Born in Aviemore, Scotland in 1978, David Andrew Smith has represented the United Kingdom in karate, skiing, athletics, bobsleigh and shinty to name a few. A life-altering discovery in 2010 set him on an unexpected journey of tumours, cheating death, and a Paralympic gold medal. Smith now sees every obstacle as a challenge and although uncertain of his future and his 2016 Rio Paralympic Games dream, he could not be more excited to come to South Africa to push himself to the limits at the 2015 UCI Para-cycling World Cup in Pietermaritzburg from 11-13 September.
Smith (37) was born with clubfoot and spent much of the first few years of his life in and out of plaster casts and learning to walk. In 2010, the keen sportsman’s life took a dramatic turn when a physiotherapist discovered unusual activity in his neck, which after many tests turned out to be a tumour.
The tumour was wrapped around his spinal chord and the surgery to have it removed was risky. His neck was then rebuilt with the use of metal cages and screws. Shortly after his operation, a blood clot developed which left Smith completely paralysed, and surgery bound again.
He spent a month in hospital learning to walk again and trained and began to rehabilitate himself using only his mind. A few months later, he was competing in rowing competitions and went on to win gold at the 2012 London Paralympic Games. He switched to cycling soon after, where he felt that he had found his calling.
In August 2014, Smith flew to Oxford for the results of his scan, where he received the news that the tumour had returned. “It was the first day of the Commonwealth Games,” he said. “I was told that I had a one in 500 chance of survival and that there was a huge possibility that I would never be able to walk again, let alone cycle. That cut was the deepest. So I went back to Glasgow (I was an ambassador at the Commonwealth Games, so I was there for two weeks and I fulfilled that roll) but in those two weeks I phoned the cameraman and told him that I had been re-diagnosed and I explained all the implications that were attached. We decided to film the journey and put it online.”
The Paralympic gold medallist is recognised all over the UK as the “Dead Man Cycling”, referring to a documentary released that films his struggles through surgery and living with a tumour.
“You feel alone when you get diagnosed. I went online to find other stories about people who have pulled through but I couldn’t really find much. So I thought that if my story ends up online then people all over the world who are diagnosed could watch this and feel inspired. They can go out and still thrive in life.”
Smith mentioned how easy it was for the word “can’t” to roll off the tongue. When asked about how he stayed motivated, Smith said that it always came down to sport and that without it he would be totally lost.
“I know what it’s like to lose everything from the neck down, but I also know what it’s like to experience the freedom that you get when you do sports. Whether you’re running, cycling… you have this moment where you’re not worried about the future, you’re not thinking of the past, you’re just in the moment. And I feel that sport gives you that opportunity to just be in the moment.”
Due to the position of the tumour, it can never be fully removed, leaving two percent behind after each operation. This is a constant reminder for Smith to live each day with gratitude, thankful to be alive.
Smith is excited to be coming back to South Africa (last having been in the country in 1993 to represent the UK in karate), where he will compete in the C3 class. “One makes all these plans for the World Cup and for next year, but in the back of my mind I’m so scared. I arrive back from South Africa and two days later I go to hospital for the results of my scan.
“It’s scary because I’m going to sit in a room and within ten minutes my whole life could change again. But for me to come over to South Africa – I am just the luckiest person in the whole world. I get to travel to a beautiful part of the world, do what I’m really passionate about and for that moment, for those 10 days, it doesn’t matter what the doctor says on the 17th of September, because I’m living a dream and a passion,” he concluded.
The 2015 UCI Para-cycling Road World Cup – Pietermaritzburg (11-13 September 2015) will have two competition venues with the time trial competition being staged in the Midmar Dam complex on Friday 11 September and the road races in the city of Pietermaritzburg using Alexandra Park as the official competition venue on Saturday 12 and Sunday 13 September. For more information, visit: http://www.cyclingsa.com/2015-uci-para-road-world-cup/.