Winning the Minneapolis Athena Award was not something senior Sierra Smith thought would be possible, but she was ultimately chosen as Armstrong’s 49th recipient in 2020.
Smith is a swimmer and not a multi-sport athlete, though she lettered on varsity for six seasons beginning in seventh grade. That made her believe she didn’t have enough to win the award.
“A while ago, I just started swimming because I wanted to swim,” Smith said. “And these last couple of years, I was seeing the people that won the Athena Award and I was like, ‘Wow, they really did a lot more than me.’”
Smith joins a list that started in 1973 with the first award going to Jenny Evenson. The last 10 winners were Luci Anderson (2019), Veronica DeSalvo (2012), Olivia Heckt (2018), Heather Kaluzniak (2013), Haley Sue Kuffel (2011), Anna Nachbor (2014), Ellee Peterson (2017), Melanie Robertson (2010), Hannah Rudd (2016) and Kelsey Sather (2015).
The program’s mission statement is “to recognize the outstanding senior young female athlete from each of the Minneapolis city, suburban and private schools and to honor each woman for her achievements in one or several sports.”
“I was really surprised when I found I was honored,” Smith said. “It really means a lot to be a part of that group.”
Earning the award
Smith, who is attending the NCAA Division I University of Missouri to continue her swimming career, holds four school records – 50-yard freestyle, 100 free, 200 free and with the 200 medley relay.
Smith began swimming at five-years old. She first watched her brother, Connor, swim and practice. But he later told her swimming was better than watching, and that propelled her to begin the sport and find out for herself.
Both were able to swim together for a few years and cheered each other on at meets, and now both of them are side-by-side on the Armstrong school records board for the 50 free, which is one of her favorite stories to tell about her swimming career.
“Having him at the meets is just so encouraging,” Smith said. “I am not just swimming for myself anymore when I have all of my family and friends there. I am swimming for all the people that have encouraged me all my life.”
Smith said that swimming on varsity since seventh grade made a big difference for her one sport resume – showing consistency every season and having a strong finish in the latter half of her high school career.
Each year, she added up awards on the team. As a junior in 2018, she secured two Class 2A runner-up finishes in the 100 and 200 free and added medals on the 200 medley and 200 free relays.
And this past season, she claimed the 100 and 200 free state titles and also medaled with the 200 free relay. Her other state medal came in the 200 free as a sophomore, finishing third overall in 2017.
Smith finished with eight career state medals and 20 career section medals. She also has five conference awards and was named team MVP once.
Smith was also named the 5AA section Swimmer of the Year by the head coaches in the section, and she swam in the Speedo Junior National Championships in August 2019.
In the community, growing up in Plymouth, Smith worked at LifeTime Rockwall and led a kids’ climbing class. She also was an athlete representative for USA Swimming.
Smith also worked at Red Rover Pizza where she threw pizza dough.
“I feel like I’ve just been doing what I enjoy to do, so I really enjoy making pizza and working at the rockwall,” Smith said. “I just like to look for volunteer opportunities that are fun for me so I feel like that helps encourage me to do them more often.”
Academically, Smith was on the Postsecondary Enrollment Options Dean’s List at the University of Minnesota. PSEO is a way for high school students to complete college-level courses for both high school and college credit.
Smith is a member of the Spanish Honor Society and is going to study psychology and Spanish at the University of Missouri.
“I really just like to put my all into whatever I do,” Smith said. “I think that to get better, you don’t want to do things that are easy for you so I really just like to challenge myself to see what I can do.
“As long as I have tried my hardest, I think it’s good enough so it’s just fun to push myself.”
Handling the pandemic
The annual luncheon for Athena Award winners was to be held on May 8, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced the luncheon to be canceled.
The Athena Committee is still going to have plaques and a memory book with a description of all 55 winners’ accomplishments in order to honor the student-athletes.
Smith said that she was initially sad when she heard that the luncheon was canceled, but she understands the reasons why it needed to happen.
“It would have been a fun experience to have,” Smith said. “But I think there are other things to prioritize. With everything shutting down, it makes sense.”
Smith is one of several athletes who need to adjust to the current social distancing guidelines due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the adjustment period in the beginning was difficult, she said.
But now, she is enjoying the outdoor time and building up her mental and physical health as she prepares to graduate and get ready for college.
“I was just so used to swimming, and I’ve never really only done land activities to stay in shape,” Smith said. “But now, since it’s so nice out, I’ve just really loved waking up and working out, pushing myself outside in the morning and feeling good for the day.”
Smith said that everyone is going to be excited to get back in the pool, and that can help “reignite” swimmers’ love for the sport.
And adding dry-land training is something that can help diversify how Smith gets ready for competition in the future, as well, she said.