The exponential growth of Lydia Smith

The exponential growth of Lydia Smith

April 5, 2022 - It’s June 15, 2019. A Saturday. And it’s a windy one in Virginia Beach, with 20-plus miles per hour winds coming off the coast both days of the Tidewater Volleyball Association AVPNext Gold, the one that will provide the winners with a bid into the Manhattan Beach Open. It’s Katie Hogan and Bree Scarbrough who claim that bid for the women, beating Annika Rowland and Teegan Van Gunst in the finals. Of the many locals watching the breezy final, there’s an exceptionally taller one, a player who had never before played an open, who had never watched Scarbrough play, but who left that tournament undeniably changed.

“I remember watching Bree, and I was like ‘Oh my gosh she’s so good!’” Lydia Smith recalled. “That was only a couple of years ago. It’s been crazy. It’s been fun.”

Much has changed in the three short years since Smith played in that AVPNext Gold, her first open tournament. She’s moved states. Lived through a pandemic. Moved in with Scarbrough, once her idol. And she has competed in 81 – count ‘em, 81 – AVPAmerica tournaments.

Yes, Smith has come quite a long way since the summer of 2019. But exponential growth is nothing new to Smith. She’s been doing it her whole life now.

There’s a family of trees in Hawai’i called the Albizia, and they’re one of the fastest-growing trees in the world, shooting up sometimes as high as 15 feet per year. Up, up, up they go – though not very wide. Basically, that was Lydia Smith in high school.

Six feet tall she stood – and only 90 pounds, a human Albizia tree.

“I was tiny. It was awful,” she said, laughing. “I was thinking about swimming in college, and I never really got into lifting or any of that, so definitely didn’t grow into my height until close to college. It was an interesting time.”

But still: Whether she had grown into her body or not, the potential within that body was undeniable. After playing indoor for only a single season in high school, Smith competed for a year in junior college before getting recruited to nearby Liberty University, a small, evangelical school in Lynchburg, Virginia. But before her career could even begin, an injury to her left wrist derailed her for the next two seasons. When she finally did return to the lineup, after two years of practicing occasionally with the men’s team, she quit after her only season to pursue career opportunities instead.

All of which is a long way of saying that when Smith competed in that AVPNext in Virginia Beach, she was still a raw 6 feet of mostly untapped volleyball potential.

“I never trained at all, I didn’t know people actually trained, so I would just play tournaments on the weekend,” Smith said. “When we started working remote [during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic], I would go down to Virginia Beach sometimes, which is two hours one way and I’d get some extra reps with the guys down there. I was mainly doing it just to keep my sanity and to move around. I lived in downtown Richmond and there is no sand there. It was mainly for my mental health.”

That mental health exercise had the added benefit of a steep learning curve in beach volleyball. Angel Dache, one of the top men’s players on the East Coast, took note and recommended Smith to Jade Race, who leaves no stone unturned when it comes to training. Race invited Smith out to California during the summer of 2020 to train, and get a glimpse of what the best volleyball players in the world do to prepare for events and a season on the sand. And then the darnedest thing happened: Smith won her first open tournament.

“I still didn’t know what I was doing, but that’s when I won my first open tournament and was like ‘Oh! Maybe this is something,’” Smith said.

It was something, all right. Since that first victory, Smith has piled up 21 wins across various organizations. In her last 10 tournaments, she’s placed in the top five every time, with half of them resulting in wins, none bigger than a sweep of the two biggest grass tournaments of the year, in Pottstown and at Grass Nationals with Aurora Davis.

“It was maybe a year ago that we first played together and I didn’t even know of her,” Davis said. “Two people – Kim [Hildreth] and Bree [Scarbrough] – told me about her and I asked her to play and I was super surprised playing with someone I didn’t know. She has so much potential and has already gotten so good.”

What’s astonishing is that she has already gotten that good with just two seasons of legitimate training under her belt. And already, she has laid claim to some of the biggest grass titles in the country and is steadily climbing the ranks on the beach.

It begs the question: What else can Lydia Smith accomplish?

Now she’s competing regularly against Brazilians Larissa and Lili Maestrini, Corinne Quiggle and Sarah Schermerhorn, Kim Hildreth, and whomever she might be playing with that weekend. She’s living with Scarbrough, once her idol (and perhaps still is). She’s winning. A lot.

“Playing tournaments is a good way to get reps against good teams,” she said. “I just want to play as much as I can.”

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~ Travis Mewhirter: @trammew