"He understands how lucky he is to be alive, and he embraces each and every minute on Earth as if it could be his last."

From a body bag to tri and taekwondo.

On April 24, 2004, Anthony Smith was pronounced dead. While on deployment in Iraq with his National Guard unit, Smith took a direct hit from a rocket-propelled grenade that went through his stomach before exploding and taking off his right arm. As he lay motionless on the ground, he took a shot to the chest with a 50-calibre rifle. He was put in a body bag before a nurse noticed tiny air bubbles oozing in the blood around his mouth. Miraculously, he was revived, but then given the wrong blood type, putting him into a coma for 62 days. Somehow—someway—he pulled through and returned home to Arkansas.

Smith lost a lot in Iraq. His right arm was gone below his elbow, most of his hip had to be replaced, and he lost vision in one eye. He also lost a large chunk of his memory and had to relearn things as simple as one-plus-one-equals-two. What he hadn’t lost was the fighting spirit he’d learned from his older brother, Michael.

Anthony was a troubled youth who could have been headed toward jail, but he credits his older brother with straightening him out. Michael had served in Kuwait and encouraged Anthony to join the ROTC to get an education and serve his country. Michael was killed by a drunk driver after returning from the Middle East, so when Anthony finally returned from Iraq, he was determined to honor his late brother by doing something good.

Smith began swimming to rehab his injuries and that’s when he met Nico Marcolongo, Operation Rebound’s program manager for the Challenged Athlete Foundation. Marcolongo encouraged Smith to try a triathlon, but endurance sports don’t come easy when you’re 340 pounds and smoke a couple of packs a day.

“I saw someone who wanted to regain a sense of purpose and independence, but who was wary of engaging with an organization he’d never heard of before,” Marcolongo says. “I knew as a fellow veteran it was essential to gain Anthony’s trust.”

Trust came in the form of a shiny new Kuota tri bike that Operation Rebound provided for Smith just a few weeks after he met Marcolongo. Smith took it out for a ride and was instantly hooked. But it would be a long road to regaining the health and fitness he’d enjoyed before his injuries.

In September of 2008, Smith and Marcolongo went to Ottawa for the annual Canadian Army Run 5K. Smith wasn’t able to run yet, so the two walked the course together, and toward the end, Smith turned to Marcolongo with a big smile and told him it was the farthest he’d walked since Iraq. “I knew right then that Anthony realized he could be an athlete again,” Marcolongo says. A year later, Smith was at the finish of his first sprint triathlon and was already thinking about his next race. Something that would’ve seemed impossible before losing his arm and hip was now something he couldn’t live without.

“Anthony returned home with a list of injuries that could have crushed him physically, emotionally, and psychologically,” says CAF co-founder Bob Babbitt. “But Anthony turned his injuries into a life lesson. He understands how lucky he is to be alive, and he embraces each and every minute on Earth as if it could be his last. He is a living, breathing example of how to never take anything for granted.”

Beyond Tri

Anthony Smith does more than just triathlon these days. His new-found fitness rekindled a lifelong love of martial arts, so he set a goal of earning his black belt in taekwondo. Not only did he achieve it faster than most able-bodied athletes, he opened his own studio and now teaches taekwondo to more than 300 students per year. If you’re ever in Blytheville, Arkansas, and want to learn from an 8th dan grandmaster—or you just want to meet one of the most inspiring men in the world—pop in to Anthony’s Martial Arts Academy.