Noah Smith’s entire life changed in a split second.
On Dec. 1, 2002, Smith, a Dee native and 1999 Hood River Valley High School graduate, was on his way back to college in Eugene after visiting home for the Thanksgiving holiday. A wheel broke loose from a pickup truck traveling in the opposite lane of I-5, bounced over the center divider and struck Smith’s windshield.
The impact shattered his c6-7 vertebrae and injured his spinal cord. Smith spent the next five years in physical therapy, working to regain strength and motion and learn how to cope with paralysis in his wrists, hands and body from the chest down.
Through everything, he never gave up. He kept moving forward and kept working to accomplish his goals. Today, as a lawyer for the Environmental Protection Agency in San Francisco, Smith’s story continues to inspire those who have followed his great tribulations and triumphs of the last 10 years.
Earlier this summer Smith returned to Hood River to visit family, celebrate his birthday and do something he’s wanted to do for years: return to the ski slopes. Back in San Francisco, he took the time to answer a few questions for his friends back home.
Q: In brief, what have you been up to since the accident?
I spent my first five years pursuing physical therapy, mostly in San Diego, and finishing my undergraduate degree. In 2007 I started law school at UC Berkeley. I graduated in December 2010 and began working at the Environmental Protection Agency in San Francisco in March of 2011.
Q: Give us a summary of the rehab you went through and continue to do now.
I spent the first five years after my injury pursuing a variety of therapies around the country. I did a gait-training clinical trial in Chicago in May-June of 2003, an intensive exercise program in Utah from October 2003 to March 2004 and an intensive exercise program in San Diego from March 2004 until May 2007. Today I don’t have the same time and money to do intensive therapy, but I try to stand and/or walk for at least 10 minutes every day. I also enjoy lap-swimming.
Q: What is your background with skiing, and other sports?
I started ski racing when I was 8 or 9 years old, with Cooper Spur Race Team. It was my favorite sport throughout childhood and adolescence and something that my family did together on weekends. Growing up I also played soccer, baseball, golf and basketball, among other things. I come from a very active family and still follow professional sports very closely.
Q: What were the basics of your ski trip this summer?
It was at Timberline, with with my brother, Isaac, his wife, his good friend Eric Pollard and my friend Mike Ford, who I grew up ski racing with. The last time I went skiing was about 10 years ago, also with my brother, down at Mammoth Mountain. Ike and I had been talking for years about getting back on the mountain together, and I definitely wanted to go with him the first time I went back.
It was also awesome having our good friends who we grew up skiing with. Ike and Eric were able to procure a sit-ski and Timberline graciously donated ski passes for the day.
Q: How did it feel to be back on the slopes again?
It was great. Skiing was my favorite sport as a kid and it was heartbreaking losing that ability after my accident. It felt so great to come off the mountain feeling both tired and energized by the workout. More than anything it was great to be out there with my friends who I grew up skiing with.
Q: How did it work?
I had a harness trailing behind me that someone held onto as I skied down the mountain. I had never done it before so we all just kind of “winged it.” We hiked up in the morning and took one short, 100-yard run, then jumped on lower Palmer and did a few runs there before spending the rest of the afternoon on upper Palmer.
Q: Is it something you’ve wanted to do for a long time? If so, what stopped you from doing it until now?
My brother and I had been talking about going for years. One of the things that stopped me was the logistics of the trip; skiing is expensive and even more so when you’re using specialty equipment. Plus I need people to go with me because I can’t yet do it independently.
Q: Physically, how hard (or easy) was it?
It was easier than I thought it would be and I felt comfortable being back out on the snow. It took a few runs but I got the hang of it pretty quick.
Q: As an athlete, what role did sports have in your life before your accident? And now?
I was very physically active growing up and sports and the outdoors were my biggest passion for much of my childhood and adolescence. I remain a huge sports enthusiast but am not as active as I used to be. For many years after my accident my biggest focus was my physical therapy and I wasn’t as involved in recreational sports.
I’m still passionate about rehabilitative therapy but am also trying to do more recreation. I went kayaking recently and am trying to get a pool lift installed at my apartment complex so I can go lap-swimming. I’m also planning to get a “freewheel” adaptation for my chair (which was invented by Pat Doughtery, a former Hood River resident), which is a third wheel that makes it easier to go through tough terrain.
Q: What are your plans for the future (at least the near future), professionally and physically?
Right now I am trying to learn and absorb as much as I can at work. As a new attorney I am on a steep learning curve. I am also trying to figure out how to balance my work life with therapy and recreation. Going back to work has been a new chapter in my life and I’m still working on my work-life balance.
Athletically, I would just like to continue to find ways to get outdoors with my friends. Once a pool lift is installed at my apartment complex, I’d like to enter and train for a swimming race. I also want to stand and walk more in my apartment and continue with yoga, massage, etc. (though there are only so many hours in the day).