The Smith Twins first entered a swimming pool when they were just sixth months old.
One twin has gone on to make a splash, earning All-State honors, has been part of three straight state championship teams and is likely to add another title this season.
The other will never win a race.
The Smith Twins – Ila and Jonathan – were born two minutes apart on February 13th, 2003. The East Greenwich twins were preemies. Ila, the oldest, weighed just over two pounds at birth. Her younger brother Jon weighed only 3.2 pounds. Together, their weight barely equaled a sack of potatoes.
Ila would go on to have the biggest challenges. She was born with a rare heart condition and was given a 50 percent chance to live. She was just four pounds when she underwent her first of two heart surgeries. The congenital heart defect was among many of Ila’s health issues. She spent months clinging to life before she was able to go home for the first time on Memorial Day.
A determined fighter, she will celebrate her 18 birthday with Jon in a few weeks.
Ila is enrolled in the Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) program at East Greenwich High where she is a member of the swim and softball teams. Jonathan is a senior on the Bishop Hendricken swim team, the defending state champs and one of the top programs in New England. He swims backstroke and butterfly for the Hawks
Ila has had physical and academic challenges since birth. She has had 10 eye surgeries and has double vision. She has had two heart surgeries. She is scheduled to undergo her third heart surgery this summer . She also struggles with learning.
“I never treated my daughter like she had a disability. That’s probably why she has done as well as she has. She has never given up. She’s in that pool she’s swimming in. She’s playing softball. She’s mainstream with every other kid.” said the twins’ mom, Kathy Smith. “It’s been great for her.”
The twins first entered the water at the Kent County YMCA at sixth months old. Eventually they swam for the YMCA swim team and joined their high school teams when they separated for the first time.
Jonathan has gotten increasingly faster in the pool. Although she often swims twice a day, the physical challenges she has always faced have prevented Ila from trimming her times in the backstroke and freestyle
Still, she keeps going. Unfazed by her challenges.
“I’m not a give up person,” said Ila.
“She has always been a little behind her brother…well, a lot behind. He is very athletic,” said Kathy, a nurse for the last 40 years. “Ila has always tried and tried to keep up with him. My son will come in first place and she’ll come in dead last, but she will never complain. They are very close and supportive of each other.”
“Ila is that rare special person that you don’t know you are going to meet and then becomes a big part of your life. She is smart and funny and caring and 100 percent uniquely herself. Ila touches all who know her,” said East Greenwich Swim Coach Gina Hand.
“She is a beautiful swimmer,” saiid Hand. “She just hasn’t been able to get faster. But she is a big part of our team. Ila is a consistent presence on the East Greenwich team. She has been invaluable helping the new swimmers find their way. She knows the sport and how to read a swim set. I use her often to demonstrate skills to other swimmers during a practice.”
On the days, she’s not feeling up to getting in the water, she is helping time the meets or demonstrating a stroke to her teammates.
“My brother and my parents and coaches push me…the people I’m close with push me,” said Ila.
I love being part of the team. It’s like another family.”
“Being a part of the East Greenwich swim team has been wonderful,” said Kathy. “The team is very supportive. I can’t say enough about Gina. If Ila doesn’t feel well enough to swim, she has her help time or do something else. It’s been a wonderful experience.”
There is no bigger inspiration for Jon than his “older” sister Ila – who is two minutes his senior.
It’s Ila who pushes her younger brother in the pool and in everything he does. He readily admits he has had a bit of a rough patch with swimming, often questioning whether he wanted to continue participating in the sport. It is his sister that has inspired Jonathan to keep going.
“When she had her second heart surgery three years ago I was at a meet in Boston,” said Jonathan. “I was supposed to swim in the finals that night, but ended up scratching. My head wasn’t in it. “
Instead of racing in the pool, he raced to the hospital to be by his sister’s side.
He still gets emotional and chokes back tears when he recalls seeing Ila lying in the hospital bed that night.
“That was the turning point for me. I knew I had to work as hard and be good at everything I did,” Jonathan.
Six weeks after undergoing heart surgery Ila was back in the pool.
“I missed swimming and being with the team. I missed the people. It’s like another family,’ said Ila. “Swimming keeps me going,” said Ila.
So less than two months after undergoing her second heart surgery, she was back in the water, pushing herself as hard as her body would allow. And while she pushed, so did her brother.
“I just wanted to push myself more since that moment after seeing her in the hospital,” said Jonthan. “It was a very hard time for me. “She came out of heart surgery and still didn’t give up after that and was back in the pool. Why shouldn’t I stick with it when I have the ability?”
“Ila motivates me because she obviously has a hard time with her physical disabilities,” said Jonathan. “It makes me push myself hard because she looks up to me.”
“I’m very proud of my brother,” said Ila. “ I know he has it easier than me, but I am happy for him.”.
The Coronavirus Pandemic has brought the twins even closer than they were before. Ila got Covid-19 first and then it trickled through the Smith household. With her preexisting conditions, the Smiths were careful and in lockdown.
“We all had Covid at the same time so we were all home together,” said Jonathan. “It was actually a good thing. We all had to look out for each other and make sure everyone was safe.”
They took advantage of being quarantined together to prepare for their final high school swim season, working out together at home every day.
“We helped each other reach our goals and really bonded,” said Jonathan.
“I love to push myself and challenge myself. I am very much not a give up person,” said Ila, who wears a constant ear to ear smile. “I’m trying to do what I can while I can and go for the best.”
Jonathan hopes to continue his swimming career and study criminal justice next year at Roger Williams University. He plans one day to become a police officer
Ila readily admits she struggles in the classroom. While most students are distance learning from home, she is at EG High four days a week where she receives extra help.
“School is hard for me. I want to succeed. I enjoy getting the help I need and succeeding. I have good grades now. I want to keep going,” said Ila, who hopes one day to become a physical therapists’ assistant.
“We both push each other. When she’s not feeling it I give her a push and keep going and she does the same for me. Everyone needs a push,” said Jonathan. “It would be easy for her to give up. But she never does.”