Witnessing an autopsy may not seem like a lot of fun, especially to those who get nauseated over the sight of blood and human organs exposed under the hot lights of a laboratory.
For Liz Smits, it was the turning point of her life.
As a sophomore at McFarland High School, a course in health science occupations gave her the opportunity to spend an afternoon with a health care professional.
“At that time, I was obsessed with crime scene shows and thought I wanted to be a forensic pathologist,” said Smits. “I ended up having the opportunity to shadow a forensic pathologist for an afternoon and watched him perform an autopsy. I think most 16-year-old girls would have been disgusted, but I happened to be blown away. Seeing the human body and all it encompassed so up close was fascinating to me.”
That experience solidified Smits’ decision to become a doctor. She is now studying at the Midwestern University Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine with hopes of working as a pediatrician. Smits is scheduled to graduate in May 2021 and then serve a three-year residency.
It seemed obvious Smits would end up in medical school after a successful running career with the McFarland girls cross country team and the track and field team, which earned her a scholarship to Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois. All along the way, she’s had many role models, especially her high school coach, Bruce Fischer, who helped instill the confidence she’s needed to accomplish just about anything she wants.
From volleyball to running
Initially, Smits thought her passion would be in volleyball as she entered McFarland after three years playing in grade school and on club teams. She ran to stay in shape for volleyball. However, she started leaning more toward running as her main sport after her freshman year.
“I spent the summer between my freshman and sophomore year trying to decide between cross country or volleyball for that fall,” Smits said. “I started running with the cross-country team that summer and realized how much I loved the individual and team aspect of cross county. In the end, cross-country won me over, and it was probably one of the best decisions I’ve made.”
In 2009, her sophomore year, Smits finished 62nd in the WIAA Division 2 girls cross-country race in Wisconsin Rapids. After qualifying for state, she was ready to take her running to the next level.
As a junior, she had a ninth-place finish at the cross-country state meet and then qualified for the girls state track and field tournament in La Crosse that spring. That experience and Fischer’s encouragement helped springboard her toward her final season as a high school athlete.
“He would set goals for me that I didn’t even realize were possible. I remember him telling me certain times I could run and me laughing at him, thinking no way can I do that,” Smits said. “But a week or so later, I would do it. He made me realize what I was capable of and held me accountable.”
Smits returned to the state cross-country meet as a senior for her final time. Weeks earlier, she won the Rock Valley Conference race and finished in the Monroe sectional. Smits was nervous, but grateful supporters had made the trek to Wisconsin Rapids to cheer her on.
“I knew I had trained all season for it and I knew what I was capable of, but was terrified of failing. I remember Fisch (Fischer) telling me at the starting line that the race was going to go out fast and that I needed to get out quick if I wanted to be in the front,” Smits said. “I was scared of going out too fast and dying towards the end, but Fisch always knew best.”
Smits followed her coach’s advice and ran from the starting line quickly. Soon, she was among the leaders and took fourth place.
“I remember running up the final hill towards the finish line and passing girls who had always beaten me. I saw my time crossing the finish line, and I could not believe it,” Smits remembered. “Fisch knew I could run that fast, but I didn’t. Being able to celebrate with my family, friends and teammates was amazing. It was probably my best high school memory.”
Fischer her role model
Smits credits Fischer with being her role model and the one responsible for her accomplishments as a high school athlete. She said without him, she might have never earned a scholarship to Bradley University.
“He was always so humble. Anytime I tried to give him credit, which he completely deserved, he would completely deny it. He taught me how to push myself and set goals that seemed impossible,” Smits said. “To this day, I still hear his voice as I run up a hill, “Quick, quick, quick, quick.” I truly mean it when I say I would not have had even half of the success I had in running if it weren’t for Fisch.”
Smits ended her high school track career with appearances in two state tournament events. She took third in the 3,200-meter run and was part of the 4 x 800 relay team that ended third.
At Bradley, Smits had three different head coaches: Marc Burns in her freshman and sophomore years, Willy Wood as a junior and in her senior year, it was Darren Gauson. Smits suffered a stress fracture in her senior year and was barely running, but she credits Gauson with helping her recover.
“I had lost so much of my endurance, speed and confidence,” Smits said. “Coach Gauson continued to tailor my training for me and let me have days off to rest when my injuries started to act up. By the end of my senior year track season, I was running the fastest I ever had been.”
Medical studies begin
After a strong college cross-country and track career, Smits began her medical studies. She enjoys the experience gained from working in Chicago.
“One of the greatest benefits of going to medical school in Chicago is the diversity of patient population and pathologies. Working with a variety of ethnicities, sexual orientations, social-economic classes, I’ve learned more about the specific challenges different groups of people face in terms of health,” Smits said. “For me, it’s important to continue to learn about these populations and provide medical care to underserved communities.”
Eight years after graduating from McFarland High School, Smits said running was a large part of her life and it felt like everything to her. But now, she has a better grip on the world and what her role should be.
“After graduating, my experiences have really opened my eyes to the world and the many opportunities to make the world a better place,” Smits said. “I encourage all athletes to continue to work hard in their sports and enjoy the moment, but remember sports aren’t everything.”