Finding the right path

By Robbie Lehman

Surrounded by the abundance of Iowa Hawkeye memorabilia in his bedroom, PJ Smith feels comfortable, like he’s on the right track.

As a swimmer at Linn-Mar High School in Marion, Iowa, Smith had no idea that injuring his sternoclavicular joint would be a defining moment in his life—the moment that propelled him on the right track.

The injury helped Smith discover that the right track for him was to pursue a career in the field of health care.

Now a 21-year-old senior at the University of Iowa, Smith has been a student athletic trainer for the Hawkeye wrestling and football teams, and is currently working with the field hockey squad.

Smith says he enjoys every minute of it.

“I’ve always been interested in the human body and how it works,” he said. “I think from that aspect it’s neat to solve problems and to have that trust with athletes that will come to you.”

PJ Smith

Growing up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Smith was educated in the rich tradition of Iowa athletics and what it means to call the “Hawkeye State” home. It was a no-brainer for Smith to come to the UI for college.

The right path once he got here, though, wasn’t so easy to find. He new he wanted to be involved in health care of some sort, just not exactly in what capacity. He switched from a pre-med focus during freshman orientation. Taking a shot, he applied to the Iowa Athletic Training program, one of the best in the Big Ten if not nationally, and was accepted.

It was a perfect fit for Smith, the perfect combination of sports and health care.

Now, three years later, Smith has a wealth of knowledge and firsthand experience under his belt. He is a believe in the saying, “You get out what you put in.” He lives up this, logging hours of time during practices, games and traveling with field hockey, all while keeping up on his class work. Time commitment is the nature of the job, he says.

For a sports fan like Smith, athletic training hardly seems like work. He’s the type of person who loves to be around the action, and he hasn’t questioned his career path once.

“Ever since I got in [to the athletic training program], just working with athletes and being around sports, helping with every sport from wrestling to football and now field hockey… It’s been quite the transformation from what I thought I would do to where I’m at now,” Smith said. “I don’t think I’ve ever had to second guess or look back at all.”

Relationships are also what Smith enjoys about being an athletic trainer, and not only with the athletes and coaches he works with. He’s met some of his best friends in the program. He also benefits from what he calls “a great staff” of instructors and professionals in the Iowa program.

John Streif, assistant athletic trainer, has been at the University of Iowa since 1972. It’s fair to say he knows a thing or two about the occupation. He also sees qualities in Smith that he believes will take him far in his chosen profession.

“PJ is a hard working, dedicated individual that is a true, true Hawk,” Streif said. “He loves to be with the Hawks and loves to be along the program and a part of it. He’s got a great future as an athletic trainer.”

Smith’s hobbies pretty much revolve around sports. Big surprise. He doesn’t get to ski as much as he used to, but he loves taking trips to Colorado. He still swims when he has the time to workout, and spends his Sundays rooting for the Green Bay Packers. And as if he’s not busy enough already, he also works at T-Spoons Coffee Café in Iowa City.

But training is where Smith is in his element. He believes there is something more to being an athletic trainer than what people see on the surface.

“It’s a power, but I think it’s a privilege also to have that knowledge to be able to have someone come to you in a time of need and to be there for them,” Smith said

Other than it being time consuming, Smith hasn’t had any negative experiences as an athletic trainer that he can remember. His favorite memory was traveling to Ames for the Iowa-Iowa State wrestling meet in 2009, which the No. 1-ranked Hawkeyes won, 18-16.

Smith’s dream job is to work with a Division I university or a professional sports team. As for the immediate future, he plans on graduating this coming May. He’s currently looking into graduate schools to further his study and practice in athletic training. Schools such as Arizona State, Pittsburgh, Wisconsin and Iowa are on his short list.

A new path looms for Smith, one that may possibly take him away from home, and he knows it. As the Iowa native and lifelong Hawkeye fan sits in his black and gold-decorated bedroom, wearing an Iowa Sports Medicine t-shirt, he talks wanting to find a new experience after graduation. He is looking forward to the next step in his career, keeping on the right track, wherever it ends up taking him.

One thing is certain no matter where he goes. Smith will always keep the beloved Hawkeyes in his heart.

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