Don’t tell Darren Smith he can’t do something because the 47-year-old’s natural response is to do it.
And to do it well.
That’s how a man who was once told he would be lucky to walk again is now competing in triathlons at the regional, national and world levels. And not just competing, but finishing on — and sometimes at the top of — the podium.
“It’s because somebody told me I couldn’t one time,” Smith said.
Smith is a paratriathlete, swimming, biking and running in triathlons against other physically challenged athletes.
Since 2002, Smith has lived with a condition called foot drop, which occurs when a person has difficulty lifting the front part of the foot, causing the foot to drag on the ground when walking, according to the Mayo Clinic. Foot drop is caused by weakness or paralysis of the muscles used to lift the front of the foot, according to Mayo Clinic.
Smith has weakness in his left leg from the hip down. His hip flexor is OK, but his quad and hamstring are weak. Below his knee, he’s even weaker. He’s also lost some of the sensation in his right leg.
To compensate for his condition, Smith wears a carbon fiber brace that looks similar to a soccer player’s shin guard. The bottom of Smith’s brace slips beneath the insole of his shoe and keeps his leg and foot at a 90-degree angle. The brace keeps the top of Smith’s foot from dropping.
Smith wears the brace whenever he’s running, hiking or walking long distances. He doesn’t wear the brace while bicycling because, as a result of his injury, Smith at times has involuntary muscle contractions that make his left foot bounce when he’s cycling. The contractions are more pronounced if he’s wearing the brace.
Smith was injured when he went in for a surgical procedure in November 2002. When he woke up after surgery, Smith couldn’t move his left leg and had no sensation in his right leg.
“The doctor told me I would never do another triathlon, that I’d be lucky to walk,” Smith said.
But the lifelong athlete, who had only recently discovered triathlons, wasn’t willing to live life in a wheelchair.
“I didn’t want to use crutches. I didn’t want to be in a wheelchair,” Smith said. “I just wanted to be normal.”
A few weeks after the procedure, Smith decided to get on his bike for the first time. He put the bike on the trainer, which keeps it stationary, and fought to maneuver his body onto the bike. His left leg was still paralyzed, but he managed to get his foot clipped in and started pedaling.
He was exhausted after four minutes.
But he returned to the bike, again and again, determined to once again complete a triathlon.
“I don’t like being told what I can’t do,” Smith said. “Don’t tell me I can’t do something because I’ll try just to prove you wrong.”
Two years after his injury, Smith competed in the San Diego Triathlon Challenge — a one-mile swim, 44-mile bike ride and 10-mile run — and finished in 8 hours and 15 minutes.
Two years after that, he completed his first Ironman — a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run.
He hasn’t let up since, improving his times and adding medals to his collection.
On June 22, Canadian-born Smith will head to Edmonton, Alberta, to compete in the 2013 Canadian National Paratriathlon Championships — a race he won in 2010 and 2012. The race is a qualifier for the world championships, which take place in September in London.
The races are sprint distance — a 750-meter swim, 20-kilometer bike ride and five-kilometer run. Smith’s personal record is 1 hour, 23 minutes. He’s shooting for a new record June 22 and wants to get his time down to 1 hour, 15 minutes by the world championships. That would put him among the top five paratriathletes in the world.
But Smith has his eyes on an even bigger goal: the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, where the paratriathlon will make its Paralympic debut.
Smith met the Paralympic paratriathlon standard for last year. But each year, as competition gets faster, so does the qualifying time. This year, the qualifying time is 1 hour, 13 minutes.
As a lifelong competitive athlete — whether hockey, mountain biking or triathlons — Smith is determined to get better. He wants to be faster. He wants to beat as many able-bodied athletes as possible. He wants to win. He’s also motivated by his kids — 10-year-old Taguen and 13-year-old Kelton. He didn’t want to be restricted by crutches. He wanted to be able to get on the ground and wrestle with his boys. He wanted to be able to race bicycles with Kelton and play hockey with Taguen. And, of course, he wanted to prove that doctor wrong.
“I’ve done way more than I ever would have if I haven’t got injured. It was just the fact that it was so unattainable at one point.”