By Justin Kischefsky
ANNAPOLIS, Md., July 13. AS Joe Smutz first looked at his name on the scoreboard after competing in the 50-meter freestyle final at the USA Swimming Spring Championship April 1 in Federal Way, Wash., he saw agony. When his Navy teammates and coaches looked at "Smutz" on the same scoreboard, they saw ecstasy.
Hoping to finish among the top-three swimmers in the race, Smutz first turned his attention to the part of the scoreboard listing "Place" and saw a "5" next to his name. In his mind, he had failed to reach his goal and he showed his disappointment.
However, also listed on the same line was the number "23.33." It was his time in the race and when the remainder of the Navy contingent saw it they started cheering wildly. They realized immediately what Smutz didn't, at first: his time qualified him for what many call the most competitive swimming meet in the world, the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials.
As the realization of what he accomplished on that spring night began to set in, Smutz knew he would have two years of training and waiting ahead of him until first day of the trials. However, after enduring a near-tragic event only two summers earlier, that wait would be an easy one for him.
Born in Baltimore and raised in nearly Marriottsville, Smutz first took to the water when he was just several months old. His mom, Regina, was a lifeguard who also taught swimming lessons. When she went to work, she took Joe with her and often used him as the demonstration baby, and later, child, for the group.
That life near the water continued during his early years of grade school as Joe was home schooled by his mom, schooling which often took place when they were at the local pool.
After years of "just playing in the water," Smutz joined his first swim team in the fifth grade when he signed up for the Columbia Aquatics Association. He competed with the club through his junior year of high school when he joined the team at Loyola Blakefield High School.
"I started playing water polo as a junior in high school," said Smutz. "My coach said it would help my quickness if I joined the high school swim team, as well."
His lone season as a prep swimmer was a memorable one as he totaled four gold medals at the MIAA conference meet. For his efforts he was selected as the Baltimore Sun High School Male Athlete of the Week.
While Smutz was competing on the swimming team, thoughts of water polo didn't stray too far from his mind as he earned all-league honors in both sports during his senior year. It was the sport of water polo, along with his family, which eventually led him to consider attending the Naval Academy.
"My dad (Huber) was in the Navy and while I was growing up he would sometimes make comments to me like, 'Get your elbows off the table at dinner … they won't let you do that at the Naval Academy,'" recounted Smutz. "As a result, the idea of attending Navy was in my mind from the time I was young.
"Once I started playing water polo, I joined the Navy club team the summer after my junior year. After playing for the team and spending time here, I began to seriously think about attending Navy. When (Navy water polo coach) Mike Schofield began recruiting me, I decided to go through the application process so I could go to school here."
As is often the case for freshmen, Smutz endured some struggles during his initial year at Navy. He made the water polo team's travel squad for the first part of the schedule, but then academic problems took him off the road for the remainder of the season.
With academics no longer an issue for him the following year, Smutz started a good portion of the 2003 water polo season and nearly tripled his offensive production from his first year to 12 goals and six assists.
Navy battled Princeton in the title game of the Collegiate Water Polo Association Eastern Championship that fall, with the winner advancing on to the NCAA Championship. A Smutz goal with three minutes to play gave the Mids a 7-5 lead and helped secure an eventual 8-6 triumph over the Tigers.
Navy was paired against USC in the semifinal round of the championship, held in Palo Alto, Calif. The Mids tallied five goals in the fourth period, but fell to the Trojans, 10-6. Despite the loss to the eventual national champions and another setback in the consolation game, a 10-7 decision to No. 7 Loyola Marymount, the trip and the chance to compete on a national stage was a rewarding opportunity for Smutz.
"It was an amazing experience," said Smutz. "Just getting introduced to the crowd before the semifinal game was memorable.
"I think a lot of people expected us to get smoked out there, but we did pretty well."
"Joe developed tremendously from the start of his freshman year to the end of his sophomore season," said Schofield. "He went from being a project to a difference maker."
At the conclusion of the water polo season, Schofield suggested to Smutz that he begin training with the Navy swimming team to help his water polo skills. It was an idea Smutz first balked at.
"The coaches said working with the swimming team would help my quickness and endurance, but I argued with them about it," said Smutz. "I had other things I wanted to work on, like my shot and my ability to tread water. But I had a lot of respect for the opinions of the coaches and I said I would give it a try."
When Smutz first began training as a swimmer prior to Christmas break, he was pretty much by himself due to Navy being in exams and having no formal team practice routine. After the holidays the team was back together, but Smutz often felt as if he was still alone in the pool.
"I really didn't know any of the guys, I wasn't used to the training they did and I didn't feel like a swimmer, so I pretty much kept to myself for awhile," said Smutz.
It didn't take long, however, for Smutz to both regain his swimming confidence and endear himself to his new teammates.
"Our assistant coach at the time, McGee Moody, said to the sprint group at the start of one of our practices that if anyone could beat a certain time in a workout we all could have the practice off," remembered Smutz.
"Everyone was expecting Noah White (Navy record holder in the 50 free, 2004 Olympic Trials qualifier) to break the mark, and I was placed in the lane next to him. I figured I had nothing to lose so I said to myself I was going to give it all I had. We both ended up beating the time, with Noah touching me out at the end.
"After I got out of the pool, Coach Moody came up to me and said the time I just posted placed me onto the relay team for our championship meets. I wasn't expecting that at all."
"From the first day we saw him, both Bill (Roberts, Navy head coach) and I felt Joe had it in him to be one of the best sprinters on the team," recalled Moody. "I don't think Joe did, however. He felt as if he was there to be in a supporting role.
"That workout was the major turning point for his development as a swimmer. We purposely put Joe next to Noah for it. I still remember the stunned look on Joe's face after Noah barely edged him at the wall. That workout proved to Joe he could accomplish anything as long as he believed he could do it. From that day on he was a major player on the team."
With his newfound confidence, the 2004 postseason became one to remember for Smutz and the Mids. At the Patriot League Championship in Navy's Lejeune Hall, Smutz set a Navy and league meet record of 44.30 in the trials of the 100-yard freestyle and reached the finals in three individual events (100 free, second place; 50 free, third place; 200 free, eighth place). In addition, he helped Navy win the 200 and 400 freestyle relays at the championship, with both foursomes also posting qualifying times for the NCAA Championship Meet.
One week later, Smutz and Navy's 400 free relay team won the title at the Eastern Intercollegiate Swimming League Championship, the first relay title won by a Navy team at the meet in five years and the program's first 400 free relay crown in over two decades. Smutz also scored points in a trio of individual events at the meet and reached the championship final in the 50 and 100 freestyle races.
Navy qualified five athletes for the 2004 NCAA Championship Meet, the largest Navy squad to compete at the championship in over 30 years. Smutz and the Navy relay teams would earn Honorable Mention All-America honors in the 200 and 400 freestyle relay events, with Smutz also competing as an individual in the 50 and 100 freestyle races.
"I was awestruck," said Smutz of the atmosphere at the swimming championship held on Long Island. "There were so many more people at the swim meet than there were at the water polo championship, and I thought there were a lot of people at Stanford. The pool deck was filled with competitors and the stands were full of fans. I couldn't believe how fast everyone was going in the pool."
The summer of 2004 was to be filled with equal parts hard work and relaxation for Smutz. After all, he had two years left at Navy and had just completed a school year that saw him compete at the national championship meet in two sports. The future could not have looked brighter.
"Joe was really playing at a high level that summer," said Schofield. "We had a 6-foot, 9-inch player from Serbia with us that summer and he and Joe went at it during every practice. Joe kept getting better and soon Marko came up to me all frustrated because he could not get around Joe.
"Joe's best days were ahead of him, in both sports."
Looking for a break from the rigors of life at the Academy, Smutz and some classmates traveled to Virginia Beach for the July 4th holiday. One day prior to Independence Day, the 6-foot, 8-inch Smutz and his friends were running into the ocean and belly flopping onto the top of the incoming waves.
"We were all running into the water when I hit a gully in the sand," said Smutz. "It jarred me and instead of hitting the waves on my belly I went in head first and hit a sand bar."
Instantly, Smutz knew something was wrong.
"It felt like fire went through the veins of my entire body, then I felt kind of tingly, like when you sleep on your arm," said Smutz. "It seemed as if a thousand needles were poking through my skin."
Smutz floated up to the top of the water on his back and told one of his friends he needed help. At first his friend didn't believe him, until he saw the look on Joe's face. Another friend quickly came over and the duo carefully carried Smutz onto the beach.
"One of my friends was a lifeguard, so she stabilized my neck while another went to call 911," said Smutz. "The waves were starting to come in a little, so the others used surfboards to surround me from the waves so they wouldn't jar me. They asked me if I hurt anywhere and I said my eyes did from the sand, so they took some bottled water and washed out my eyes."
In a matter of minutes the ambulance arrived. As the paramedics were examining him, they also were asking Smutz questions. They were routine questions, but in his state of shock Smutz struggled to provide answers to them.
"Are old are you?" they asked. "I'm 19, no 18, wait, I'm 20."
"Do you know where you are?" "No."
"Do you know what year it is?" "No."
"Do you know who the President is?" "Yes! Dubya is the President! George Bush is the President, I know that!"
Smutz was quickly transported to Virginia Beach General Hospital where he underwent a MRI exam. The tests revealed he had shattered his C-3 vertebrate. It was what doctors called a "wedge" fracture, meaning one side of his vertebrate had collapsed into the shape of a pizza slice or wedge.
As one would expect, the news was hard for Smutz to take.
"The doctor said the good news was that I was alive, but the bad news was I had shattered my vertebrate," said Smutz. "I knew what that meant and I just broke down crying."
The nearby Navy hospital had specialists available, so the decision was made to transport Smutz there immediately, with surgery expected for the next day.
"Prior to surgery I had to sign a form saying I knew there was the chance I could die during surgery or come out paralyzed," said Smutz. "I thought to myself I really need to start praying."
The surgery lasted close to six hours and the procedure involved removing the broken bones in his neck and replacing them with cadaver bones and a titanium plate. In addition, his C-2, C-3 and C-4 vertebrates were fused together.
Later that night, Smutz was able to climb out of bed and walk 15-20 feet across the room to a chair near a window so he could watch the July 4th fireworks.
Smutz was slated to undergo a second surgery four days later, during which time four rods were to be inserted into his neck. The schedule changed following an examination Wednesday morning.
"The doctor came in and said the first surgery went so well they didn't need to have a second one," said Smutz.
His remarkable road to recovery was underway.
Smutz was placed in a neck brace for three months, during which time he was able to wade into a small pool only to cool down. The brace finally came off in late October and he could resume swimming.
"That was a big moment for me," said Smutz of the rehab milestone of removing the brace. "I was happy to be back in the pool and be able to workout again. I hadn't done anything for almost four months."
The initial practices for Smutz were planned out with care by the Navy coaches. He was to swim in a lane by himself to not only provide separation from his teammates, but also to the rolling waves they would kick up. Even with knowing the precautions being taken, it took a little while for Smutz to feel comfortable enough to actually get in the water that first day.
"It was weird that first day," said Smutz. "I slowly put my feet in the water and carefully slid in. I eventually pushed off the wall and swam for about 15 minutes. I was pretty sore after not moving my neck for several months, so turning my head to breathe was difficult at first."
"We weren't sure what to initially expect from Joe," said Navy assistant coach Adam Kennedy of his return to the pool. "Very soon, however, we found that instead of trying to push him, our efforts were spent on trying to hold him back. He was determined to not let his injury beat him or interrupt his progress.
"Being that tough is what defines him in the pool."
After just a few weeks, Roberts asked Smutz if he wanted to try swimming in a meet, specifically November 10 against George Washington in Lejeune Hall. Smutz thought about it, but was still a little leery about jumping off the starting blocks.
"I asked Bill if I could do a push start from in the pool and he said yes," said Smutz. "I said let's try it then.
"I was both nervous and excited about the chance to compete again. I was glad to be back racing, but I was nervous about how I would do after such a long time."
Any thoughts of Smutz being rusty were laid to rest in less than 25 seconds as he won his heat of the 50-meter freestyle and recorded one of the fastest times in the event at the dual meet. One of his teammates who, despite entering the pool at the start of the race via the traditional way of the starting blocks, was defeated by Smutz, looked at the times on the scoreboard afterwards and proclaimed, "I am so embarrassed for myself."
"I was ecstatic," said Smutz of his feelings after the race. "It was great to be back swimming and be able to still swim fast and kick some butt."
"One of the greatest acts I have been a witness to as a coach was that night," said Roberts. "Knowing what Joe had been through, seeing his fist thrust in the air with excitement after finishing the race was very symbolic and emotional. Joe was back."
Smutz quickly worked his way back into shape, winning five 50 freestyle races and six of his eight 100 free contests during the remainder of the regular season. At the Patriot League Championship, Smutz advanced to the final in a trio of individual events and was a member of three championship-winning relay teams as the Mids claimed their second-straight team title. It was then on to the EISL Championship where Smutz placed fifth in the 50 free and ninth in the 100 free.
Smutz received his first taste of competition above the collegiate level later that spring and summer as he qualified for the World Championship Trials and the ConocoPhillips National Championship. At both meets he found himself swimming against an all-star field of Olympians and champions on both the national and international levels.
"It was a little weird at first to be in a pool with Aaron Peirsol, Michael Phelps and Katelyn Sandeno," said Smutz. "Aaron broke the world record in the 100 backstroke while I was sitting on the edge of the pool. There were so many stars around me I was a little nervous at those meets last year.
"Competing at those meets helped me a lot, though. Whenever I was wearing down at practice, thinking about the chance to once again compete at those meets and at that level helped push me through the workouts. Those thoughts helped kick me in the butt to compete harder and keep working to improve."
Smutz had a banner senior season at Navy, winning all but one of his 50 freestyle races (losing to teammate Mike Linn in his lone setback) and posting a 12-3 record in the 100 free during Navy's 2005-06 dual meet season.
As strong as Smutz was during the regular season, he was even better at the Patriot League Championship in Annapolis. The first night session at the meet began with Smutz anchoring Navy's 200 freestyle relay team to a title. Smutz then broke through after three years and recorded his first individual title at the championship with a victory in the 50 freestyle race.
The final event of the evening was the 400 medley relay and when Smutz was on the blocks awaiting the start of his anchor (freestyle) leg of the race, he saw trouble. Navy was in third place and trailed first-place Army by nearly one second. Smutz entered the water and posted a time of 20.73 over his opening 50 yards to quickly pull into a near deadheat with Army's anchor swimmer, then recorded a closing 50-yard time of 23.29 to give Navy a nearly one-half second victory in the race.
It was another close call for Navy the following night in the final of the 200 medley relay. Smutz again was to anchor the relay and when he entered the water the Mids were two-tenths of a second behind Bucknell. Smutz sliced his way through the 50 yards in a time of 19.70 to give Navy a one-second victory in the race.
A comeback by Smutz was also needed later that night in the 200 freestyle final. Smutz trailed defending champion Efri Ruthenberg of Army by four-tenths of a second after both the 100 and 150-yard marks, but he blazed through the final lap to win the race by 15-hundredths of a second.
The final day of the championship began with Smutz posting a time of 44.08 during the trial heats of the 100 freestyle to break his own Navy and league meet record. Smutz would have to settle for second place in the final of the event that evening, though, as Linn edged Smutz by three-hundredths of a second for the title.
At the conclusion of the championship, Smutz was selected as the Patriot League Swimmer of the Meet.
With one league championship meet down, Smutz and the Mids traveled to the EISL Championship the following week. Individually, Smutz would place fifth in both the 50 and 100 freestyle events and ninth in the 200 free, as well as help Navy to a pair of top-three showings in the 200 medley and 400 freestyle relay events.
"I was happy with how my senior year went," said Smutz, who also recorded several NCAA 'B' cut qualifying times during the campaign. "I was happy to be back in the water and back in shape. I was revitalized and had a new willingness to train and a desire to win. We changed my stroke a little bit, making it longer and stronger, and that really made a difference."
While his collegiate career may have come to a close, there was still more swimming ahead for Smutz. He and several of his teammates traveled to Federal Way, Wash., in late March to take part in the aforementioned USA Swimming Spring Championship. After placing sixth in the championship final of the 100 freestyle on the opening day of the meet, Smutz helped Navy place 16th overall in the 800 freestyle relay on the second day and fourth in the 400 freestyle relay on day three. All of this set the stage for a memorable April Fool's Day and the 50 freestyle event.
As he thought about his prospects in the event that day, Smutz first set a goal for himself of advancing to the final, which he did by recording the seventh-best time during the trial heats.
"After achieving my first goal of the day, advancing to the final, I next wanted to finish with a high place and maybe win the race," said Smutz. "I didn't think I would qualify for the trials that day, so I wasn't thinking about it too much.
"When I finished the race I looked at the placings and saw I was fifth, so I was pretty upset for a couple of seconds. I then looked over at my time and said to myself, 'Whoa, wait a minute.' It took a couple of seconds for the time to sink in. It was a surprise, but a very happy one."
"When Joe qualified for the trials it was both exciting and expected, for all of us," said Kennedy who was there to witness the feat. "I am sure Joe was excited he made the standard, probably not as much as the rest of us were, though, because I know Joe was upset he did not win the race. That is a character trait which will continue to make him a great competitor.
"I believe he can be one of the very best in the country in 2008. He is a young swimmer who is learning daily about his stroke and the mechanics required to become a contender at the trials."
"I'm not surprised by what Joe has been able to accomplish since his injury," said Schofield. "The sky was the limit for him in both sports prior to his injury and it remains the limit for him in swimming. With strong training and his continued motivation, there is no telling what he will be able to accomplish in his career."
As Smutz returned to Annapolis to close out the final six weeks of his senior year, another surprise came for him as he was awarded the Thompson Trophy Cup by the Naval Academy Athletic Association. Smutz is the first men's swimmer to win the award, which has been presented since 1894 to "that midshipman who has done the most during the year to promote athletics at the Naval Academy."
Among the past winners of the award are Heisman Trophy winners Joe Bellino and Roger Staubach, as well as basketball great David Robinson.
"I was shocked when I heard I won the award," said Smutz. "I never thought a men's swimmer, let alone me, would win a trophy of that magnitude."
After earning his degree in mechanical engineering from the Academy and receiving his commission in the Navy as an Ensign, Smutz traveled to Athens, Ga., where he currently is studying at Navy's supply corps school. He is also continuing to swim at the University of Georgia and will compete with the school's club team at the ConocoPhillips National Championship, August 1-5 in Irvine, Calif.
"It has been a real kick in the pants," said Smutz of the training regiment at Georgia. "There are some fast swimmers here who have won NCAA titles, but they have greeted me with open arms."
With a berth already secured in the 2008 Olympic Trials in the 50 freestyle, Smutz will now set his sights on qualifying for the meet in the 100 freestyle. Regardless of what may transpire in two years at the trials, the opportunity to simply compete with the best in the country that week is something Smutz is anticipating greatly.
"I'm looking forward to competing at the trials, but it still seems a little surreal to me," said Smutz. "It sinks in a little more each day, but it still doesn't seem possible.
"I never thought this dream would become reality."