Bishop’s water polo star rises to the top despite illness


To say that Chelsea Smith-Carmichael’s junior year of high school was trying would be a gross understatement. And to call her persistent wouldn’t quite do justice to her ability to overcome challenges.

Smith-Carmichael, now a senior who stars on the girls water polo and swim teams at The Bishop’s School, fought through some extremely challenging times. She says she is better for it. Recently, she was awarded with the California Interscholastic Federation’s Spirit of Sport Award, which is given to one male and one female athlete throughout the state each sports season.

The CIF Spirit of Sport Award recognizes student-athletes who have demonstrated the 16 principles of pursuing victory with honor, are active in school and community service, and exhibit leadership qualities. The principles of pursuing victory with honor are the operating principles of the CIF and have been adopted by the 1,431 member high schools throughout the state.

“This award seeks to recognize student-athletes who have demonstrated great sportsmanship, the purest form of competition,” CIF executive director Marie Ishida said in a statement. “These recipients understand that a positive attitude and teamwork should exist throughout sports, and they realize that winning at all costs is not really winning. The same spirit they show in athletics carries over into all aspects of their life.”

Smith-Carmichael likely would have done enough to be nominated for the award based solely on her exploits in the pool, but the fact that she overcame so much adversity makes it even more rewarding for her, she said.

Smith-Carmichael struggled throughout her junior year with a mysterious auto-immune illness that sapped her of energy and strength, so much so that at times she was confined to a wheelchair, her mother, Jennifer Smith, said.

Smith returned from a water polo trip to Spain in 2005 feeling ill, and doctors suspected she had contracted Hepatitis A. She suffered from severe fatigue and arthritis-like symptoms, and she and her family spent countless hours visiting various doctors and seeking different treatments.

Smith-Carmichael continued to play sports, but it seemed like every move was painful, and nothing came as easily as it had throughout her athletic career.

Eventually, her mother said, through a strict focus on proper diet and rest, the symptoms subsided, and Smith-Carmichael said she now feels healthy.

“I think (the illness) made me realize even more how much I love the sport and how much I love to compete,” Smith-Carmichael said. “Now that I’m better, it gives me more drive to do well and work harder to be a better player. When I was well, I took it for granted. But when I got sick, it was like, ‘All I want to do is play.’ I still did everything, but I couldn’t compete as well as I was used to. I wanted to do better, but by body wouldn’t allow me to.”

Bishop’s coach Doug Peabody has counted on Smith-Carmichael as one of his top players for the last four years, each of which ended with a CIF San Diego Section championship.

“She has a passion for the sport of water polo that makes my job a real joy,” Peabody said. “She works tirelessly to improve her athletic skills, consistently models positive behavior, does not complain or waste time at practice, helps with training less experienced players and always strives to perform to the best of her ability.”

Smith-Carmichael, who will attend Stanford on a water polo scholarship next year, has lettered four times in both water polo and swimming. She was a member of the 2006 USA Women’s Water Polo Youth National Team that won the gold medal in Montreal. She also has received the AP Scholar with Honor Award from the College Board and earned Commended Student status by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation.

She received the President’s Volunteer Service Award the last two years, dedicating more than 200 hours to community service. She also has volunteered her time tutoring elementary students at Mission Bay Montessori Academy in math and science for the last two years. In her free time, Smith-Carmichael is a member of the San Diego Science Alliance’s BEWISE club for science and engineering.

Smith-Carmichael deflected some of the credit for her success to her Bishop’s teammates.

“While I hope to teach my teammates the rewards of hard work and determination, the most rewarding feeling is learning something from them,” she said. “Each girl on our team has different strengths and weaknesses, and learning something from my teammates not only makes me stronger as a player, but it makes us stronger as a team and a family.”

Smith-Carmichael will receive the Spirit of Sport award and be recognized at the year-end CIF Federated Council dinner May 4 in San Jose.