Pan American Games for Dani Smith

May 19th, 2013

Smith off to Pan Am Cup
VIU Mariners all-Canadian setter makes national team, eyes 2016 Olympics
Josh Aldrich
DAily News


Dani Smith has traded in her Vancouver Island University Mariners blue for Team Canada's red. The just graduated five-year star setter for VIU has locked down a spot on the women's national volleyball team and is now embroiled in a three-year competition to be the starter at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janiero, Brazil.

Smith's first opportunity to prove herself is when they leave for the Pan Am Cup in Lima, Peru on June 5.

"I was pretty surprised," said the Beaverlodge, Alta., native. "At the beginning of the month, I wasn't really sure where I stood and there was potential that I wasn't going to get to travel anywhere for the summer. Being selected to get to go to Pan Am is really exciting."

They are taking two setters to Peru - Smith, 23, will be joined by Jennifer Lundquist from Surrey, who played four years at Montana State - while the other two - Kelci French and Megan Cyr - will be going to a FISU tournament in Kanzan, Russia, to start the evaluation process.

This wasn't Smith's first time at the Team Canada training centre in Winnipeg. She did make the 'B' roster last summer, but that team has been eliminated this year as the coaching staff does it's best to pare down the roster for Rio.

But a year of seasoning did Smith a lot of good, and she impressed head coach Arnd Ludwig early on in this year's camp.

"I like the way she works here, how hard she works . . . and if she keeps it up, she has a good chance to be with us for the next four years," he said. "Already we've seen the improvement from last year a little bit and this year again it's going up."

He says the biggest adjustment Smith needs to make is getting used to a new set of teammates, noting she showed at the Canadian College Athletic Association national championships at VIU in 2012 what she could accomplish with that familiarity.

But he is impressed with her overall skill set.

"She has a good release with her hands, the balls are getting pretty consistent to the position she wants to set," said Ludwig. "Where we have to work on is sometimes finding the right decision, but that's all just a little bit of experience and getting to know the team that you are playing with."

This is about the perfect situation for Smith to come in and establish herself. The national team lost its two top setters last year right before the Olympic qualifier, and all three of the women she is competing against for floor time are 20-22 years old, with very limited national team experience.

She says she learned a lot from her experience last year, and was a lot more comfortable in her surroundings.

There was also a major change in the training program, cutting back on hours of playing volley-ball a day from six to three-and-a-half, in an effort to avoid burn out.

"International play is a totally different style than what I was used to, it's faster and the girls were bigger and more athletic and strong, it's the highest level you can be at, so (last year) really opened my eyes," said Smith. "Getting to work with two of the top coaches in the country is such an incredible experience, they're so technically sound and just the number of touches I got in that short period of time was really valuable.

"Now being back, I can feel, even going into the tryout, I felt a lot more at ease and a lot more confident."

Smith led the Mariners to the 2012 national championship and was named a CCAA All-Canadian in each of the last two years. She was also named female team athlete of the year at this year's Nanaimo Sport Achievement Awards.

But the pot of gold at the end of the road for Smith is bigger than anything she saw at VIU. Canada has not qualified for the Olympics in women's volleyball since the 1996 games in Atlanta.

Rio would be a dream come true.

"Its hard not to put your head in that space, as being surrounded by it as I am right now, but I just want to take it one step at a time," she said. "My focus right now is Pan Am's and then go from there."