Newport Harbor High senior Carolyn Smith has a special tradition before each of her girls' water polo matches.
She makes sure to look for her father, Tom "Smitty" Smith, in the stands. After they make eye contact, Carolyn will blow her father a kiss before looking up to the sky.
Tom lost his wife Jan. 15, 2011, when Dr. Nina Nielsen died of pulmonary embolism suddenly at the family's Newport Beach home. Carolyn lost her mother and one of her biggest supporters.
"Both lungs had a blood clot," Carolyn Smith said. "It was really sad. We just woke up and she was gone."
Nina, a dentist, was a lifelong sailor who helped lead Princeton University to three straight women's national sailing titles in the 1970s. She was a member of the Collegiate Sailing Hall of Fame, and continued to race Etchells boats competitively as an adult. It was Nina who took Carolyn out on a small sabot boat when she was little more than a toddler, and now Carolyn is an accomplished skipper. And it was Nina who first encouraged Carolyn to try water polo at the end of the fifth grade.
"She would take me out when I was like 4 years old, and she would make me drive," Carolyn Smith said. "She must have been crazy, because I feel like I would hit a lot of things, but I didn't. She just taught me almost everything I know about sailing. She was my best coach.
"She was the one who always told me to go for it in all of the things I tried. If it weren't for her, I don't know what I would be doing."
The Smiths are devout Catholics. Carolyn said that Nina's funeral mass, at Our Lady of Mount Carmel on Balboa Peninsula, was completely packed. It was followed by a celebration of life at the Newport Harbor Yacht Club, where Nina was a longtime member.
Carolyn, who was just 15 at the time, said she couldn't cry on the day her mother died. It didn't seem real that her mother was gone, but it soon set in. She said that the last couple of years have been very tough at times.
"All I'm trying to do is make her proud," Carolyn Smith said.
That part is not a problem. Nina would be so proud of the way her only child has been stepping up to the plate in so many ways.
In school, Carolyn has a 3.7 grade-point average. In sailing, she is the skipper captain for the Newport Harbor sailing team. Last June at the U.S. Junior Women's Doublehanded Championships in Minnesota, Smith and her crew, Newport senior Bayley Davidson, finished in second place by a single point to a team from the East Coast.
Smith said she plans to sail in college, not play water polo. But she sure is making the most of her senior year in the pool for the Sailors.
Last week, frustrated with only playing about half of each game, she asked Coach Bill Barnett for more playing time. The very next day, Smith delivered.
She scored a career-high five goals in the Sailors' impressive 10-4 nonleague victory at Laguna Beach. That was followed with three more goals — again leading the team — in a 10-9 win at Santa Margarita. The latter game included a long buzzer-beater from past mid-tank at the halftime buzzer, which turned out to be an important goal in a one-goal game.
"I've been waiting for this moment since freshman year," said Smith, the Daily Pilot Athlete of the Week who is third on Newport Harbor with 33 goals through Thursday. "I remember going to all the [varsity] games and just waiting for my turn. Now it's here, and I'm trying to take full advantage of it. It's been really great."
Smith has been a starter this year for the defending CIF Southern Section Division 1 champions, but her real emergence couldn't have come at a better time. The Sailors were missing UC Santa Barbara-bound senior co-captain Carly Christian (concussion) in the two nonleague games last week.
Christian, who has returned to action for Newport for this weekend's Irvine Southern California Championships, is the team's leading scorer.
"With the absence of Carly, we needed a big scorer," senior defender Avery Peterson said after the Santa Margarita game. "[Smith] definitely filled that position. It's exciting to know that when Carly comes back, we'll have two girls that are big scorers and big threats on the outside."
Barnett said he is proud of Smith, who he said has a "devastating" shot. He said the shot never was the problem for Smith, it was the swimming necessary to stay in for the majority of the game. But she has worked hard in that area as well.
"I think doing what she did gave her a lot of confidence," Barnett said. "She grew more confident in her shooting as the [Laguna Beach] game wore on."
Smith said she is excited as CIF nears and the Sailors try to defend their title. The former varsity bench player last year and member of "Team Beta" has turned into a bit of an Alpha player for Newport Harbor.
Once the water polo season is over, it will be back to sailing as a big focus.
"After these seven years of it, I'm ready to hang my suit up," Smith said. "I'm excited for that day, when I don't have to wake up at 6 a.m. everyday. I will miss the sunrises, and the girls on the team."
In the spring, Smith and Davidson will begin preparing again for the U.S. Junior Women's Doublehanded Championships. They will be held locally in Corona del Mar on June 22-27, hosted by the Bahia Corinthian Yacht Club.
"I'm really nervous about it," Smith said. "I know the spotlight's going to be on me because we only lost by one [point last year], and it's in our home court."
Smith will no doubt make her mother proud again on those days in early summer. But for now, she has unfinished business with the girls' water polo team.
She said her teammates have been supportive of her situation with losing her mother. On a team like Newport Harbor, that's hardly surprising.
"I try not to show it," Smith said. "I don't want them to see me as someone who's weak."
But no one should ever use that word to describe Carolyn Smith.
Born: March. 9, 1995
Hometown: Costa Mesa
Sport: Water polo
Coach: Bill Barnett
Favorite food: Dad's chicken curry
Favorite movie: "The Holiday"
Favorite athletic moment: Winning the CIF Southern Section Division 1 title last year.
Week in review: Smith led Newport Harbor in scoring in big nonleague wins at Laguna Beach and Santa Margarita. Her five goals in the Sailors' 10-4 win over Laguna Beach on Jan. 25 were a career-high.