Olympian used to throwing convention aside
CHAMPAIGN — When Gia Lewis-Smallwood was 4 weeks old, doctors instructed her mother, Delilah Lewis, to put the infant on her stomach when she was sleeping so Gia wouldn't choke if she threw up.
"I took her in for a checkup and they asked me if I was doing that, and I told them Gia doesn't want to be on her stomach. She always rolls over to her back; that's what she wanted to do," Delilah said. "Even when she was a baby, she was so determined to do whatever it is she wanted to do."
The self-determination that's been there since the beginning has led Gia to where she is today. After failed attempts in 2000, 2004 and 2008 to make the United States' Olympic team in the discus, the 33-year-old former Centennial and Illinois standout broke through at the Trials in Eugene, Ore., earlier this month and will throw for gold in London.
"I've worked so hard for this; it's such a dream come true," said Gia, who didn't start throwing the discus regularly until she was a 19-year-old sophomore at the UI.
It's been a rewarding journey but a very difficult one. One that takes the same certitude Gia displayed as a 4-week-old.
From the time she left the UI in 2002 until 2009, Gia was unsponsored, meaning she had to pay her own entry fees into meets and travel at her own expense. That's where Mom and Dad stepped up.
Starting when Gia competed in her first national track meet in Florida as a 6-year-old sprinter, William, an economist with the USDA, and Delilah Lewis, a part-time worker at Atkins Tennis Center, have made sure all the monetary details were taken care of for their daughter.
"They drove me to Florida for the little kids' nationals," Gia said. "They have sat on more bleachers than I can imagine. They have driven me around the country for track and field for the last 26 years. If it were not for the financial support of my parents for years, I would not have been able to do this."
They put miles on their vehicles, sprung for hotel rooms and even bought groceries on the road so Gia could maintain a proper diet with no hesitation, all so their daughter could see her dream through.
"We really enjoyed doing it all," Delilah said. "There was never any doubt that it was worth it to us. Whether she made it or not, we just wanted to support her in something she loved to do. Something she was happy doing."
That doesn't mean the Lewises weren't happy when Gia became a part of USA Track and Field's High-Performance program in 2009, a distinction that came with a sponsorship from Nike.
"That was a relief, it really was," Delilah said. "At this point she was already married, and on top of that we gave her a big wedding. This is probably our first year where we have not had to pay for anything. First years since she was born."
The Lewises were almost off the hook in 2008, when Gia was close to giving up the sport. At the 2008 Olympic Trials, Gia scratched on all three of her attempts and finished last in the competition. She had reached her breaking point. She was still unsponsored and felt guilty about her parents shelling out thousands of dollars every year when the results weren't there.
"I was engaged then, and my husband, who's also my strength coach, was (at the Trials) with me and I remember saying, 'I can't do this; it's too much,' " Gia said. "He just said, 'I'm not going to let you quit.' I remember going out to practice in August and my heart literally hurting. It hurt me to throw the discus; it was painful to throw."
But Tim Smallwood knew his wife was capable of more if she stuck with it.
"I knew her physical abilities and her athleticism were better than anyone else I saw in the American field," he said. "I knew that the potential was there, and I knew if she didn't see that through that she would be kicking herself down the road."
Delilah hated so much seeing her daughter in pain that she encouraged Gia, who holds degrees in political science, economics and Spanish from the UI, to make use of her embarrassment with her other talents.
"I told her she didn't have to go through this; go to law school. She plays the violin beautifully; do that," Delilah said. "She was heartbroken. It hurt me so much to see her going through that."
Gia would bring on Illinois men's track and field coach Mike Turk as her new throwing coach soon after the failure at the 2008 Trials in an effort to get her career moving back in the right direction. Turk completely retooled Gia's throwing technique. And while the physical part took about a year to master, it was the mental part of competing that Gia — who maintains a bubbly personality that would make Dee Brown seem shy in comparison — had the toughest time overcoming.
"We were trying to rebuild her confidence and model her thinking into knowing she was capable of what she's doing now," Turk said. "She's very coachable; that wasn't a problem. The psychological problem took a little more effort because it was about getting her to understand her abilities were good enough to compete at the highest level. It was also about teaching her that consistency was going to get her to that level and not just one big performance."
By 2010, Gia was throwing the international "A" standard distance of about 204 feet regularly, and she became a player on the international stage. Making the Olympic team went from a pipe dream to a reality.
"I really started at that point thinking about my world ranking. Up until that point I was never worried about my world ranking, I was always worried about where I was ranked in the United States," said Gia, an All-America thrower at Illinois who scored seven points in six games in one season for the UI basketball team in 1997-98. "I had a world ranking in the top 20, then top 15. I started really thinking about that and wanting to be one of the best throwers in the world. I was always trying to be one of the best in America but never in the world. In 2010, that became really important."
Gia's current world ranking is 18, but in Champaign-Urbana she's No. 1. Dozens attended a benefit for Gia on Friday at Fat City, and others made contributions to her Olympic fund through online donations. After she made the Olympic team, her Facebook page was bombarded with congratulatory messages.
"I always say this, Champaign-Urbana has been so good to me. A lot of people have different experiences, but mine has been great," said Gia, who maintains a residence in her hometown, works at the YWCA on campus and helps coach the Parkland volleyball team. "I had supportive people coming out of the woodwork. I've just had so much support and so much love here that it's sort of impossible to eventually not do well. The people here were just so incredibly good and positive for me. They were good at making sure my self-esteem was high. If not for this community, if I was somewhere else it would be so hard. This community made it so easy. There have been so many people in my life who have been so wonderful, and they really didn't have to be."
And it's not just because she's become an Olympic athlete. The 1997 Centennial graduate has been feeling the love since she entered high school. With an easy smile and an engaging personality, she's just someone folks can't help but like.
"I've seen her over the course of the years, and I just saw something in Gia when she first entered Centennial High School," former Centennial Principal Dr. Lila Sullivan said. "There was just a spark about her. I knew she was going to go places and do great things. She's just a marvelous woman. I love to see students in high school and see them go on to do great things in life. It's just so rewarding. She was very popular and very well-respected by other students, faculty and staff."
Gia has plenty of support back home, and she'll have some in London, too. Husband Tim Smallwood and his dad, Roger, are making the trip, as is Turk. Mom Delilah will be there, too, though Dad William can't make it. He's staying home to look after his ailing mother. Gia's brother, William Paul, a 1999 Centennial graduate, is an officer in the U.S. Navy, and he'll be in Afghanistan the next eight months helping troops prepare for withdrawal.
"My heart is rejoicing on one side for Gia and sad on the other because I really want him home and safe," Delilah said.
If Gia throws what she is capable of in London, she'll be in contention for a medal. Her personal-best throw is 209 feet, 10 inches (63.97 meters). The gold medalist in 2008, Stephanie Brown-Trafton of the U.S., won with a throw of 217-1 (66.17). The silver medalist in 2008 threw 205-1 (62.51) and the bronze medalist 204-2 (62.26).
"Any given day, she's thrown far enough to do real well," Turk said. "If we look back at 2008, Brown-Trafton went in kind of like Gia. She almost didn't make the team out of the Olympic Trials; she was the last qualifier. She made it through to the finals, and in the final her first throw, she hit a good throw and it held up and she won a gold medal. I don't think that Stephanie was any better in '08 than Gia is now. She was maybe a little more experienced on a world level, but I don't think her ability at the time was any better."
For her part, Gia is taking it one step at a time.
"My biggest expectations is to do two things: One is make the final, and that takes top 12. Second is to make the top eight, and once you're there you're in a position where anything can happen," Gia said. "But if you're not there, you'll never know what could happen."
London won't be Gia's first taste of international competition. She competed at the World Championships in 2011, and that experience likely will help settle any nerves.
"She's gotten a taste of the format and a good feel for international competition," Tim Smallwood said. "The goal is to make it to the finals."
No matter the outcome, one thing is certain: Gia will have scores of people feeling a sense of pride that she's reached this elite level.
"I'm just so happy for her. I know how hard she's worked," Turk said. "The price she paid to have an opportunity to continue in the sport is really steep."
Said Delilah: "Words just could not express the joy I felt when she made the team. I've always traveled with her through the good and the bad and the heartbreak and the crying and her picking herself up again and again. For a mother, that's really hard, but that's just her personality. It's a blessing and a curse."
It's been a long time coming, but the girl whose determination was first evident four weeks into her life is prepared to take her career to new heights.
"Everyone says I'm the poster child for never quitting, never giving up," she said. "I'm very fortunate because you can be very old and still kick butt in the discus pretty easily."
Going for gold
Gia Lewis-Smallwood and swimmer Tyler McGill are looking to join an elite list of area products who have medaled at the Olympics. A look:
Bonnie Blair —Speedskater, featured on a Corn Flakes box, competed in four Olympics, winning five gold medals and a bronze.
Jonathan Kuck —Uni High product won a silver medal at the 2010 Vancouver Games in the speedskating team pursuit.
Katherine Reutter — Personable speedskater won silver in Vancouver in the 1,000 meters and bronze in the 3,000 relay.
Bob Richards — Champaign native and Wheaties cover boy won the gold medal in pole vault in 1952 and '56 and bronze in 1948.
Don Laz — Urbana native and former Illini was the silver medalist in the pole vault at the 1952 Helsinki Games.
Bill Mulliken — Champaign Central product won gold in the 200 breaststroke in Rome in 1960.
Mark Arie — Tolono native won gold in trap shooting and team clay pigeons in 1920 in Antwerp.