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On June 1, 2010, when a car pulled out in front of Brad Smith while he was out for a ride, he suffered a spinal cord injury that resulted in paralysis from the waist down. Despite that devastating diagnosis, he didn’t sink into depression. “I know it sounds strange, but my first thought was, ‘How can I get back out on the bike?’” he says. From his hospital bed at Atlanta’s Shepherd Center he researched the equipment needed for this new phase of his life.
Smith’s recovery was complicated by a rare case of Guillain-Barré syndrome that temporarily paralyzed his upper body as well. During a year of progressive rehab that initially included a feeding tube, ventilator and neck and back braces, then intensive speech, occupational and physical therapy (“Bicep curls with two-pound dumbbells felt like the hardest thing I’d done in my life,” recalls Smith), he received a grant in February 2011 to purchase a handcycle. Two months later and after a steep learning curve, he tackled the Assault On The Carolinas, a ride event he had previously participated in to mark his official “return to the open road.”
Smith’s friends and family organized a fundraiser to provide him with a racing wheelchair (used on the run), and the next year he returned to triathlon, with his focus on the sprint distance. An athlete since high school (he ran his first marathon in 1998 while in college and took up triathlon soon after), Smith says his 2016 race plans include his first relay with wife Carrie and a handful of other events he’s never raced before, in part to scope them out for future paratriathletes. “It’s scary to go to a new race,” says Smith, now 38. “Sometimes the race director has never had a paratriathlete at their event. They may have no idea what they need to do.” As the paratriathlon representative on USA Triathlon’s Southeast Regional Council, Smith works to educate race directors and increase paratriathlon-friendly race opportunities throughout the Southeast.
If it’s not obvious from his role with USAT or his career choices—Smith was previously a P.E. teacher; now he works as a high school counselor)—his many other extracurricular activities highlight his passion for mentoring and giving back. He co-founded the Atlanta Tri Club’s Paratriathlon Program, he’s a USAT-certified coach working with Team Endured (Teamendured.com), he helps organize paratriathlon and wheelchair races, volunteers at paratriathlon camps and he’s organizing the ATC’s first paratriathlon camp, scheduled for July 30-31 (see Atlantatriclub.com for details). He also frequently returns to the Shepherd Center to mentor newly injured patients.
The phrase “stoke the fire”—something Smith heard on a radio broadcast—stuck in his head and is a guiding missive. “That’s what I want to do. Most folks have at least a little bit of fire inside them for something they want to do, whether it’s sports or, if they have a disability, maybe it’s going to the store. I want to stoke that fire to help get them going, to let them know, ‘You can do it if you want to. Let’s work together on figuring out how.’”