His friends told him to be a soldier. Take the free college education the Army offers and build a life around its discipline. Prove your devotion, and it will reward you with a gift-wrapped future.
His coach told him to be a rower. With a hulking upper body and immeasurable tolerance for pain, he could be great at it -- so long as he focused on nothing else.
"People wanted me to choose one future and just forget about the other," said Matt Smith, 26, of Woodbridge. "Sometimes it seemed like I had to pick one or I'd fail."
Funny, he's succeeded precisely because he continued to pursue both. Smith, a fully qualified army infantry officer, will row with the men's lightweight four in the Olympics in Athens next month because his two goals, once so conflicting, turned mutually beneficial. He's an excellent rower because he's a good soldier: He regards coaches as commanders and chases goals as though they're missions.
"A soldier and an Olympian? That's not supposed to happen," said Chris Clark, Smith's coach at the University of Wisconsin. "That's too much on one plate. It's basically impossible to do both."
That's why Smith left Wisconsin believing he'd finished with rowing, too. During college, he established himself as one of the country's premier lightweights, qualifying for the senior national team in his junior and senior years. "A lot of people," Clark said, "did not want him to leave all that behind."
But what choice did he have? He attended Wisconsin on an Army ROTC scholarship, and he owed the service four years. Upon graduation, his psyche -- always centered on accomplishment -- switched from one goal to the next. He went to Fort Benning, Ga., and sped through training: an infantry officer basic course, a mechanized leadership course, airborne school and ranger school -- all in about 16 months.
"He completely switched to a new dream," said Cecilia Smith, Matt's mom. "That's the way his brain works: He goes 100 percent after whatever he wants, and everything else is ancient history."
Friends thought Smith would forget about rowing, too. And he did -- until he heard about the Army's World Class Athlete Program about a year after graduation from Wisconsin.
The WCAP allows about 100 athletes to train for the Olympics, so long as they train like soldiers. Those accepted into the program are bestowed with a simple mission: make the Olympics and represent the Army. Smith applied and entered into the program in November 2001. "It seemed perfect," Smith said. "Basically, the Army was allowing me to accomplish everything I ever wanted."
"It's a program that was made for him," Clark said. "He's a great athlete, sure. But in everything he does, he acts like the perfect soldier."
During college, he once rowed five consecutive days in 100-plus degree heat. On the last day, his body wrecked from dehydration and soreness, he rowed in the finals of the meet, posted his best time and won by less than a second. "The single most impressive thing I've ever seen," Clark said. "Damn, did that amaze me."
When colon cancer walloped close friend and former Wisconsin teammate Dylan Cappel in January 2002, Smith dropped everything and spent a week sitting at Cappel's deathbed. "All he wanted to do," Clark said, "was provide a little comfort."
Smith had the same goal just last month after coaches made the final cut for the Olympic team. Out of six finalists, four were selected. "I didn't celebrate," Smith said, "because I felt so badly for the guys who didn't make it."
That's why he nearly begged his way out of the WCAP in 2002 and again in 2003. He watched fellow soldiers fly off to war and thought of all the things he could be doing other than rowing. "He felt like he could serve the country better," said Chris Smith, Matt's dad. "He would have gone anywhere the U.S. needed."
Coaches saw so much this past winter in San Diego, where Olympic hopefuls went to train. With six hours on the water and two hours in the gym each day, most rowers caved to exhaustion and pain. Smith never missed a workout, and sometimes even joked, "I thought this was supposed to be grueling."
"He's 100 percent soldier," Clark said. "He's made himself into a model person for the Army, and that's pretty phenomenal.
"But here's the thing that amazes me: He's made himself into a model rower, too."