“The girls have given me the inspiration.
It’s actually the opposite of what everybody thinks it is.
They think I’m out there fighting cancer and that’s not the case.
I’m doing so well because every day I have them to come to work to.
They are the absolute best medicine that cancer could ever get.”
– Mia Smith, head coach at Illinois Wesleyan
HOLLAND, Mich. — She sat there beaming, fashioning one of the nets that were cut down from the Hope College baskets around her neck and enjoying the banter with the media. Smiling, joking and eagerly answering any question thrown at her. And what was not to like? Just a half hour earlier, coach Mia Smith’s Illinois Wesleyan women’s basketball team had just won the NCAA Division III national basketball championship.
Every team that wins it all overcomes something. Injuries, setbacks, the process of coming together. But consider the case of Illinois Wesleyan, which came into last weekend’s national semifinals the odd team out, the one that started 3-4, the one that was shorter than all the rest and the one not on a 30-game winning streak.
It was also the team with the coach who last June, just two months past her 47th birthday, was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had surgery. She had treatments. She never missed a game. Especially not the last one, a 57-48 victory against previously undefeated George Fox that capped a remarkable 14-year run at Illinois Wesleyan in a job that she probably never should have gotten in the first place.
Smith was a star athlete at LaGrove High School in Farina, Ill., about 90 miles east of St. Louis. She played basketball and softball at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. She earned four letters apiece in both sports and, not surprisingly, was team captain for three years and the top defender for four. No wonder she loved telling us after her team beat St. Thomas in the national semifinals Friday, “we suck air in practice because we’re busting ourselves so hard.”
After graduating from SIUE Smith became the basketball coach at Carrolton, a tiny place north of St. Louis, where three times her team reached the state round of 16 and once made the final eight.
“Great time of my life,” she said.
She moved on to Monmouth College in northern Illinois, and here’s the hook: She coached volleyball and softball for four years. No basketball. But then the job opened at Illinois Wesleyan in Bloomington in 1998. The athletic director, Dennie Bridges, one of the great former Division III men’s basketball coaches around, granted her an interview.
“I had to sell it and I sold it as big as I could,” Smith recalled with a laugh, “because I wanted that job.”
Bridges, whose 1997 Titans won the men’s national championship, was impressed.
“We took a leap of faith to hire her,” Bridges said. “When you’re hiring a college basketball coach and you hire a volleyball-softball coach,” he paused, “but in the interview she was such a competitor. I could hang my hat on the fact that she has coached so successfully in high school.
“It was a little bit of a leap of faith, but god, what a hire. She’s just been fantastic.”
And not just because they won it all for the first time. IWU has won five consecutive conference championships.
“She’s taken our women’s basketball and put it on the map,” Bridges said.
Just last season, on their home court, the Titans made it to the NCAA Division III Women’s Championships. And then they lost twice to finish fourth.
Tough times for sure, but not nearly as tough as that time Melissa Gardner heard the text message appear on her phone. The senior-to-be was stunned.
“It was devastating. I think we were all taken aback a bit. It was a scary moment that we went through,” Gardner said.
“I remember exactly what I was doing when I got it. I was at the grocery store. I stood there in the aisle, just stood there for some amount of minutes. “It was scary and we didn’t know the degree or what was going to happen for the year. To think that she wasn’t going to be by our side was a huge deal for all of us.”
Smith, obviously not one to be rattled, talks about it matter-of-factly.
“I used to be a four-mile-a-day girl and loved it. Just couldn’t wait to get up in the morning and hit the country side roads and go for my run and clear my head and get ready for the day,” she said. “And I couldn’t get through ‘em. I’d take off and 30 seconds into it I would be gassed. And I thought, ‘This is ridiculous’ I wasn’t tired from the season, because I had plenty of time to recuperate. Definitely fatigue was a huge indicator and I didn’t listen to my body, I think.”
Then came basketball camp.
“I had sore legs and jumped into a whirlpool tub and didn’t have a washcloth or anything, just liquid bubbles.”
She admitted she was too tired to get out so she used her hands to wash.
That was when Smith felt the lump.
“I immediately found it. And the month before I’d had a clean mammogram, and I have them yearly because there’s breast cancer in my family.”
She made an appointment for the next morning with her gynecologist.
“I think when you have cancer you know,” she said. “When I felt the lump, I immediately knew something wasn’t right. That afternoon I was at a surgeon. I found the lump and had surgery all within a 10-day time. The diagnosis was quick and the surgery was quick. In fact, my doctor was awesome. Instead of scheduling the surgery, he just said, ‘What are you doing on Friday?’ So on Friday I had a lumpectomy and they removed two lymph nodes. There was the beginning of pre-cancerous cells. So I found it very early. It was an aggressive form of cancer, HER2 positive.”
But that was just the beginning.
“I did chemo. I actually had to have two surgeries. It was a very superficial tumor and they were afraid they didn’t clear the margins, so I went back in for a second surgery. Then I had four chemo treatments. They weren’t too bad. I think I was the recipient of so many prayers that I rebounded so quickly. I’d get it out of my system and then I was good to go. There were a lot of body aches, and the mobility. People don’t realize how hard it is to move when your joints hurt.”
But that wasn’t it either.
“I had 36 radiation treatments,” she said. “Yeah. And I’m gonna tell you that my scars are barely visible. My surgeon did a phenomenal job. My radiation sunburned me just a little bit. I didn’t have most of what everyone else has. My skin healed very nicely and I really loved my radiation team. They were fun. I actually looked forward to going because it was such a happy part of my day. It was so positive and it was high-fiving and everyone was asking about my team and it was great.”
Smith’s treatments were at the Community Cancer Center and Bridges was at her side the entire way.
“Coach was with me,” Smith said proudly. “He made every chemo treatment I’ve ever had. He sat with me for an hour at least every time I had a treatment. Still goes with me when I go for my treatments.”
Bridges is 73. He and his wife, Rita, have three children, all of whom are former IWU athletes, and four grandchildren.
“She’s really close to her grandma and she told her, ‘Coach really treats me like a daughter.’ And I was a little upset with the age thing,” Bridges said with a laugh.
Bridges thought back to the day in June when Smith came into his office to tell him. And he pointed out that Smith has only part-time assistants. She told her boss that if anything happened to her, she wanted him, the former championship coach, to take over.
“I told her I’m all in, but for God’s sake we’re not going to need me.
“I was all in. I went to all of her chemo, I went to every practice in the preseason and I learned her offense and I learned her defense and I learned her run-and-jump, but I could never have duplicated her emotion or her relationship with the girls. It’s very special.”
Bridges was there for all but three games, including the Titans’ trip to California.
“Through the fatigue, through the sore throats, through the hacking coughs, come practice time you wouldn’t know she was sick,” Bridges said. “She had super energy, super enthusiasm.”
Illinois Wesleyan got off to that bad start, but one player had mono and another was recovering from a knee injury. Bridges was quick to point out that the Titans also played the second-toughest DIII schedule in the country.
Smith looks no worse for the wear today. She said she can’t run four miles yet but hits the roads on a bicycle.
“It’s definitely been a journey,” IWU senior Brittany Hasselbring said. “ When we found out it was pretty devastating, but we knew she’d be there every day. She’s a fighter and she’s been there every day in practice. The energy that she brought throughout the season, regardless of her situation and what she was going through, was amazing. It definitely gave us the inspiration we needed to go out an practice hard and not only for her but ourselves and our team.”
Said senior Oliva Lett, the MVP of the tournament, “I think ultimately it brought us closer together as a team. Something like that can only bring you closer.”
As they were ending the postgame news conference, Gardner mentioned that her coach “hasn’t missed a thing.”
Smith wasn’t going to let that pass.
“I missed one practice and it was because they gave me the flu,” Smith said. “It wasn’t because of chemo or anything. It was the flu, because it went through the whole team and I got it.”
This season, her girls put breast-cancer-awareness pink ribbons on their uniforms, wearing them proudly on the left crest. “That was a huge surprise for me,” Smith said. “I didn’t know they were going to do that. They did that on their own.”
Gardner was asked if she was proud of Smith. “I wish I had a better word, because proud just doesn’t cover the feelings we have for our coach. She’s one of the strongest people I know.”
Smith was ready to go and celebrate. She stood up and when she leaned forward to pick up her briefcase the net dangled from her neck. “I feel blessed. I know I’ve been very well supported and people have me in their thoughts,” she said. “And that’s just an amazing feeling that so many people care. This team is my inspiration. That’s the way it goes.”
And she and Bridges walked out to find their national championship team.