The annals of sporting history are littered with the tales of plucky underdogs who have upset the odds in the pursuit of victory. However, there are surely very few who have had to overcome the same level of adversity as Gold medal-winning Paralympian David Smith MBE. Despite being temporarily paralysed by a life-threatening tumour in his spine in 2010, he captured a Gold medal two years later at the Summer Paralympics in London.
For the last thirteen years, David has pursued sporting success in cycling and rowing while simultaneously fighting a battle with cancer. At the Edinburgh Business Beats Cancer Annual Dinner this past May, he took to the stage for a special sit-down Q & A hosted by his friend and fellow cyclist Mark Beaumont. For those lucky enough to be in attendance, it was an unforgettable insight into a remarkable athlete.
“HE’LL WORK OUT HOW TO GET UP”
David was born in Dunfermline, and then moved to Aviemore in the Highlands with his parents. He didn’t have an easy start in life, as he almost lost his feet as a baby. “I had club foot, and my feet were fused backwards,” said David. “So, I experienced a lot of adversity as a kid. But my parents had a philosophy of if I fell over, don’t pick him up. He’ll work out how to get up.”
During his youth in Aviemore, David competed in karate and fought in three world championships. Eventually, he “got fed up with getting beat up” and switched to running. “But the problem was, my tumour started growing very young,” said David. “The more I trained, the more the tumour didn’t like it and it started to crush the nerves on my spinal cord. I spent more time in hospital and every doctor just kept telling me, you’re doing too much sport.”
A RACE HE DIDN’T SIGN-UP FOR
David gave up running and made the Olympic bobsleigh team before changing sport again, this time to rowing. After six months on the team, he received his first diagnosis. David described it as a race he didn’t sign-up for. “I wasn’t ready for it,” he said. “I was an athlete training in the British Rowing team, with some of the fittest people in the world, two years out from the London games. They told me I had a tumour in my spinal cord and if it wasn’t taken out, I could die. And even if they did take it out, there’s a high risk I would be paralyzed from the neck down and on a ventilator for the rest of my life. Those are your two options. Where would you like to sign?”
TRIUMPHING OVER ADVERSITY
In the face of this horrific situation, David used his love of sport as a coping strategy. He had won a Gold medal in the adapted mixed coxed four event at the World Rowing Championships in 2009 and, remarkably, repeated the feat by winning Gold in the same event in the 2011 Championships. Then, at the 2012 Paralympics in London, he won a Gold in the mixed coxed four event. After his health forced him to retire from rowing, David joined the British Cycling’s Paralympic Academy programme in 2014. Despite enduring further surgeries on his tumour, he took ninth place at the final Para-cycling Road World Cup of the 2015 season in Pietermaritzburg.
While David continued to achieve sporting success, his battle with cancer was about to get even more gruelling. “2015 was the last time that I was able bodied, and I rode up Mont Vonteaux three times in one day,” said David. “That was my last year without being paralyzed. Then surgery number four would come in 2016 and that changed everything. I woke up from that completely paralyzed from the neck down and spent a year in hospital. It stripped away my identity of being this powerful strong athlete. I was now going back into society as someone who’s on a walking stick, in a wheelchair, disabled.”
Sport continues to provide an escape for David. “There’s times where I pause when I’m out on my bike” he said. “Two nights ago, in Aviemore, I paused, and I was the only one out in the rain. Everyone thought I was mad, but I thought, when I was in hospital for a year, I’d have given anything to go out in the rain just to hear a bird or see a tree.”
LIVING IN THE MOMENT
Elite sport is all about looking towards the next challenge, but David has decided to prioritise living in the moment. Skiing is his latest passion. “I’m not distracted by thinking about the next medal or anything,” said David. “I’ve stepped away from highly competitive sport and it feels like the best decision I’ve ever made for me as a human and for my family.”
David’s cancer journey is ongoing, and he had a recent scare where an oncologist found an anomaly on an X-ray. This meant he had to have a CT scan. David was called into hospital to receive the results, only to be told they were all clear. “I was like – could you not have told me that on the phone?” said David. “Do you know what I’ve been through? But thank you.”
THE GIFT OF LIFE
Fighting for his life on a hospital bed has given David a true appreciation of how precious it is, and this is the main message he wanted to pass on. “I’ve seen so much suffering over the last 13 years in ICU wards and neurological wards, that sometimes I want to grab people and shake them and just be like, look, your health is your number one gift,” said David. “We come into this world on an inhale, and we leave on an exhale. Two very, very important breaths. But every breath in between them is just as important.”
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