By Kim Constantinesco
Once a solider, always a solider. In the heat of battle, Army Sergeant First Class Michael Smith will find a way to prevail.
Even though the 36-year-old Texas native is missing an arm, he doesn’t turn down a challenge. Any challenge.
“If you wanted to have a hand clapping competition, I’m going to figure out a way to do it, and I’m going to win,” Smith said after a shirt soaking workout at the Adaptive Training Foundation in Dallas, Texas.
Smith is the only active duty serviceman in U.S. military history to serve without an arm. He’s not content letting that amazing feat stand alone either. He’s training to become the first above-the-elbow amputee skeleton racer to compete not only at the Paralympic level, but at the Olympic level as well.
Smith joined the Army right out of high school, and served while he attended Central Texas College. He also played basketball for the Army. After school, he went on three deployments to Bosnia, Korea, and Iraq, and came back completely unscathed.
While his skill set kept him out of harms way overseas, an unforeseen motorcycle accident in August of 2011 changed his life forever.
“A lady was texting and driving, and she rear-ended me on the highway,” Smith said. “When she did, she threw me over the concrete barrier into oncoming traffic, and before I could hit the ground, another vehicle struck my right arm.”
Smith endured 22 surgeries, including eight to try and save the arm from amputation. Then, while he was healing at home, he went into kidney failure. His mother, uncle, and grandmother drove in to sit at his bedside and pray.
Miraculously, he recovered and spent two years at Brooke Army Medical Center (BAMC) in San Antonio doing rehabilitation. However, the former basketball coach and youth mentor had lost his identity along with his dominant arm.
“I just didn’t know how to function,” Smith said. “I was depressed just because I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
It’s Always Possible
Smith eventually transferred to the Warrior Transition Battalion at BAMC where the “What are your plans for when you get out of the military” question emerged regularly from staff at the facility.
“I said, ‘I’m not making any plans because I’m not getting out,'” Smith said. “They’re going to have to kick me out because I love this lifestyle.”
The military often retains leg amputees, but they had never kept an arm amputee, and that’s exactly what they told him.
“I said, ‘Just because it’s never been done before doesn’t mean that it’s not possible.”
A Shot at Skeleton
While Smith tirelessly fought to keep his place in the Armed forces, he immersed himself into sports. He ran obstacle course races and half marathons, he went rock climbing, and got into cycling, swimming, and track and field. He competed in the Warrior Games and even went to London for the Invictus Games.
Being a sprinter, coaches noticed that he had explosive leg turnover, so they convinced him to give skeleton a shot.
“I’m from Texas. I had no idea what that was,” Smith said. “Going head first down an ice track, that’s not something we do in Texas.”
The Paralympic Team flew Smith to Lake Placid for training. A normal skeleton athlete in training slides twice per day. Smith isn’t normal. He was sliding eight times per day for two weeks all while steering the sled with his feet. He caught everyone’s attention, so the U.S. Skeleton coach flew him to Park City, Utah where he trained there for a week.
In his first official Paralympic race, a World Cup event, Smith took 3rd place, and then went on to take 5th place in his second race. With those results, they named him to the U.S. Paralympic National Team.
“There have been guys that have been trying to make that team for 4-5 years and I made it my first race,” Smith said.
Meanwhile, in 2014, Smith appeared before the Army’s Physical Education Board. He passed the physical fitness tests, motor skills tests, and other competency tests with flying colors, making him the first above-the-elbow amputee to ever be retained in U.S. military history.
Geared for the Future
Smith met Adaptive Training Foundation co-founder and former NFL player David Vobora in 2014 through the Wounded Warrior Amputee Football Team.
When Vobora heard that Smith was working toward making the U.S. Olympic Skeleton team, he encouraged Smith to come train at his gym, which is specifically designed for adaptive athletes who are training for some of the nation’s top competitions in powerlifting, CrossFit, and even sled hockey.
“Dave said, ‘We should see if the Army will let you come train in my facility,'” Smith said. “They did. I don’t know how that happened, but they did.”
It’s a testament to Vobora’s gym and to Smith’s determination.
“Losing my arm was the best thing that could have ever happened to me in this life,” Smith said. “Sometimes people have to go through adversity to make them see the bigger picture; see beyond themselves. That’s what I needed.
Now with 17 years of military service to his name, there’s no slowing Smith down, especially when he’s flying head first down an ice track at 80 MPH.
You know. Like any good ol’ Texas boy would do.