London 2012: Kelly Smith on her battle to make the Games
In the latest part of our weekly #olympicthursday series profiling leading British hopes, BBC Olympic sports reporter Jessica Creighton speaks to football star Kelly Smith.
Praise for Kelly Smith is not hard to come by.
"She's one of those players who come along only once or twice in a lifetime, players with a unique talent," says Hope Powell, England and Great Britain women's football head coach.
"She's a great player. She sees things on the pitch that other players don't see - passes that you haven't even seen yourself," adds Smith's England and Arsenal Ladies team-mate Ellen White.
Smith, 33, has scored more goals for England's women than anyone else in history, represented her country over 100 times, was awarded an MBE in 2008 and is easily the most celebrated player in the squad.
Hope Powell on Smith
"She's quite a shy character for somebody who exudes confidence on the pitch. Off the pitch, she is a completely different animal. She likes to keep herself to herself. As she's got older, she's a lot more comfortable expressing herself. Her love of the game brings out the best in her - she's very fiery, very tenacious & very committed to the cause."
But after more than a decade at the top of the game that has also seen her battle injuries and alcoholism, Smith is facing another fight to be fit for a home Olympic Games.
It would be a fitting climax to the career of a standard-bearer for women's football in the UK, but the player herself refuses to accept she is anything special.
"It's funny when you say that," Smith laughs.
"I just play football. I've played football all my life. There have been accolades and achievements within the game but I don't see myself as that at all."
Smith's passion for the sport began at the age of six, in the school playground with the boys, jumpers on the ground as goal posts in time-honoured fashion.
Growing up in Watford, Hertfordshire, with her parents and younger brother during the mid-1980s, it was a time when a girl with footballing ability was perceived as odd.
Cutting her hair short and joining a local boys' league, Smith was better than the majority of the boys she played against, which led to complaints from disgruntled parents who didn't want a girl showing up their sons.
Undeterred, she simply found a girls' team to play in.
"I always wanted to have a ball at my feet, it was always in my blood. I loved to play and I was kind of good at it," Smith recalls.
"Both my parents were supportive but I don't think my mum was too happy at first. She wanted me to be a ballerina or a dancer or something, but she could see that I enjoyed it."
So much so that Smith became a different person when she was playing. Naturally reserved and one of the quieter personalities off the pitch, Smith was anything but when she crossed the white line.
"I'm not really outgoing," she admits. "It's just my personality and how I am. But on the pitch I'm a different kind of character - very confident, hungry for success, will do anything to win. Kind of a Jekyll and Hyde."
Smith on her injury rehab
"I've been working with Arsenal Ladies and British Olympic Association physios to get back on the field as quickly as possible. It's mainly been cardio work on the cross trainer with interval training. I've been squatting and lunging and doing exercises which only require using my own body weight, as not much weight can go through my leg. I hope to be back playing for Arsenal by time of the Olympic squad announcement."
That level of commitment has at times led to ugly consequences, most notably in 2004 when back-to-back career-threatening injuries while she was playing in the United States kept her from the sport she loved.
"I abused alcohol a lot during those injury years. I hit some really low points and was in a really bad way," Smith recalls.
"You're in the rehab physio room while everyone's out training, doing what you want to be doing, and it's really painful. It's hard to stay focused and positive."
Drinking to numb the pain and growing increasingly depressed, Smith's father had to fly to the States and bring her back to the UK where she checked in to a specialised rehab clinic to undergo treatment for alcoholism.
"Now I have coping strategies I use to prevent that (from happening again). I'm not proud of it but it had to happen in order for me to be the person I am today and where I am in my life.
"I get some letters from former players and youngsters that have injuries and need a bit of encouragement. If they're down and thinking they're not going to play again I can help with that because I've been there."
Injuries have regularly blighted Smith's career. She was forced to sit out much of the 2005 European Championship; a knee problem in 2009 hampered her next Euros; and at last year's World Cup an ankle injury prevented her from reaching her usual show-stopping standards. "I have to acknowledge that I didn't play well and I have to live with that," she admitted after the tournament .
Next up is the London Olympics, where the British women's team will kick off the very first action of the Games on 25 July at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff against New Zealand.
And once again, Smith is locked in a race to find fitness ahead of the squad announcement at the end of June after breaking her leg in March and then worsening it in May.
Here we go again, she must have thought.
- Born: 29 October, 1978
- Lives: Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire
- Position: Striker
- Former clubs:
- 1994-1996 - Wembley
- 1996-1997 - Arsenal
- 1997-1999 - Seton Hall Pirates
- 1999-2000 - New Jersey Lady Stallions
- 2001-2003 - Philadelphia Charge
- 2004 - New Jersey Wildcats
- 2005-2009 - Arsenal
- 2009-2012 - Boston Breakers
- 2012-present - Arsenal Ladies
"Yeah, something like that. As soon as I did it, the emotions that run through your head are all negative."
But Smith is a veteran of battling for fitness and hopes to be back training with her club Arsenal Ladies before coach Powell names the squad.
"I tried to put a positive spin on it," she adds. "It's quite tough to deal with but I think, 'There's people out there with worse than me.'"
Smith has been working with the Intensive Rehabilitation Unit at Bisham Abbey to ensure she is in peak condition if and when she pulls on the number 10 shirt this summer. "I'm in the best hands," she says. "The knowledge and expertise of these guys is out of this world."
Britain's women will make their Olympic debut this summer - a potential landmark for the way the sport is viewed in this country. It is also a chance for Smith and her team-mates to grab the limelight alongside their male counterparts in a busy summer of international football.
"Every time I step on the pitch I want to play the perfect game and reach the very high levels that I set myself.
"The tournament will reach a really big audience. Hopefully the GB team can do well and it'll get exposure and people will see women's football in a different light.
"There's no bigger event than the Olympics and to have that opportunity, hopefully I can make the team. This summer is going to be absolutely amazing."