Gia Lewis-Smallwoo at the IAAF World Championships in Moscow, Russia.
Sept. 11, 2013
By Lexi Shurilla, fightingillini.com staff writer
Over 10 years ago, Gia Lewis was throwing discus for the University of Illinois. Now Gia Lewis-Smallwood, she has had some life-changing experiences since graduating from Illinois in 2002. The last time she threw in her orange and blue uniform was her last indoor meet as an Illini in '02, with her last outdoor meet in 2001.
The Champaign native and Centennial High School graduate is still very connected to her hometown. She has continued to improve her throwing skills, and made everyone at Illinois proud when she made the USA Olympic team and competed in the London games in 2012. With her sights set on Rio in 2016, Lewis-Smallwood doesn't let the traveling and her age get in the way of continuing to grow in her career as a professional athlete.
Lewis-Smallwood was recruited for throwing discus at Illinois, but she actually was a sprinter in high school and didn't start throwing the discus until late in her senior year. The Centennial high school team has a long history of success in track and field, but were lacking in field competitors her senior year. So she was asked to pick up the discus.
In six weeks, she threw "fairly well" - 140 feet - and ended up breaking the conference and Centennial record. She was recruited by Ron Garner, then a coach on the Illinois track team, but by that time she had already committed to playing basketball at the U of I. Although her initial choice was basketball, she chose to move to track and field after her freshman year on the Illinois bench.
"I thought about the reality of having a post-collegiate career in a sport," Lewis-Smallwood said. "As much as I loved basketball, because back then that was truly my love and passion, I had to kind of be realistic about whether or not I was going to be able to play in the WNBA or play overseas. I was a freshman and wasn't getting a whole lot of playing time. My parents asked me, `Do you want to do sports beyond college?'"
That wasn't a hard question for Lewis-Smallwood to answer because pursuing her dream of being a professional athlete was set in her mind. She would either continue with basketball or try track. Her parents were big proponents of trying both. With throwing the discus, she knew she would have a longer shelf life in the sport. You can be older and still continue to throw, whereas basketball might give her a few years of playing after college. Having a long post-collegiate career is really what the decision came down to, and track was the way to go.
After Lewis-Smallwood started with the track team her sophomore year, Garner left to take a job elsewhere, and John Bowman stepped in as her new throwing coach.
"Our first practice, John came out and said, `Here's the discus. Let me see what you can do,'" Lewis-Smallwood said. "And I said, `I don't remember how to hold the discus.' And he looked at me, and this is a Big Ten school, and he looked at me and he said, `What?' I said, `I don't remember how to hold it. That was a year ago and I only threw for about eight weeks.' That's where I started. Most people who make the World Championships team, all of my other competitors, they were the No. 1 discus throwers in the country out of high school. I started late, so I always knew it was going to take me a while.
"After I graduated, that's why I kept going: I always knew I'm behind, I started late," she continued. "I had lots of success here at Illinois and I did a lot of great things but I still was behind both in terms of my throwing and development. In terms of my technique, I was way behind. You have to throw a lot so that you can be really good on a big stage and be consistent. You have to have a lot of reps under your belt. I didn't have that. I was prepared for the fact that I was going to be good later in life and so I just stuck with it."
For her first years away from the university, Lewis-Smallwood struggled to get into a rhythm. She bounced around between various coaches, which didn't help her training process. She didn't do as well as she had hoped in the 2008 Olympic Trials and knew that what she really needed was consistency. Bowman suggested she meet with Michael Turk, the field events coach at Illinois. Turk agreed to take her under his wing and they've now been working together for almost five years.
Having a coach that is based in Lewis-Smallwood's hometown and that she can practice with year-round has made a huge difference. Turk made some major changes to her throwing technique, but she was patient and ready to learn.
"Probably the first three years I was with him, I was trying to figure out what he wanted me to do," Lewis-Smallwood said. "Every year he would add a piece to the technique, but I kind of wasn't sure where it was going. What made a big difference is the Olympic year  and this year. I really started to put it together where now I know everything he wants me to do and so now I'm really working on it."
Lewis-Smallwood is currently ranked third in the world in the discus after her fifth-place finish at the IAAF World Championships in Moscow this August.
"We are training as if our goal is to make an Olympic final and try to medal for 2016," Lewis-Smallwood said. "That's the track that we're on. Having done really well in Moscow, that was the goal that we wanted. I'm on the right steps to that. "I feel like there's a lot of work still left to do, now that I actually understand what I'm supposed to do," Lewis-Smallwood said. "Now I can really work on it and refine it."
Some of Lewis-Smallwood's friends and family wonder if it's time for a break for the Olympian after a strenuous four years, but she has never been more fired up about the possibilities for her future.
"I'm still kind of waiting for that shoe to drop, where I'll be like, `I need a break,'" Lewis-Smallwood said. "But even now coming from Moscow, I'm like `Let's go, I want to get better.' That really helped in '12, that huge surge of momentum. Going to the Olympics totally changed my life and so what we're seeing, the success of this year is a reflection of just how much the Olympics have impacted me for 2013. Just how much that experience changed my life."
A lot more goes into Lewis-Smallwood's training regimen than it used to, and rolling out of bed to go work out is no longer an option. Being an "older" athlete means you have a lot more to do to keep your body going the way it needs to. She completes rehab on a regular basis so she doesn't injure herself, and she can never have an "off" day. Even on her days "off" she has to do some form of active recovery, whether that's cycling, walking or swimming.
"I do something that gets my blood flowing every day, there's never a day I don't do that," Lewis-Smallwood said. "Because I am older, I kind of compare myself to like a car. If you ever had a nice classic car, it's great because it's classic and as you get older you know your body. You're more confident in who you are and you have beliefs that you really understand on a deeper level. You're just a better you at 34 than you were at 21 in terms of who you are.
"So like this classic car, as long as that car stays on, great. When you turn that car off, it might not start again," she said with a laugh. "It just needs to keep running."
Along with her discus training, she also works at the YWCA on the University of Illinois campus and is a volleyball coach at Parkland College in Champaign when she is home. She admits she has cut back on a lot of her activities she's had over the years, and now just focusing on the three main things she can do, with her training taking up 90 percent of her time. Needless to say, the former Illini is busy.
"Champaign is such a peaceful, wonderful place," she said. "You've got the brilliance of the university. You've got brilliant people, you've got cultural awareness, you get a wonderful deeper perspective of looking at life. You also have parks and a sense of freeness here that you don't always find other places. Other places, it's busy and hard to feel that sense of freeness. It just feels like you can take a breath and sometimes in other cities it doesn't feel like that. This is really my oasis. This is my breathing spot, so I always come back and take a breath. It just feels fabulous every time I'm here. I love it, I love it, I love it. And then I'm always ready to go, it works for me that way."
Lewis-Smallwood's husband also works for the university and is very busy as well, but he always makes her major competitions. After all of the training, competing and seeing the world, she is always able to come back to the comfort of her hometown.
"One of the things that's phenomenal about living in Champaign and training here is that as successful as I've been, people congratulate me and have been wildly supportive, but they respect my training," Lewis-Smallwood said. "It helps because it makes you still feel very normal. You don't feel like your whole world is completely different. On one hand, it's been great, all the love and support that's come out. That's amazing. But on the other hand, you still are you and you still get to go to the grocery store normally, you still get to do all those things. Your life is a better version of your life, but it's still your same life."
Most recently, Lewis-Smallwood placed second in the Diamond League, which took place on Sept. 6 in Brussels, Belgium. On Sept. 3, she won the Hanzekovic Memorial, beating 2012 Olympic Champion and 2013 World Champion Sandra Perkovic in her hometown on Zagreb, Croatia. It was Perkovic's first defeat since July of 2012.