The man in this photo has just scaled the Alps on his racer bike. Impressive, but nothing particularly extraordinary, you might say. What if I tell you he had already undergone three major spinal surgeries by the time this was taken, retraining himself to walk each time. Also paralysed on one side of his body and another tumour growing on his spine, his doctor couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw this. He had other patients who were bed-ridden in his condition. How could he have conquered the epic 740 kilometre Route des Grandes Alpes? How could he even be standing? And what if I told you he’d go on to have another spinal operation – and then get hit by a car….?
Meet David Smith: a 42-year-old Scottish Paralympian who I had the pleasure of interviewing thirteen years ago at The Press Association; it was his first radio interview. Back then it was obvious he was made of sterner stuff. He was an adaptive rower who won a gold medal at the 2012 Summer Paralympics, before becoming part of the GB cycling team.
Fast-forward to now, and I am catching up with David all these years later (virtually, of course). Dogs yapping in the background, he’s on a farm in Jamaica where he’s recently moved to with his girlfriend – looking healthy and happy.
He fills me in: “I’ve now had six surgeries on my neck; four times undergoing the full spinal cord injury journey of learning to walk again and rebuild. The hardest was after my surgery in 2016, when the realisation came that I was never going to move my left side again. No longer was I only fighting a sarcoma, I was also now dealing with a spinal cord injury. But I set two goals when I was paralysed in hospital: to ride across the Alps and ride for Britain again. The doctors’ answer to that was, ‘let’s start with re-learning to brush your teeth’.” He, of course, went on to compete in the World Championships in 2018.
But this is David through and through, as I am coming to learn. His BBC documentary ‘Dead Man Cycling’ nods to this, at the start of his extreme medical hurdles. He tells me that you have to find meaning in suffering, or there’s no hope. But he admits that despite his optimistic ‘athlete’ mindset, there have been soul-destroying moments along the way. David never received the results of one of his routine scans. They would have shown an undetected tumour that was growing quickly again on his spine. David firmly believes that if he’d had radiotherapy then, he would have avoided further surgery – and the subsequent paralysis.
“That’s a hard pill to swallow. With the tumour, you can’t say the what ifs. But with the paralysis, there’s a voice in your head saying ‘what if’ all the time. I can physically suffer with the best of them, but you have to go on a mental and emotional journey as well. You have to find meaning in the suffering otherwise there’s no hope.”
Maybe it’s his ability to find this that’s fuelled David’s super-human graft during his ‘horrendous’ rehabilitation; at times he spent up to six hours a day for months on end strengthening his mind and body so he could reintegrate into society. If you were to see David now on a bike, you’d never believe the left side of his body can barely move.
“I’ve worked super hard to regain small bits of muscle. I now have a little bit of thigh muscle and a tiny bit in my foot so I can move it slightly, and no more. I drive it all off the right leg. I use my right side to propel myself on the bike. I was led to believe I would move again, so I flung everything into rehabilitation. I am proud to be disabled in sport; it helps me not just to survive, but thrive.”
It’s clear David has suffered more than his fair share of facing adversity – and yet still does thrive. But when he tells me he was cycling to Richmond Park for training, and was hit by a car last year – and whisked away in an ambulance, only to be back in the spinal scan once more – it’s amazing to think he’s not been irreparably mentally broken. But by now you’ll realise David is not one to wallow. As well as becoming a columnist for The Herald, Scotland, he’s eyeing up the chance to compete in the 2023 World Championships for Jamaica, then maybe Paris in 2024.
“I’ve had to reassess what my values are and my body has been through way too much to try and win. Making the start line now is success for me. That doesn’t align with UK Sport and British cycling. So I ask myself: how can I live my dream, but have another way of doing it? The Jamaican option is on the table.”
For now, David’s short-term target is nothing less than an Iron Man in Hamburg. The pandemic restrictions may delay the event. But there’s one thing for sure: if the show does go on, David will be there. And he’ll smash it.