By John Frierson
Even if Kayla Smith didn’t say a word, the Georgia pole vaulter would be a tremendous leader. Her work ethic and perseverance, coming back again and again from one injury after another to be better than she was before, are daily reminders of the power of determination.
“I think my experience has done a lot for me, and it says a lot about me as well,” she said.
Smith, who is in graduate school after earning a degree in Sociology, arrived at Georgia in the fall of 2015, and first competed in the red and black during the 2016 indoor season. It has been a long road on and off the pole vault runway for Smith, but she’s reaching new heights and using her voice to help teammates and the world around her.
“I try to embrace it very seriously, but in a more informal way,” she said of her leadership role on the team. “I’m not the person to be up in everybody’s face, making sure they’re on stuff. If I see something I might say something, but it’s more of an informal thing, like leading by example and encouraging, making sure people feel comfortable and know that the door’s open to come talk to me.”
Given her many years of collegiate experience, Smith said she “loves it” when teammates come to her for advice.
“It shows they trust me, and I’m just glad that I have the experience and hopefully the wisdom to guide them down a good path, and hopefully they’ll end up in a better place than where they’re at when they’re struggling,” she said.
In March, she was the runner-up in the pole vault at the 2021 NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championships. And earlier this month, she set a new school record in the event.
Away from the track, she’s served as Chair of the SEC Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, and in the past year-plus, as the Black Lives Matter and social justice movements emerged across the country following the death of George Floyd, Smith used her voice in any way she could. She helped organize with some teammates a virtual Black Lives Matter rally in the fall.
“That has really stuck with me because it was at the height of everything and it was also when other student-athletes around the country were doing things,” she said. “It just really felt like we were all working in solidarity, although we were all doing it in different ways and expressing it in different ways. We were all doing something and we were all using our resources and our experiences to speak out and to show that we’re angry and upset and we’re going to be a part of this change that we’re hoping for.”
As for what’s next, after graduate school Smith hopes to work in either college athletics or with a non-profit. No matter what she does, she’ll give it everything she has and, no doubt, lead the way to better things.