A hazy Saturday morning sunshine beat down on the turf at Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Pa., on April 30. The host Cedar Crest Falcons would meet the Sweet Briar College (Va.) Vixens with a Colonial Athletic State Conference playoff bid at stake.
Warming up among the Vixens players is Erica Smith, cutting and feinting to get in position for her best shot.
This day marks her first career start and represents a next step on an improbable journey. The journey of a 30-year-old sophomore who has become a “glue player” on a lacrosse team, and a leader within the student body, at a small all-women’s college in NCAA Division III.
She’s also a piece of history. Erica Smith is Sweet Briar’s first out transgender woman to be a full-time student, and thus the school’s first transgender student-athlete.
“It’s been a crazy roller coaster,” she says with a wry smile. “A wonderful and difficult experience all at the same time.”
Beginning The Journey
Coming to Sweet Briar as a student, in a sense, brought a lot of her struggle and growth full circle. While in high school — before she transitioned — a friend of hers had decided to attend Sweet Briar for college, and Smith went to the college to visit that friend.
She said her weekend there all those years ago made her feel at home.
“It is such an experience to go up and drive through the gate and experience this weird community of people just being people,” she said. “All of a sudden, I was like, why do I feel comfortable here when I don’t feel comfortable elsewhere?
“I was like, I have these weird thoughts in my head, but I’m not going to talk about them to anyone.”
She pushed those thoughts — struggles with gender identity — out of the way as she pursued her goals. Smith left her rural hometown of Tunkhannock in Northeastern Pennsylvania and headed off to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; Three years later she had to withdraw due to lack of funds.
In 2013, she enlisted in the United States Army. She would rise to be a decorated reconnaissance scout and a combat medic.
She attacked her education the same way she attacked her duties as a soldier. She attended Marywood University in Scranton, Pa., and was determined to make her mark, graduating with dual degrees in 2019, a published scholar on issues surrounding medical ethics.
As she was looking to attend medical school, she became increasingly aware that those thoughts in her head about her gender were real.
“I started my work with my therapist and transitioning and getting comfortable with it,” Smith recalled. “I was supposed to start physician’s assistant school, and I came out to the school. Even though I was accepted [to attend], a week before getting there they found a really obscure reason for me to not attend.”
The school let her in their counseling program, but her forward-thinking views of mental health and medical ethics turned instructors cold, and her being trans clashed with the values of the small Catholic college.
“I felt the winds changing,” she said. “I’m recognizing that professors are now starting to unnecessarily target me. I try to address it with the school, but unfortunately it is in their policy they can do that.”
Despondent from the constant fighting, Smith was looking to start anew and be her best self.
That new start involved a second trip south to Sweet Briar.
Now seeking a rebirth, she applied to Sweet Briar as it was recently experiencing a rebirth of its own. At the time that Smith was beginning to find her truth, The small school tucked into the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia was fighting to stay alive. Administrators considered shutting down Sweet Briar in 2015, citing financial pressures. A fierce rally of alumnae and supporters saved the 116-year-old college.
Smith was well into her transition in 2019 when she applied to Sweet Briar.
“Through the whole process, I was open,” Smith said. “I had become an advocate, I was doing speeches and writings at the time. I didn’t want to hide this and have people say, ‘You snuck in here!’ I wanted to avoid that.”
She was accepted to attend Sweet Briar for the fall 2020 term, but her reputation had preceded her, at least for one student. One of her first friends on campus, Theresa Carriveau, who was a rising senior on the lacrosse team at the time, reached out to Smith before she arrived.
“We have a lot of same quirkiness,” Carriveau recalled. “I wanted her to know that she had one person on campus was going to accept her and that if anybody messed with her they would also have to talk to me about it.”
Meeting one another in person solidified their bond. Such seems to be the theme surrounding Smith, mainly because of a perky, positive personality.
“Before we came to campus, we had a Class of 2024 group meet,” classmate and lacrosse teammate Kat Navarro said. “I remember her being the one who spoke out the most. She was so out there and friendly and genuinely wants to be around everybody.
“I met her in person and she was just loud and proud and out there. She just attracts a lot of people too her.”
Field hockey teammate and close friend Emma Alexander echoed the sentiment.
“She brings really good energy to everything,” Alexander said. “If I’m not having the best day, she’d come in and tell me something about her day and make me laugh.”
Teammates and friends all dub Smith as “annoyingly positive.” It seems to go in line with Smith’s spirit. From the first second she stepped on campus, she has sought to make friends and make an impact.
“Even now people came up to me on campus and say, ‘Hey, you’re Erica! We have to be friends!’ and I’m like ‘cool!’ At my last college I was introverted and in the library for hours. Here, I’m being pulled into be social.”
Some of that spirit has come from necessity, born of challenges that come with being the first to build a path forward.
“It took me a year of constantly advocating to be allowed to just live in the dorms,” she said. “I was conveniently not invited to certain events and even cropped out of photos I know I was in, by higher administration.”
She pushed for the administration to change or add a lot of policies that would make the campus a better environment for students like herself, starting with allowing her to stay in the dorms like any other student — She won that fight her freshman year.
Her outspokenness to make a space for herself drew students and faculty around her. She ran for a place in student government and became the non-traditional student’s chair for the student government association at the school. She also joined other campus clubs.
Another advisor suggested she tryout for sports, so she aimed for a spot on the field hockey and lacrosse team. She hadn’t played either sport, before but she felt both sports would best suit her. The head coaches for both teams, Hannah Lott and Elizabeth Parr, fast became sturdy supporter for the newcomer.
“Coach Lott said she looked me up and read my blog,” Smith noted. “She said as long as you continue giving 110 percent, I will always fight for you to be here.”
In a short amount of time, Smith built a united front around her.
Yet that was tested by two events over the last year that ultimately solidified two teams and one life.
Becoming A Vixen
“If anyone wants to know what the solution is to preventing people who are transitioning from having depression or suicidal thoughts, having a strong support system is night-and-day helpful,” Smith explained. “Once I came here, I surprisingly got that support.”
After years spent feeling alone while being surrounded by others, whether on a campus or within a platoon in the U.S. Army, Erica Smith was truly part of the unit at Sweet Briar.
In January 2021, that message emphatically hit home.
Smith was scheduled for gender-affirming surgery in Philadelphia. It’s a big milestone for any trans person, but it can also be emotionally and physically taxing. Most surgeons performing such a procedure insist on a patient having dedicated support around them.
Dedicated support wasn’t a worry for Smith.
“I had my team captain for field hockey drive me up there and then stay with me in a hotel. And then two other team captains driving me back and taking care of me every other day,” Smith remembered. “They were doing it because they were like, ‘Erica, you are one of us. This is how we care for our team’.”
Carriveau was among those who were part of that active support immediately after surgery.
“Going into the hospital was really hard for Erica and hard for me, especially after she woke up from surgery,” Carriveau said. “They had changed their visitor policy due to COVID to no visitors. I wasn’t allowed in her room. She was drugged up and she had a lot of anxiety.
“I was pleaded with the nurses telling them she was a sexual assault survivor and she needs a care person, and if there was anyway we could make a medical exception for the mental health issues here. One of the nurses said, after I exhausted every option, that she had never seen anyone advocate for a friend while simultaneously keeping them calm.”
As Smith healed from surgery and her teams supported her, she was planning to make her debut as a Vixen student-athlete. That would mean getting medical clearance and dealing with the bureaucracy of the NCAA.
As she prepared for the 2021 fall field hockey season, she could practice with the team but couldn’t play in competition as she awaited medical clearance and worked with the NCAA. At the time, the issue with the NCAA wasn’t her being trans, but centered around being an undergraduate for a third time and the issue of the number of semesters she had attended a four-year school.
Smith pushed to get into shape for the 2022 lacrosse season. Having met the NCAA guidelines, it looked like she was don a Vixen uniform that spring. However in January 2022, the growing controversy surrounding Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas led the NCAA to announce a drastic overhaul of the transgender student-athlete inclusion policy in place since 2011.
That overhaul threatened to delay, or worse deny, Smith’s hopes of being a Sweet Briar student-athlete.
Smith was already frustrated, having to fight for policy change within the school, and all she had been through to put herself in a position to play. This new development from the NCAA left her even more nervous, but the support around her lifted her up.
“Even through going to all of the games, teammates would tell me that ‘Erica, we want you to play with us,’” she said.
“All that made me angry,” said friend and former Sweet Briar swim team captain Nora Florio said of that uncertain time. “The hardest thing was the day-to-day change that could happen. Through all that, she was able to never let all of that get her down.”
One Goal and a Larger Goal
Smith drew that first start against Cedar Crest in part as a reward for the hard work and team spirit she showed all season. Also, her parents would have the chance to see her play for the first time.
The fact that Smith was on the field at all beat some long odds. Remember, she had never played the sport before. A year ago, she was recovering from major surgery and pushing to get in game shape, and pushing through a number of mental and physical challenges since.
Her being on the field was also a testament to who she is as a person, and what being at the school meant to her.
“At the end of the day it’s about being there for my team,” she said. “If I’m not going to be there for them, why should they be there for me?”
On the field, her teammates noticed the work she was putting in at practices, and they saw her effort often in the late stages of a blowout win or loss.
On March 14, she received a visible symbol of the team’s feeling for her.
Sweet Briar hosted Hollins University that day. The Vixen frontline players forged a lead that grew to 14-3 with 12 minutes left in regulation. Smith was in the game by then, and she found herself with the ball nestled in her stick.
She made a power move to her right, around a Hollins defender, and took her first-ever lacrosse shot attempt in competition.
The ball ripped past the Hollins goalie, and the entire Sweet Briar bench exploded in joy as if the goal was a game-winner at the buzzer.
“I jumped, I screamed, I couldn’t wait to hug her,” freshman teammate Trista Cleaves happily explained. “I felt so happy that she had that opportunity to show what she could do.”
Navarro, who was the Vixen’s starting goalie, beemed.
“It was such a proud moment for me,” she said. “Six months ago, she didn’t know how to hold a stick. She wants this so bad and cares about doing well. She is always making sure she is pulling her weight and everybody else’s.”
It was her first and only goal of the season. In that match against Cedar Crest, Smith made a play just as critical from the bench.
Heading into the fourth period, Sweet Briar trailed, 8-5. Before the start of the period, Smith noticed the speedy freshman player she dubbed “Sound Barrier”, Cleaves, was flushed and dehydrated, in clear distress.
The combat medic sprang into action. She helped her teammate off the field and stayed with the player and worked through it as the fourth period began.
Such stories have been common on the field and on the campus.
“Erica brings light and happiness,” Cleaves said. “She brings a sense of stability that you know you are going to get cared for.”
During a rough preseason practice, according to Smith, the roles were reversed.
Through concerns about eligibility and fights with the campus administration, Smith’s mental reserves were running on fumes. Cleaves provided a pick-me-up.
“It was so distracted and underperforming on the lacrosse field, that Sound Barrier came up and said ‘Hey, it’s okay and you are part of this team, and it’s okay to smile sometimes even when you are upset’,” Smith recalled.
Whether keeping up the spirits of her teammates during practices, or speaking out to make this campus a safer, better place, this outspoken, “annoyingly positive” sophomore has become not just a member of the Sweet Briar community, but a leader in it.
“It’s been amazing. She proves that boundaries are being broken,” Navarro noted. “She came out of the gate to take every opportunity to learn.”
“She been a voice for quite a lot of people and she’s not afraid to stand up,” Florio agreed.
To Erica Smith, being positive, outspoken and giving maximum effort is part of her makeup. Her determination and spirit is also a sign of gratitude for a place she spent years trying to find: A place to belong.
“If it wasn’t for these people I am allowed to be around, and the support of my coaches, I don’t know if would be here,” Smith said.
“It is so wonderful to be able to run out of a lab because I’m on the verge of breaking down crying, and the first place I go to is the athletics center,” she continued. “I go to my fitness trainer’s office, and as soon a human contact hits, I break down. Then my coaches sit down and talk with I and say, ‘Let’s make a plan so that this doesn’t happen in the future’, and then my teammates reach out to me.
“That entire thing happens because I was allowed to play in athletics.”