At times we can feel bombarded with negative messages and imagery. At these times, it can be easy to lose our commitment to our goals or give up on our dreams and retreat to a negative space. But, maintaining an open mind, and sitting in a place of compassion rather than judgement; can help us to navigate through our challenges and emerge with a renewed sense of hope and purpose. David Smith, Scottish Paralympic gold medalist, has faced many medical challenges and has stared death in the face. Yet despite all his struggles, he has emerged with a renewed sense of hope and a philosophy that involves living in the moment, helping others and making the world a better place. His inspiring story provides us with a great example of how we can reframe any obstacle constructively.
The Formative Years
His love for athletics started at the age of 7. His parents exposed him to several sports including skiing, windsurfing, running and his great love, Karate. Sports acted as a form of therapy and confidence boost for David, who struggled with academics and insecurity. By 2009 he had joined the British Karate Team, was a 400-meter track athlete, and had done a short stint as a member of the British Bobsled team.
But, his foray into athletics has not always been smooth sailing. He was born with Talipes Equinovarus or clubfoot – a condition where the feet appear rotated inward at the ankle. For the first three years of his life, David had to wear plaster casts and special boots which moved his feet to the correct position. This painful treatment left a lasting impression on his psyche. He also suffered from seizures which caused him to stop breathing in his sleep. Doctors misdiagnosed him as epileptic and prescribed unnecessary medication, which he took for ten years. Through it all, David described athletics as his ‘safe place’. A place where he could push his body to the limit and prove to his naysayers, and himself, that he was good enough. But, it was in 2010, when his athletic career seemed to be taking off, that David faced what would prove to be his toughest challenge to date.
Facing Illness and Death
On the advice of a physiotherapist, and based on long term challenges with his feet, David switched from able-bodied Olympics to Paralympics. He joined the Paralympic rowing team and was training for the London Olympics when doctors diagnosed him with a tumour on his spinal cord. The diagnosis was a potential death sentence for both his life and his career. He spent the next ten years undergoing four separate life-threatening surgeries. His life became a cycle of re-diagnoses, surgeries and rehabilitation. He had to learn to walk four times. And one of the surgeries in 2016, resulted in a blood clot that left him paralyzed on one side. His most recent surgery was in 2018, he is still recovering from the procedure.
Maintaining His Passion
But, when so many others would have given up, David still pursues his career in athletics. He has cycled over 700 kilometres across in the Alps in seven days. He has won a gold medal in both the World Championships and Olympics. He has also developed a mindset and life philosophy that emphasizes openness, living in the present, and sharing his inspirational story with others. He attributes his ability to survive his ordeals to two things. The reflection that he engaged in while in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), and what he refers to as his ‘mental house cleaning.’
David attributes his current philosophy and improved lifestyle to his medical struggles. He has learned to slow down and realizes that life is not only about medals or other forms of external validation. Instead, it’s about living in the present moment and helping others. He now travels the world, coaching other Paralympic athletes and sharing his story.
Watch the full interview with David on the Soul Career Youtube channel or listen to it on The Soul Career Podcast – available on your favourite podcast player.