By Betsy Veysman
Two-time NCAA qualifier Kevin Smith trains from 8:30 in the morning to 4:30 in the afternoon Monday through Friday – but not in the wrestling room.
The 141-pounder is in his second year of the doctoral program in physical therapy at the University at Buffalo. He is in the midst of a clinical internship at a nursing home facility in the area, where he spends eight hours of each weekday honing his physical therapy skills.
Smith has been surprised that he has enjoyed the work, saying that the nursing home rotation “isn’t appealing to most young people.”
But after talking to him and his coach, it became pretty clear that Smith isn’t “most young people.”
“Kevin has done everything right,” said Buffalo head coach Jim Beichner. “He’s been steady in every way he could possibly be. He’s one of the winningest wrestlers in our program’s history. He’s an exceptional student. He works hard at everything. You really can’t ask for more than what Kevin gives you.”
In the classroom, he has maintained a 3.7 grade point average. After three years of undergraduate work, he applied to the doctoral program and was one of about 40 accepted students out of approximately 150 applicants. His academic efforts have been recognized as he has been named to the All-Academic Teams both nationally (NWCA) and in the Mid American Conference (MAC) all three of his seasons.
But he has also had plenty of success on the mat. After his redshirt year, he stepped into the lineup at 133 pounds and compiled a 29-9 record. As a sophomore, he took a step forward, placing third at the MAC championships and going to his first NCAA tournament, where he went 1-2. He had some big victories in his 35-14 junior campaign, where he found himself ranked in the top 10 for portions of the season. In March, he again placed third at his conference tournament and earned a victory at NCAAs.
For his final year of competition, Smith moved up to 141 pounds. He has racked up a 25-7 record and with two more victories will take over second place on the all-time Buffalo wins list, ahead of Jimmy Hamel and behind the squad’s last All-American, Kyle Cerminara. Smith isn’t satisfied.
“I’m relatively disappointed in this season, to be honest,” he said. “It was a big challenge adapting to the new weight class. I found it more difficult to score points, but I’m starting to find my rhythm now. I think I’m peaking at the right time. What happens in the next month and a half is what matters.”
The goals from now until mid-March are not a secret. Smith wants to win his first MAC title and then reach the podium in St. Louis at NCAAs.
“I’m still without a MAC championship ring, so first and foremost I want to do that, both for myself and for the team,” he said. “Then, I want to get back to nationals and surprise some people; upset some big names and get on the podium.”
To get there, Beichner feels that Smith needs to stay on the offensive.
“Kevin has started to wrestle really well,” he said. “Sometimes at this level, you play the defensive game. Kevin is at his best when he’s aggressive on his feet, constantly attacking people. If he keeps doing that, he’ll have the chance to reach his goals.”
According to Smith, being at 141 allows him to take this approach.
“I think not cutting as much weight has given me much more energy and I’ve been able to be more aggressive. In the matches I’ve lost, it hasn’t been my opponents taking me down off their shots. It’s been my inability to finish. That’s what I’m working on fine tuning now.”
On the final Sunday in January against Ohio University, Smith didn’t have an issue finishing his shots in his 4-0 victory over Darren Boing. The match held special significance for a number of reasons. It was the Takedown Cancer Dual, an effort started in honor of former teammate Jeff Parker, who passed away from melanoma. In addition, it was Senior Night and Smith’s last home bout.
“My entire family was there,” Smith said. “Knowing that I won’t ever walk on that mat again in Alumni Arena as a UB athlete was pretty emotional for me. There was also the emotion from Takedown Cancer. It was a night I’ll never forget. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to win the dual and that was upsetting, but overall it was a memorable night.”
Beichner felt the same way.
“I thought Kevin wrestled as well as I’ve seen him wrestle this year in front of a good crowd,” the coach said. “I had a little tear in my eye knowing he wrestled his last home match. It was a good way for him to go out. I’m really proud of him.”
The Mexico, NY native has had a lot to be proud of recently. He was named the MAC Wrestler of the Week for the fourth time of his career. He also was named the conference’s Scholar Athlete of the Week, an honor he has collected in the past as well. At the New York State Championships on January 22, he captured the 141-pound title and was named the Most Outstanding Wrestler.
This mixture of academic and athletic awards toward the end of his career is fitting for Smith.
“I could tell from the first time I met Kevin and his parents that they had goals in the classroom and on the mat,” Beichner said. “They understood that athletics are a tool to help you get somewhere in life. When I was in college, I thought wrestling was everything. It’s a lot, but you don’t wrestle until you’re 70. Kevin has understood all along that working hard in the wrestling room and outside of it is the key to his future. If I had 10 Kevin Smiths in the room, we’d never lose. He has a bright future ahead of him.”
For Smith that future includes what he hopes will be a memorable March. Then he will get back to school, which he will finish in the spring of 2013 and have the chance to achieve a goal he has had for years.
“When I broke my arm in seventh grade while wrestling, I had to go through physical therapy,” he said. “It really interested me at the time and I thought it was what I wanted to do.”
He is getting that chance in the nursing facility where, in his words, he is “giving elderly patients the best quality of life possible for their remaining years.”
On the mat, in the classroom and at the bedside, quality seems to be a way of life for Kevin Smith.