Young Alumni: Smith perseveres after life-changing car accident
In the midst of spring training of her junior year, the last place Rachel Smith thought she would end up was a hospital bed being told she would never play volleyball again.
Smith was a junior on the volleyball team at Charleston Southern University when she was driving home from working at a restaurant in downtown Charleston on Feb. 23, 2019, and was hit by a drunk driver.
“I worked a long shift that day and driving home, I was feeling a little sleepy, so I pulled over to get some fresh air when someone came behind, hit my car and sent me across the pavement on the outside shoulder of the road. The next thing I knew, I was waking up in the hospital with doctors and nurses all around me,” Smith stated.
Smith suffered from a lacerated spleen, a punctured left lung, a broken rib, arm and back, as well as a handful of skin lacerations, stitches and staples. She was in the ICU for three days and had to stay over at the hospital a total of five nights.
Smith was told from the jump that she would not play volleyball again. In her eyes, though, if the biggest thing she would have to overcome was a broken arm to be in playing shape again, she was hopeful. That was before she found out that her ACL had also been torn.
That spring, Smith was given the option to withdraw from classes and focus on healing. With her headstrong spirit, she refused. Although it took her a little longer to hobble to class, and she had to resort to typing with the one functional hand she had, Smith did it, and finished the semester with a 3.8 GPA.
“I had a really strong drive to finish what I had started and I figured that if I could show myself that if I could go back to school and finish that semester, then I could accomplish anything I set my mind to. I was proving to myself that I still had the same strong-willed personality that I had before the accident,” she said.
Smith started physical therapy on March 1, 2019, and was doing physical rehabilitation consistently until January 2020.
“She was super positive, very bought-in, focused and energized when it came to her rehabilitation. It was kind of surreal, I don’t think that’s a normal reaction to having a life-threatening car accident and I don’t think I’ll see anything like that again,” said Lydia Johnson, Smith’s athletic trainer.
After scheduling her ACL surgery, Smith had come to terms that she would not be able to compete her senior season.
“Volleyball was my release, it’s where I could ignore outside things and just work hard and be present. It brought me some of the best times of my life, so knowing I wouldn’t finish my senior season was definitely hard,” she said.
After three seasons as starter, Smith is still eighth in the CSU record books for career assists and 22nd for career digs. Although she didn’t play her senior season, she remained an important part of the team.
Smith occasionally helped the coaches in the office, she was a leader on the team, and whether it was shagging balls or staying after practice to work with teammates, she was always finding ways she could serve her team.
“I got to feed into my teammates’ lives as an encourager and was forced to learn how to lead and hold the team to a high standard in new ways,” Smith stated.
Smith graduated in December 2019 with a kinesiology degree and will be attending graduate school at Augusta University in the Doctor of Physical Therapy program. Her career path was greatly inspired by the people that helped her recover from the accident.
“After the accident, I knew that I wanted to help the people that go through things like I did and show them that they can accomplish things that they didn’t think they’d be able to do again,” Smith said. Smith is the definition of a fighter. She inspires those around her and is an example to all who meet her of what unmatched positivity looks like.
Ashleigh Holweger is a senior double majoring in graphic design and communication studies at Charleston Southern University.