University of Tennessee at Chattanooga graduating senior Mackenzie Smith aims to become the seventh physician in her immediate family, but medical school will have to wait until after her soccer career.
Smith, 22, a Knoxville, Tennessee, native whose parents now live in nearby Louisville (pronounced Louis-ville), has her eye on playing professional soccer in Ireland, England or Iceland. Then, the two-time all-Southern Conference player and biochemistry major plans to join her five siblings and father and attend medical school—her mom’s a nurse—before hanging up a shingle as a doctor.
“I want to be a doctor, OK. But I want to take a gap year—or two, as long as my body will let me—and go play professional soccer overseas,” Smith said, “and then I’ll come back and go to medical school. When we grew up, we would just listen to my parents at the table talk about their patients, just their stories and how it affected them. And so I think all of us kind of knew we wanted to have that impact on people and we wanted to be impacted that way.
“I know it sounds bizarre, but to us (siblings) it’s always been like, this is what we’re going to do. This just always felt so normal, and it never was a push thing from [my parents]. I think my parents are the most hard-working, sacrificial people I know. And so I think it’s almost a testament to how much they’ve done for us and how much love they put into us and also how much love they’ve put into their professions that it spoke to us in that way. So I think it’s not only that I want to be a doctor, but it’s like I want to be like my dad.”
Her father, Dr. Lawrence “Larry” Smith, is a hospitalist at Knoxville’s University of Tennessee Medical Center. Mother Paula is a former critical care nurse. They had six children in seven and a half years: Garrison, Blake, Taylor and Haley either are in medical school or have graduated and are serving their residencies. Logan is about to start medical school.
“I think medicine is the purest form of serving people and saving them,” Mackenzie said. “In a fundamental way, that just kind of speaks to me.”
Soccer has spoken to her since she was 4 years old.
A high school standout at Knoxville’s Hardin Valley Academy, she captained the UTC team that just had its first 10-win season in two decades. In her junior and senior seasons, the midfielder was a first-team all-conference selection.
“She’s an impressive individual and leads by example,” said Head Coach Gavin McKinney, who has coached UTC soccer for nine seasons. “She became team captain her sophomore season, which is rare. She’s the best team leader we’ve had come through the program and helped us take it from the stage where we were beginning to be at a good competitive level to what was our best season, a regular season title in 2022—our first in 26 years.”
After her freshman season, Smith asked her coach to open the practice facility an hour before the 7:45 a.m. daily training began. Snow, rain, wind—it didn’t matter. First in, and first out.
“Mack is super, super hard-working,” junior teammate and friend Kelly Tuerff said. “She just goes headfirst into everything she does. She’s very passionate and very strong. She’s always looking out for everyone, whether you are a close friend of hers or a new freshman. She’s always putting herself on your side.”
Bailee Kusch, who also attends UTC, said she and Smith grew up together and have been best friends since elementary school.
“Mackenzie is a phenomenal person,” Kusch said. “She’s there for you to the end and one of the hardest-working people I’ve met. When it comes to soccer, she’s first on the field and first off.”
Recent Lee University graduate and soccer player Mollie Wheeler has known Smith for eight years and called her “the most dedicated person I’ve ever met. I’m not one to exaggerate, but she’s closer to me than family. Her whole family has such a high standard of achieving everything possible for themselves. She’s always been one to make sure I’m doing what’s best for me and to give me the tough answers you don’t want to hear. She puts in more work than anybody else I know.”
Father Larry said Mackenzie, who interns as a patient care technician at Erlanger Hospital, has always been devoted to soccer but is made for medicine. Mackenzie was born last when he was in residency, and Paula watched the children during the day and worked in the intensive care unit as a nurse at night.
“All of our children are either in residency or medical school,” he said. “I suspect she [Mackenzie] will go into internal medicine or family practice. She’d be an excellent physician—if that’s what she chooses to do.”
Mackenzie said being the soccer captain helped hone her leadership skills because she had to learn how to motivate juniors and seniors early on after tough losses.
“I think I always knew that maybe I wasn’t going to be naturally the best player on the team,” she said, “and that’s OK because that’s not up to me. But I knew that the only thing I could control is how hard I work. And I think people who work hard will beat talent … nine out of 10 times.”
Mackenzie said she would like to close out her soccer career by returning to Chattanooga and playing on a burgeoning professional team.
“I take medical school and being a doctor very seriously,” she said. “I think it’s a huge commitment, so I don’t want to rush into it because what I think I want to do with it is going to be a specialty that’s going to require 10 years from start to finish.
“I’m so young now and I’ve already done so much school—and I love soccer. It makes sense to me and I don’t see myself not playing it, so why not take two years out of my whole life to go do something?”
She sports a 3.7 GPA in biochemistry with minors in biology and psychology, which she thinks will help her bedside manner as a physician.
“I think the way the mind works tells a lot about biologically what’s going on, too. There’s a lot of mental disorders that have biological reasonings behind them,” she said. “So knowing that [my parents] wanted to take care of people, it never was really about medicine. It was always to take care of people. So how can you use what you’ve been given by God to serve people in some unselfish way? And I think that maybe we all were driven to medicine because of that.
“I wouldn’t have anything that I have today without God. And I think my whole life is almost like a story of His grace and His love. It’s not mine. It’s always been Him. … Not only do I want to be a doctor, but it’s like I want to be like my dad. I want to serve people like my mom. And I think medicine is that in its purest form—to serve people and to save people in a fundamental way. That just kind of speaks to me.”