- October 10, 2023
- UCI women’s soccer player and psychology major Kiera Smeenge on balancing sports with studies and life with type 1 diabetes
In the fall of 2020, Kiera Smeenge’s life was filled with uncertainty. She had just arrived on the UCI campus as a freshman. She had been recruited as a defender to play for the women’s soccer team, but due to Covid-19, the team didn’t yet know if they’d have a season. Smeenge was excited and motivated for classes and training to begin, but something in her body was off.
At first, she attributed her symptoms to exercise. She was unusually thirsty and eating six meals a day yet was losing weight. She was overcome with brain fog and noticed she had trouble making decisions. When it became clear that something was wrong, she made an appointment to see a doctor. It was then she received the news that she had type 1 diabetes.
After having just arrived at Irvine, Smeenge moved back home to San Diego to recuperate and to get used to the routine of continuous glucose monitoring and insulin injections.
“This was a huge life adjustment,” she says.
Now in her fourth year, the psychology major and athlete is thriving. Smeenge was an All-Big West Honorable Mention in 2022 and selected for the Big West All-Freshman Team in 2021. She has started in 49 matches and played in 51 over her career. All of this has totaled to about 4,000 minutes of play. As (primarily) a defender, she has also been a part of 23 shutouts.
“She attacked this adversity with the same positivity and determination she shows on the field. I never heard her complain about it, and she has learned to manage it and remain a top, top player,” says UCI women’s soccer head coach Scott Juniper about her diagnosis.
It’s impressive that Smeenge stands out on a team filled with talent. The UCI women’s soccer team has won the Big West conference two years running, and last year, they made it all the way to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen, the farthest the team has ever reached in the tournament.
“She’s a high-level competitor. Her opponents just can’t get passed her. She is one of the first names on the team sheet because of her consistency and trustworthiness,” says Juniper.
Smeenge attributes her resilience to the support of her parents, who have always been her biggest supporters and mentors.
“They taught me how to go with the ebbs and flows and how to deal with the stuff life throws at you,” she says.
Soccer to scholar
Smeenge sees a silver lining in her diagnosis. Dealing with the condition has challenged her to succeed despite adversity. Since diabetes is something that must be constantly managed, she has been forced to pay even closer attention to her schedule. This, in turn, has helped her succeed as a full-time college student juggling an intense training schedule and extracurricular activities.
Due to her stellar GPA, Smeenge has twice been selected for the Big West Fall All-Academic Team, been included on the Dean's List every quarter she's been eligible and has been selected for the Big West Commissioner's Honor Roll with highest honors.
“Kiera is an exceptional example of a student-athlete,” says Juniper.
Smeenge has an extensive schedule and to-do list (broken down by the hour) and says she’s motivated to work hard for the people around her. As if juggling academics and athletics weren’t enough, she also works as a peer health educator for the UCI Center for Student Wellness and Health Promotion where she works with the body image and nutrition team promoting health and wellness on campus.
“In soccer, I work hard for my teammates who rely on me on the field. Academically, I work hard so I can have a successful future. Plus, I naturally like to have a full workload,” she says.
When it was time to choose a major, Smeenge was drawn to psychology out of a fascination of why people do the things they do and knowing she wanted to pursue a people-oriented field. Plus, when a family member experienced a brain injury, her interest in the field was piqued even more.
Smeenge began playing soccer at age six and has loved it ever since. While the sport has been a large part of her life, she realizes it isn’t everything. As she gets set to enjoy her last year as an Anteater, she maintains a healthy perspective.
“Soccer is a huge part of my life, but it’s not all of who I am. It’s important to keep that in mind,” she says.
After she graduates in June, she plans on pursuing a career in public health. Specifically, she’s interested in becoming a registered dietician and a certified diabetes educator to help others with the same disease.
But before then, she hopes to lead her team to another Best West championship.
-Jill Kato for UCI School of Social Sciences
-pictured top to bottom: Kiera Smeenge is in her senior year at UCI playing for the women's soccer team. Pictured in pink, Smeenge played in the Breast Cancer Awareness game and is shown wearing her Dexcom G6 (continuous glucose monitor). Smeenge with her parents. Smeenge in the 2023 UCI vs. UCLA matchup. Smeenge with the UCI tourney champ bracket after winning the Big West Tournament in 2022. Teammates (l to r) Lilli Rask, (Kiera Smeenge), Madison Chavez, and Alex Jaquez after winning the Big West tournament in 2021.