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Celebrating C-U Life: Gia Lewis-Smallwood

When you were young what did you want to be? Was it a doctor? Lawyer? Rock star? Or maybe you wanted to be Superman. Most of the time those ideas give way to experience and a passion develops for a specific type of work. But once in a while you know from your earliest moments what you want to do. Then you spend the rest of your life perfecting it. That’s just what Gia Lewis-Smallwood has done.

Gia is native to Champaign. Her parents, originally from Georgia, brought up a daughter who was taught to be whoever she wanted to be, and always stay true to herself. Gia stuck with that. She noticed when she was young that in playful races with neighborhood boys she could not only beat them to the finish line, but had enough time to tease them about not being as fast as her. Fun in the neighborhood caught the eye of her mother who put her in pee-wee track. With that she took off, literally. She did so well she qualified for the Pee-Wee Olympics in Florida. G-Force then became a force to be reckoned with. Through high school and college she continued to excel at track and field. From a natural talent came a dream to take it all the way.

For Gia, though, it’s not the destination. It’s the journey. She believes that all of the people that have been in her life have added to her solid foundation, even if it was only for a moment. The teacher that was supportive. The friend at the gym who always offered encouragement. Even if all they offered was a simple smile, she has appreciated it all. Her gratitude begins with her parents. Her mother, a “girly girl,” knew Gia would never be the frills, make up, and fashionista type. And that was just fine with her. She jokes that Gia wanted her wedding to be low-key, with attention being on something other than her. When she suggested a backyard style wedding, her mother said “No!” It could be that Gia’s mother knew the wedding might be one of the few times Gia would be caught in a dress and dolled up. She gave her mother that moment and gave her guests a beautiful vision that included a breathtaking backdrop in the Smokey Mountains National Park.

Her marriage to her husband came from what started as a natural connection between a coach and his athlete. After years of training with her strength coach, she realized there was something else there. He’s still one of her biggest cheerleaders. She jokes that he’s even tougher on her now than before they became involved romantically. “When I want to skip a workout he’s telling me ‘No way.’” But you can’t blame him. Out of persistency, dedication, and a passion for sports, she’s made it as far as you can go: The Olympics. On July 21st she leaves Champaign to cross the pond to the 2012 Olympics in London. An amazing dream is coming true for Gia. She knew sports would take her somewhere, but it wasn’t until a competition overseas, standing in front of a packed stadium when she felt the deserved glory of being a talented athlete. And that sealed it for her.

It could be easy for someone to develop a huge ego if she had all the successes Gia has had. But Gia’s humble. She’s confident in herself. She has a positive image of herself. She believes that is essential in being successful. In her position at the University of Illinois, she has the fortune of doing work that aligns with another passion she has. With an altruistic side to her athletic prowess, she loves helping others. That includes helping people to have a positive image of themselves. She encourages others to take care of themselves, be healthy, exercise. But she also promotes a healthy body image. “Skinny does not equal healthy.” Body types are different. Chemical make-up varies from person to person. Diet and exercise should be based on individual needs, not what is on the cover of a popular magazine. And while she has been a personal trainer, she believes that health and fitness can be done in simple everyday behaviors at home.

Parents can substitute a fruit for a carb in each meal, and they don’t have to break the bank to do that. Instead of potatoes and corn, have potatoes and cherries. Find creative ways to engage your child in exercise, such as a fun scavenger hunt around the house. Something to keep him moving. Kids love being active. Somewhere along the line adults forget that exercise can be fun. You just have to find new ways to keep it enjoyable. It’s just as important for parents to be active as it is for children. If your health prevents you from doing activities with your family set some tangible goals for yourself to change your lifestyle. Life is too short to not enjoy it to the fullest. 

It’s pretty easy to believe that Gia is doing just that. She has a great job, she has an incredible athletic ability, and a family that is always supportive of her. That’s not all there is to her, though. She has made time to be a volleyball coach at Parkland College and for Primetime Volleyball Club. While she would like to go to the Summer Olympics in 2016, she also wants to have a child. Looking past 2016 she can see herself being a physical therapist or being the director of a non-profit. She’s not yet sure what kind of non-profit however, since she’s interested in several areas. She comments that when she was younger she was interested in international politics and dreamed of being part of the United Nations. Of course, she also dreamed of being in the WNBA. There’s a lot of time to achieve more dreams for Gia.

When she has a chance to enjoy other parts of life, she travels. She loves trees, so heading to a local or even national park gives her a connection with nature. She mentions that she loves the beach and warm climates, but isn’t too crazy about getting in the water. She’d rather be beach side with some French fries, ice cream, and film scores spinning. She jokes that food is her downfall. She loves food! Her favorite ice cream is Marble Slab. Her guiltiest pleasure is French fries. “I could eat those every day!” Not just any French fries, though. Crinkle French fries. She heads off to Culver’s every few weeks to get her fix of French fries. When you’re disciplined like she is, having a few unhealthy foods now and again isn’t a big deal. She’s found a good balance for enjoying life.

One of her favorite quotes is “In the midst of winter there was in me an invincible summer.” Athletes find an inner peace that helps them to stay balanced in their work. For Gia, sports movies tend to make the journey of athletes about an epiphany that happens and gives them instant clarity. It’s more involved than that. It’s a daily focus. Some athletes pray. Others meditate. But they are constantly seeking the inner peace. Gia prays and her faith is a big part of who she is as a person and as an athlete. It’s inspiring to hear her talk about her journey. It’s been one of serious dedication and hard work. Making it to the Olympics is not a small feat. It’s an amazing achievement that only some will experience. She’s looking forward to being in London and experiencing the entire two weeks of activity there. The opening and closing ceremonies, she’s been told, are an experience all their own, especially for a first time Olympian.

So how will she get pumped up for her activities? Well, it’s a funny story. She tuned into the Sarah McLachlan station on Pandora. She heard a few film scores and liked them. More film scores were added. Eventually, it was mostly film scores, except for the occasional pesky Sarah McLachlan song. “I knew I liked bad movies but I never knew why. Then I realized it’s not the movie, it’s the music!” From Titanic to Last of the Mohicans, Gia’s iPod is filled with film scores. The music is something she connects with and what gets her ready for competing. She laughs that when other athletes have asked her about what is on her playlist she isn’t too quick to admit her love for film scores. It seems fitting, though. For someone who’s the incredible athlete that she is, not just any song will do. A powerful film score seems fitting.

If a movie were ever made about her, she jokes that she would love for Laila Ali to play her. With a beautiful film score playing in the background — think Braveheart — Laila Ali makes her way up a podium in a crowded stadium. Beaming with pride she takes her place on the top as she prepares to accept her gold medal. It’s a moment that would draw in any moviegoer. Gia doesn’t have to limit that to her imagination. In a couple of weeks that may be her reality. Win or lose, experiences are about replacing the doubt in your mind with confidence. And knowing you can achieve your dreams. 

Good luck at the Olympics, Gia! We’ll all be watching!

Head out and see Gia this coming Friday, July 20th. Fat City is having a fundraiser for her to help her provide travel and accommodations for the coach who has helped her to get where she is today, as well as her family. Stop by and show your support to this incredible local athlete!

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