One of YWCA’s own aims to make history this week at the 2012 London Olympics. Gia Lewis-Smallwood, associate program director at the YWCA University of Illinois, will compete in the women’s discus throw on August 3-4. (See broadcast schedule below.) And the YWCA will be cheering her on – you can follow Gia during the Games at Twitter hashtag #GoGia and our Facebook updates.
Gia, 33, took a break from training to chat with us about the Olympics, working at the YW, and how women can pursue their dreams:
Q: Tell us about your journey to make the Olympic team. How did you first get interested in discus?
I was an accomplished sprinter in high school, and during my senior year, I was encouraged to try the discus event as a way of scoring additional points for our team. I was offered a scholarship for discus and actually turned it down to play basketball as a walk-on at the University of Illinois. I threw discus in college from my sophomore year until I graduated in 2002. I’ve been training the entire 10 years since then to make the Olympics. I’ve been on the world championship team and the Pan Am games team during that time.
Q: When and how did you get involved with the YWCA?
At the YWCA of University of Illinois, we focus solely on leadership development of college-age women. YWCA’s mission and programs really resonated with me.
I joined the YWCA as a board member in 2002, shortly after graduating from college, and served as treasurer until 2004. At that time I was working as a financial advisor. The board needed a treasurer, and they were actively recruiting young women to serve on the board. Four years ago, I joined the staff as associate program director.
Q: How do you balance having a career and training in discus?
Most athletes struggle financially; it’s very difficult to work and train at the same time. I’m really fortunate to work at YWCA – it’s the reason why I’m able to train and be in the Olympics. My executive director, Lisha Banks, believes in women’s empowerment and is really behind me. She has created an environment where I have the flexibility to work and train. It’s not just me, but other employees here who need schedule flexibility to raise children. The YWCA meets women where they are and works with them. Outside of sports, many athletes don’t have another career. I have a great career at YWCA and I’m also a professional athlete. I’m so blessed to be part of an organization that empowers women. This is a great support system!
Q: This year, women outnumber men on the U.S. Olympic team for the first time in history. How does it feel to be on a team with such extraordinary women?
It’s huge. Women face a different set of challenges in terms of societal demands and raising families. It can be a challenge doing that and also training for and participating in the Olympics. But there are a lot of women who are pursuing their passion and dream by participating in sports because it’s what they love to do. It’s amazing.
It’s important to support all female athletes at the Olympics, not just those from the USA, but from all countries. Let’s keep sending out positive messages about women doing amazing things.
Q: What are you most looking forward to about London?
The Olympics is the world’s greatest athletic stage. The opportunity to do my best on this stage is what I’m looking forward to most. Just by going, I’ve already won, regardless of how I perform. I’m also really looking forward to all the different cultures that will be there together –it’s a cultural immersion.
Q: What do you want other women to know?
It’s important for women to go for their dreams. Society wants to make us feel guilty about that, especially adult women who want to pursue their dreams. Getting married is fine – I’m married – but be sure you’ve living the life you want to live and that you’re living your passion. Don’t stop living, even if you get married and have a family. Your dreams are your dreams. I want women to know that. As women, we can set this world on fire!
Join the YWCA as we cheer Gia on in at the 2012 London Olympics and follow our Facebook and Twitter updates! Gia competes in the Women’s Discus Throw qualifying round on Friday, August 3 at 2:10 PM ET / 11:10 AM PT; the finals will be held Saturday, August 4 at 2:30 PM ET / 11:30 AM PT. The events will be streamed live online at UniversalSports.com and select events may be broadcast by NBC online and on television.