Two-time Olympic gold medalist Michele Smith shows her medals to a young fan at the Clearwater For Youth Meet the Pros event in November 2015.
CLEARWATER – Ever since Michele Smith burst onto the national scene more than two decades ago, the two-time Olympic gold medalist and longtime ESPN softball analyst said she regularly gets recognized for two things – her iconic hairstyle and her softball success.
But while her ringed blonde locks and wicked riseball helped catapult her to international superstardom after she led Team USA to consecutive gold medals in 1996 and 2000, Smith has remained firmly connected to the greater Clearwater area, a place she used to visit as a kid and where she now donates a great deal of her time to promoting the sport.
“I grew up in New Jersey and went to school at Oklahoma State University, but I had a lot of aunts and uncles in the Tampa area, so I would come down and visit them,” Smith said by phone recently during a break in her broadcasting schedule.
“When I went over to play professionally in Japan in the early ’90s, my offseason was basically mid-November through mid-March, so I would come down and live with my aunt and that’s when I just fell in love with Pinellas County. My whole premise of residing in this area was so I could continue training in the offseason, so for me it was just a no-brainer to be in this area. That helped me through training for the ’96 Olympics and then 2000, and the more I was training around here, the more I got connected with the community and obviously, Clearwater has one of the best softball communities in the entire country, and being able to be a part of that and really motivate the kids in the area where I lived was special to me.”
Throughout her decorated career, which includes seven worldwide gold medals, eight Japan League championships to go along with eight league MVPs, being named a 10-time All American in the Women’s Major ASA Fastpitch league and working with three American presidents on health and fitness initiatives, Smith has stayed committed to promoting the sport through camps and clinics, keynote and motivational speaking engagements and other appearances, including one she made recently at the dedication of the new softball field at Countryside High School.
“I’ve always done camps and clinics my entire career, as long as I can remember,” she said. “It’s been a big part of what I do, because I like to give back to the kids and the community.”
It was through these various avenues that Smith was introduced to Clearwater For Youth, a nonprofit organization that provides scholarships and opportunities for children to play organized sports, regardless of their economic situation.
“Clearwater For Youth awarded me with the Champion of Sport one year, and I spoke at the dinner and donated some of my Olympic memorabilia, and the next year they asked me if I’d like to sit on the board,” she explained. “I’ve been on the board for three years now, and it’s been a lot of fun. It’s really great to be able to work with people who are all so passionate about kids. Clearwater For Youth is one of the best-kept secrets around. The slogan is ‘no child turned away’ and it really is about giving kids the opportunity to play sports, no matter the economic status of their family or whether they’re living inside Clearwater or the surrounding areas. The purpose is to really take care of the kids and keep them busy … because everybody realizes when kids are active and playing team sports and communicating and learning to work together, it’s helping young people become healthy adults who go on and contribute to the community, as well.”
Longtime CFY board member and current chair Brian Aungst has as much praise for Smith’s work as she has for the organization. “Michele Smith has been a major addition to the Clearwater For Youth Board of Trustees,” Aungst said. “Michele is a world class athlete, universally recognized as the “greatest player in the history of women's softball,” and she brings credibility and incredible passion for helping young people to our board. We are incredibly lucky to have her in our community and on our board!”
In addition to Smith’s clinics, speaking engagements and community work, the 49-year-old still finds time to broadcast 50 college softball games a year from all around the country.
“I’ve been calling games for ESPN, really, since the mid-’90s and, obviously, it wasn’t as frequent because back then there wasn’t as much softball on television,” she said. “But in 2009, the year after I retired, ESPNU was exploding and then a couple years later the SEC Network came along, so there’s just a lot of programming opportunities now for the sport of softball, and a lot of games are televised because it rates very well. So it’s just bloomed into a full-time job for me at this time of year.”
Somehow, amid all the traveling, training and talking, Smith has also found time to dabble in real estate; she recently purchased a small hotel in Sunset Beach, in part to help plan for her post-broadcasting life and to continue to strengthen her ties to the greater Tampa Bay area.
“I don’t know how long I’ll be broadcasting, so I thought it certainly would be nice to have a job where I don’t always have to hop on a plane!” she said. “The hotel is very small, but it just gives me the opportunity to have a bigger connection locally with the community where I live.”
If it sounds like Smith leads a hectic life, it’s because she does.
But despite still being recognized pretty much everywhere she goes, albeit for different reasons, she hasn’t let her fame and good fortune alter her perspective on what’s most important in life.
“People used to recognize me because of my hair, or for being ‘that Olympic pitcher,’ but now when I go through the airport for being ‘that ESPN lady’!” she said with a laugh, before adding, “I really feel like I’ve been blessed and that’s the reason why I do a lot of charitable work, with Clearwater For Youth and some other charity boards. Because for me, I feel like not everybody else has the opportunities that I’ve come across, so I’d like to share and make a difference where I can. I feel very fortunate to be able to use my experience to help others.”