Michigan University, from which he graduated summa cum laude last spring with a 4.0 grade-point average in electrical engineering. That was the highest GPA among Central Michigan’s graduating student-athletes.
Smith is believed to be the first person in more than a quarter-century to participate in a varsity sport while attending law school at UVa.
“If you took a snapshot of what Virginia would want as a model student-athlete, I don’t think you could find a better one,” said Bryan Fetzer, the Cavaliers’ director of track and field/cross country.
The faculty at UVa’s law school includes John Duffy, who was a cross country standout as a Harvard undergraduate. In his first year at the University of Chicago law school, Duffy trained for and ran a marathon — he finished in 2 hours and 24 minutes — and so he understands better than most the difficulty of what Smith is doing.
“I think it shows a tremendous amount of discipline,” Duffy said. “That’s really something quite special to be able to do in law school.”
The marathon he ran, Duffy said, “required an enormous amount of training, but maybe not as much as Kyle, because he’s working with a team, and he’s got to work on his technique and his throwing skills, and that might require many more hours. And of course he’s got also a full competition schedule, which I didn’t have.”
During the fall, Smith would typically be in class from about 8:30 to 11 a.m., after which he would train. Then he’d return to the law school for afternoon classes.
Such a schedule, Duffy said, “really teaches you a tremendous amount about getting your work done and not wasting time, which I think are tremendous lessons to be learned in life, generally.”
Duffy laughed. “It is doable, but you can’t watch TV,” he said. “You can’t just go out on the weekdays or something like that. You’ve got to really devote yourself to your sports and your studies. But if you love your sport and you like the law, it’s actually quite a fun time, I think.”
Indeed, Smith said, the physical demands of his sport are “a tremendous outlet, just because you’re in class all day, really grinding and trying to understand the material. What I really enjoy about the javelin is it is also very technical, and so I think it’s just a different aspect [to track]. You’re thinking differently. You’re still working intellectually, but the combination of that and the physical activity is something I felt has kept me grounded throughout the law school process. I know a lot of students can get caught up in the stress involved in your first year of law school. They put a lot of pressure on themselves, and I just feel like [track is] a great escape from that in a sense, to be here with the undergrads.”
Smith, who’ll turn 23 late this month, is from Leola, Pa. As a quarterback at Lancaster Catholic, the 6-3, 210-pound left-hander set three state records, including most career passing yards (8,545) and most career touchdown passes (118). He also starred in track and field in high school, winning a state championship in the javelin, and Smith landed at Central Michigan in part because he could compete in both sports there.
In 2010, his first season on the Chippewas’ football team, Smith redshirted. The next spring, he moved to safety to bolster a thin secondary, and he entered the season that fall with an opportunity to play a significant role on defense. In Central Michigan’s fourth game, however, Smith suffered an injury that ended his football career.
A Michigan State player’s hand got under his facemask, “and my head snapped back,” Smith recalled. “I got some tingling in my hands and upper body, so I lost feeling for a little while. Nothing permanent. They ended up clearing me to return a couple months down the line, but at that point the Central Michigan training staff just felt it would be best for me not to do any more contact sports. It was tough.”
He shifted his athletic focus to track and field, where the Chippewas’ head coach was Willie Randolph, who, coincidentally, is now in his second year as a UVa assistant. They worked together for three years at the Mid-American Conference school.
“He was always a great student,” Randolph said. “With Kyle, it was never, `I want to be an athlete and then a student.’ There were four people [on the team] I always expected to have a 4.0 each semester, and Kyle was one of them.”
Alas for Smith, he encountered adversity in track, too, at Central Michigan. In the spring of his sophomore year, Smith tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his left elbow. He endured the pain that season, but the injury was diagnosed in the fall, and Smith had Tommy John surgery in December 2012.
Javelin is strictly an outdoor sport, and Smith had to redshirt as a junior while recovering from surgery. He wasn’t able to take his “actual full approach and throw” until the Chippewas’ first meet of 2014, which was in late March.
Smith placed 17th at last year’s NCAA outdoor championships in Eugene, Ore. Then came the move to Charlottesville. He also considered the law schools at Duke and the University of Pennsylvania before choosing UVa. Smith wanted to pursue patent law, and that’s how he met Duffy. They talked while Smith was weighing his options for law school, and they discussed athletics as well as academics. Because he had redshirted as a junior at Central Michigan, Smith still had a year of eligibility remaining when he graduated.
Duffy “really thought that the extra year in track was something I should heavily consider,” Smith said, “and the admissions department [at UVa] was really flexible with me doing track.”
Coming out of high school, Smith wasn’t sure which career path he’d ultimately follow.
“There’s some engineering in my family,” he said. “My uncle was an engineer, and my grandfather’s an engineer, so I kind of inherited some of the technical skills and just the mathematical thinking.
“But my father’s a lawyer, and my oldest sister’s also a lawyer. I watched how they approached ordinary problems, and I was always intrigued by the style of thinking that law school breeds. That, more so than the subject matter, I think is what really drove me to pursue patent law, because it was always in the back of my head that I wanted to be challenged, and the way that they looked at life and their work, it just seemed like a constant challenge.”
Smith, who knew that Randolph had joined the staff at Virginia, contacted his former coach about his plans to attend law school in Charlottesville. Only later did Randolph learn Smith would be joining the track team at UVa.
“The law school really initiated it, which is how I wanted the process to go,” Smith said. “I didn’t want to step on any toes in that regard.”
That his specialty is the javelin, an event overseen at UVa by assistant coach Mario Wilson, has made it easier for Smith to juggle his various obligations. He trains daily, but he doesn’t throw every day.
“Obviously I don’t think I would have been able to accommodate something like the decathlon, where the [time commitment] is so high,” Smith said. “With the flexibility that Coach Wilson showed with my schedule, especially during finals in the fall, I feel like he would have helped me make it work no matter what.”
Smith shares an apartment near the law school with one of his older sisters, a pediatric social worker at the UVa medical center. Kelly Smith, who has a master’s from Georgia, applied for the job after her brother was admitted to Virginia’s law school.
“It really was the perfect storm,” Kyle Smith said. “She’s welcoming the opportunity to be a little closer to home too.”
Because he went directly to law school after graduating from Central Michigan, Smith is one of the youngest students in his class. On the track team, he’s among the oldest athletes.
“It’s just a unique perspective,” Smith said. “I enjoy both, because I get to learn from some of those [law school students] who have more real-world experience. And then I get to share some of my experience with my teammates here. It’s great because they all take academics so seriously too.”
During the team’s recent trip to Berkeley, Calif., he spent “a lot of time on the bus and plane studying,” Smith said. “But the support from both ends is just really incredible. My teammates all really encourage me academically, and it wasn’t like they were giving me any hard time for studying. And then also to have my law school classmates show up [for UVa’s first home meet] and support me on the athletic field, you really can’t ask for a better situation than that, to have both.”
Another opportunity for his classmates, and the general public, to see Smith in action at Lannigan Field comes this weekend. The Cavaliers are hosting the Virginia Challenge on Friday and Saturday, and more than 1,300 athletes from 35 schools will compete.
The javelin is scheduled to begin at 8:45 p.m. Saturday.
“I’m definitely excited,” Smith said. “The season’s off to a good start.”
Early this month, in a tri-meet with Cal and Michigan in Berkeley, Smith threw the javelin 211 feet, 10 inches, the fifth-longest throw in UVa history. If all goes as planned, he’ll end his college career at the NCAA championships in Eugene, Ore. Then he’ll start a summer internship as a research assistant to Duffy.
It may be mid-June before Smith is able to begin work, but that’s fine with Duffy.
“The summer will wait,” Duffy said. “This will be his last opportunity to compete in intercollegiate sports, which is really a wonderful thing to do while you’re in college or professional school.”