Loree Smith might be the most unlikely national champion in collegiate sports history.
Heck, she had never competed in sports in any level when she arrived in tiny Julesburg, Colo., as a middle school student. After growing up in the Denver area, all she wanted to do in the unfamiliar setting was fit in.
Many of the girls in her school were cheerleaders, so she thought she would give cheerleading a try. She was so bad at tryouts her new peers literally laughed her right into sports.
“I was the worst cheerleader EVER,” Smith said, laughing at the memory. “It’s a good thing, because that’s what led me to sports.”
Smith will tell her story Friday night at the annual CSU Sports Hall of Fame Banquet, set for 6:30 p.m. at the Lory Student Center Grand Ballroom. Smith is one of six inductees in the Class of 2015, which includes former football stars Clark Haggans and Mike Newell, Richard Cooley (men’s swimming), Jessica (Strickland) Cole (softball) and Catie (Vagneur) Mintz (volleyball).
Six-time Olympic gold medalist and CSU Hall of Famer Amy Van Dyken Rouen will emcee the festive evening, which begins with a welcome reception at 5:30 p.m.
Smith graduated from Julesburg High School as a local legend. She was a three-time state champion in the discus, an all-state volleyball player and a star on the basketball team. But despite her success, college recruiters weren’t exactly beating down her door with scholarship offers.
Finding her niche
CSU track and field coach Brian Bedard saw a grainy, homemade video of Smith throwing the discus and decided to take a chance, offering to pay for her books and student fees in return for competing for the Rams. Smith, an excellent student who earned several academic scholarships, jumped at the chance.
“When I got to CSU I was kind of a mess,” she said. “I showed up with all kinds of piercings and no clue about what to expect. I had never even seen a hammer, let alone thrown one. And I had terrible form in the shot and discus.”
Bedard, who has coached numerous CSU All-Americans in the throws, had to start from scratch with Smith, breaking her of bad habits and teaching her the finer points of the throws. Perhaps most important, he lit Smith’s competitive fire.
“Bedard taught me how to get better – and that I should never settle for anything less than greatness,” she said. “He helped me not only in track but also in my personal life. I can’t see myself as the person I am today had he not been in my life. He’s really been a father figure to me.”
Big moments, big performances
Smith ended up winning six Mountain West titles and was a three-time All-American. Like most great athletes, she saved her best for the grandest stages.
Her finest overall effort came in the 2005 Mountain West Championships in Fort Collins. Smith won the hammer, discus and shot put, setting school, conference and NCAA records in the hammer throw. Her performance pushed the Rams to with a few points of the conference title.
“I had been dealing with a lot of injuries that season so I hadn’t been able to practice the shot and the discus,” she said of her legendary performance. “It’s almost like a dream now when I think about it. I had the meet of a lifetime. Afterward I just went over to Bedard and cried on his shoulder – that’s how badly I wanted to win.”
Three weeks later, at the NCAA Championships, Smith again displayed her greatness, destroying the field in the hammer throw to win the national title. She remains CSU’s only female NCAA champion.
Smith went on to compete in the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing in the hammer, and made one final push for the 2012 Games before retiring. After graduating in 2005 from CSU with a degree in English, she has applied to several medical schools and hopes to be a doctor. She married Mark Thornton, a Green Beret, last year, lives in Colorado Springs and couldn’t be more excited about joining the CSU Sports Hall of Fame.
“It has meant the world to me to represent the Rams, and it means so much to me that 10 years after I graduated people still remember me and what I accomplished,” she said. “I still can’t cheerlead worth a damn but I’ve had a pretty good life, and I can thank CSU for giving me a chance to prove myself.”
Tickets remain on sale through Monday and cost $70 for Ram Club and Ram Alumni Athletic Association members, $85 for non-members. You can register online or by calling (877) 498-7787.