Kimani Freeman is a junior, three year member, and two year captain of the Smith College Volleyball team. Freeman is also a member of the 500 club at Smith (500 pound combined deadlift and back squat). Off the court, she is a French major and sociology minor, and a member of the Smiffenpoofs, the nation’s oldest traditionally all-female acapella group.
Tell me your story at Smith.
I actually found out about Smith through Women of Distinction, a program [that takes place] in the beginning of the year. I remember I went to go talk to the coach at the time and I was like hey I play club and I love volleyball and I'm looking to continue in college. I was wondering if we could talk about it. He was like yeah totally. I ended up flipping a coin on the last day you have to put your [college] deposit down, and it was between George Washington and Smith College. I was like if it’s heads, then I'm going to Smith. It was heads, so that’s how I got here.
It's been a whirlwind, you know? To say the least. It's definitely difficult when you come in and you're recruited by one coach and then he leaves after a season. I think I've definitely found my family. I've found my siblings on this team. I've never met a team that's so resilient, so passionate.
“We've had all these odds stacked up against us and we still haven't backed down.”
We just keep going. We're small but mighty. It's not about how big the dog is, it's about the bark. That's what we said all season. We just keep going, it's truly my teammates that keep me going. That's the reason why I love Smith Volleyball so much.
What was the transition like being a captain your sophomore year?
It was super scary because there were three seniors, and one of them didn't become captain. That caused a little bit of riffraff on the team between us. Stepping up into that role it was, not to say natural, but it felt right. The coaches came to me during spring ball, and were like we want you to run for captain and we've been thinking about and we think you would be a great fit. I think it was awesome to actually be surrounded by two other people [co-captains], so I learned how they interact with everybody else. You had that one captain everybody goes to about emotional problems, or like I don't know how to talk to Coach. You have that one captain that's more vocal on the court and a motivator. Then you have that one captain that just encompasses it all. I kind of got to see that, and I got to learn, well how do I want to lead this team? It's always a learning process. You don't learn it all in one season, but I definitely found out what type of leader I am and what type of leader I want to be.
I think my sophomore year it was a lot easier to be Black on this team because the other two captains were also POC. In my head there was like nothing different. I was like okay cool, and then this year it was just me.
“I felt like a lone wolf”
What are some moments you have really felt your identity on your team?
I was one of three black girls on the team [in high school]. I guess I've lived a very privileged life being that I'm from North New Jersey, but I've only gone to private schools. I got this chance to get the best education possible. Right off the bat, being black is a huge difference. All the other girls on my team were white and lived in different parts. We just came from such different backgrounds, and I kinda straddled that line of whoa I could kind of be like you guys, but I'm not like you guys. I know how to act around you guys, at the same time I know how to act around my other friends, around black people. So I guess you could say code switching was a huge thing. When we were in hotels and were waiting to go out and play, talking to someone I'd be like yeah blah blah blah, and I just switch all the sudden and I'd be like oh yeah let's totally do this, like let's totally go for it. I remember that was a really big thing. They're like well why aren't you talking like that to us? And I was like, I don't have to do that with you, I feel [more] comfortable doing it with someone else than I do with you.
Being one of the bigger girls on the team was a huge thing. You know you're growing up, you're a teenager and body image is a huge thing, and it still is. I think that was the first time I actually realized that I was built differently than other girls. It was hard because coaches sort of like to nitpick you and pick up on those insecurities, but I just used it to my advantage. Especially when you play a sport like volleyball where you're literally in the tightest, tightest clothes known to man, and I could have been like oh I don't want to play, I don't want to do it because of the uniform. But I kind of switched it around. Getting to Smith by working out and using my size to my advantage in the weight room and on the court, it's totally boosted my confidence.
I leaned on my mom a lot. It wasn't the first time that the picture goes into color [and] you're like oh I'm black and you're white, but it was the first time that sports were such a big part of my life. No coach has ever really focused on that before, and I just talked to her about it. She was like well you just need to keep it in the back of your mind, but you know you're here for one specific reason. You need to focus on that. You hone in on that and you work. She's like you're going to have to work twice as hard as everybody else on that court to get half the playing time that they get.
That was true. You know there were times where I didn't play and I know I'm better than let’s say Jane Doe over there, but because of this coach I know I can't play. That just meant getting more reps, playing longer, being the first in the gym, being the last one to leave, being the first one in the weight room, being the last one to leave. That hasn't changed and I think it's made me the player that I am today. Throw me some adversity, I'll take it, that’s cool. Let's do it. In the moment it was hard, it was just like wow this difference, this difference that I have is just separating me from everybody else. Now it's just like cool, thank you for that, you know?
For me, a big thing is my anger… or my passion, and how it comes across as anger. I've had some people on the team, and off the team, come to me and say "oh well you look pissed off” or “you don't look like you're having fun” or “you look angry, what's going on?” That flows into the stereotype of the angry black woman, and it's not me. Just because I'm really in the moment, I'm focused, doesn't mean I'm angry or there's something that I'm pissed off about. It's totally been a huge thing when everybody comes across differently on the court and when someone is in the zone. Some person might be like really happy, someone might be like yes let's go, and then some people might just not say anything. I'm that person that doesn't say anything. I want to get the job done, so being accused of being angry while other people act the same way, it's like are you talking to them about this too or is this just me? That hurts a lot. So that's definitely one of those times where I [would] be like.. got it, like remember where you are. I process it. I talk to my mom. A really big thing for me is my faith, so I pray about it and I just try to calm myself down because you don't want to fall into those stereotypes that they're trying to push you into.
What is one positive aspect about your time at Smith so far?
The one positive aspect about Smith is that I feel like I've finally come into myself in every meaning of that phrase, from on the volleyball court to off the volleyball court, academics, my social life, my personal life. I've been given this platform to just truly go for it and feel everything I want to feel and figure out what it means to actually be Kimani Freeman and be true to myself. I've also figured out what I want, like my friendships and my relationships, how I want to conduct myself in certain areas of my life and just never backing down. I think that's totally what Smith Volleyball has been about. It’s like you know you're given this big huge challenge and you just don't back down from it and you just keep working.
We made a step with acknowledging that Smith Athletics does not look how Smith wants it to look and that's… that ain’t too cute, that ain’t too cute for lack of better words. It's made me think about what our teams are doing to foster this diversity, and diversity doesn't have to be about race, it can be truly about anything.
“It's about the identities that we all possess and how we all foster those identities and how we all come together and we just mesh together. “
I don't think we talk about that enough. We think that one size fits all. Like we all look and act the same and that's not true, you know? I just wish that everybody was more open to having these conversations and trying to figure out how to get more people of color on this campus, like more POC athletes because we're out there. Where are you looking? Are you looking in the right places? What are you doing? Are your words matching your actions?
Do you think Smith was the right decision?
Smith was the right decision. Looking back, we talked about growth and how we're different. How I was different from high school to now and I don't think I've ever felt this confident before. Like on the court, you can't tell me nothing. I've found the passion that I have for this game. I’m confident when it comes to my friendships, the people that I've met in athletics, and I'm okay with athletics being a big part of my identity here at Smith. I was thinking about that because I'm going abroad, and I was like wow, what is it gonna be like to just be a regular schmegular person for a little bit, like what does that mean? I was like wow, athletics is really just a big part of it. I wouldn’t change it for the world… for anything. One flip of that coin. I was glad it landed on heads. Really glad it landed on heads.