Now in his seventh year with the Maryland wrestling program, Jaron Smith has been around so long that he has become the target of some good-natured ribbing.
One of his favorites is Darryl Colbert, an ambassador of the school’s chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and a character coach with the wrestling team, joking that Smith was on campus when the Terps were members of the Atlantic Coast Conference. Almost true, but not quite — the university left for the Big Ten in July 2014, a year before Smith enrolled.
Smith’s teammates also remind him of his age — even accidentally.
“I’ll make a reference to a song that came out in my freshman year, and some of the guys on the team will say, ‘Oh man, that song was great. I loved that song when I was in eighth grade,’” he said. “That’s insane because when I was in my freshman year, some of these guys were 11 or 12 years old. So the age difference is crazy to see. It’s something your parents tell you about, and then you get around to being with people who are almost half your age, and it’s crazy to actually realize the difference.”
Smith, who turns 24 on Jan. 12 and grew up in Columbia, has not been dragging his feet. He graduated in August 2020 with a bachelor’s in mathematics with a focus in statistics and is working on a master’s in applied economics.
What has kept Smith at Maryland is a relentless desire to finish his wrestling career on his terms. He has overcome multiple ACL tears to open this season with a 4-1 record in dual meets and a third-place showing at last month’s Clarion Open. He’s currently honorably mentioned in FloWrestling’s national rankings, one spot outside the top 24.
Terps coach Alex Clemsen had high praise for his starter at 197 pounds.
“I think athletically, he is as gifted as any kid in the country when you think about the combination of strength and power and speed and ability to put things together,” Clemsen said. “Especially when he’s fresh. Early in a match, I think he’s about as dangerous or about as equipped as anybody to go out and really threaten his opponents. We’re still working on the backside of his wrestling, and it’s gotten a lot better. I think he’s still got some room to grow, and I think he would admit that, too.”
Smith’s injury history began during the summer after his sophomore year at Oakland Mills when he tore the ACL in his left knee while competing for the Maryland National Team at the Cadet National Duals. That proved to be a mild speed bump in his road to a 129-22 record, two state championships and the Howard County Times/Columbia Flier Wrestler of the Year award in 2015.
After a healthy freshman year in which he went 9-13 but showed flashes — like when he pinned the then-No. 18 ranked wrestler in the country — Smith tore a ligament in his thumb in his first tournament in November 2016, underwent surgery, and missed the remainder of the season. The following fall as a redshirt sophomore, he won two dual matches before tearing the left ACL again, damaging the meniscus, and requiring another operation.
Smith opened the 2018-19 season with three wins, but this time he tore the ACL and meniscus in his right knee. Then he underwent surgery on his right medial collateral ligament before the 2019-20 campaign but returned to finish the season 12-9 with several victories over nationally ranked wrestlers.
After each injury, Smith rehabbed religiously and attempted another comeback. However, he admitted that the idea of walking away from wrestling popped into his head several times.
“Whenever I thought, ‘Man, should I continue wrestling?’ it’s been a pretty easy and resounding, ‘Yes,’ because that’s what I want to do and I want to continue doing it,” he said. “I’ve had teammates say, ‘I don’t know how you do it,’ or, ‘I don’t know if I could keep going.’ They say it like they’re giving me credit for it, but at the same time, I don’t know what I would do if I stopped.”
After the second surgery on his left ACL, Smith questioned whether he was snake bitten. But the surgeon who performed the operation told him that the top of his tibia had a protrusion that placed undue stress on the ACL, making it easier to damage. That diagnosis made it easier for him to accept the right ACL tear.
Smith said he has been able to compete without the fear that he could re-tear either ACL or suffer another season-ending injury.
“After a certain point, I kind of just stopped caring about whether I got injured or not because it just happened before,” he said. “I don’t have a very deep philosophy about it. I just operate very procedurally now.”
Redshirt senior Kyle Cochran, who has known Smith for the past five years, said he and his teammates are in awe of Smith’s resilience.
“I think most people, if they got injured as much as Jaron did, they probably at this point would have put their shoes on the mat and said, ‘I don’t think this can work,’” said Cochran, the starter at 184 pounds. “But Jaron is more motivated than ever, and he’s just the type of kid that he loves wrestling and he wants to succeed. So he just won’t accept that. He had done everything possible in order to rebuild the strength in his knees and wherever his other injuries have been.”
Clemsen said Smith embodies perseverance, which is one of the program’s four pillars with faith, sacrifice and accountability being the others.
“I think he probably understands that word as well as anyone that’s on the team,” he said. “He’s really had to battle a lot. Wrestling is important to him. He’s not a super vocal kid, but he does a lot of things with his actions and the way he carries himself. Look at his body. The kid looks like he’s a Greek god. He looks like Prometheus. He’s a freak, and some of that is genetics. But you don’t look like that no matter how good your genetics are if you aren’t working. He really works at his body and taking care of himself and rehabbing and doing extras. I think the ability to struggle and find positivity in things is really impressive.”
Based on his injury history, Smith could apply for an eighth year of eligibility, but he does not want to consider that yet because he does not want to get complacent. He said he wants to concentrate on his top priority of qualifying for the NCAA tournament for the first time.
“I can make excuses for the things we’ve talked about already, but that’s my bare-minimum goal, to qualify,” he said. “I believe that by the end of the season, I can be an All-America quality wrestler and one that’s in serious contention for a national title. I feel like anybody who watches the beginning of my matches can attest to that, but I’ve just got to get myself into shape to the point where I can wrestle an entire match. So that’s the biggest concern right now. But I’ve got so much training left to do this season that I feel like all of my goals are pursuable and realistic as long as I continue the path that I’m on.”
Cochran said Smith’s boundless energy is evident during training and weightlifting sessions. Smith said he might be at the healthiest he has been since joining the Terps.
“I haven’t had to sit out much at all, especially not to the degree that I had to the past couple of years,” he said. “So given the opportunity to stay as healthy as I’ve been and compete at the level that I’ve been competing, I couldn’t ask for more right now.”