Life dealt Joshua Smith one blow after another. His mother died of an asthma attack when he was 8. His father remarried but his stepmother, a woman he described as “an angel,” died of pregnancy complications. At 12, he crushed his spine after plunging over a 25-foot embankment while snowmobiling at Mount St. Helens.
Smith fought back from those emotional and physical wounds. In the three years after his accident, he gritted through workouts that inched him from a wheelchair to crutches to a cane to walking unassisted, although with a limp.
That fighting spirit, however, also yielded trouble for the 38-year-old Vancouver man over the years. After scrapes with the law and losing contact with his son, he found redemption in Brazilian jiujitsu.
“Jiujitsu helped me figure out how to use my weakness as my strength,” Smith said during a break at The Base in Vancouver where he trains. “It’s my physical therapy. It’s my mental therapy. … This is my church. This is my community.”
Brazilian jiujitsu builds on the Japanese martial art’s premise that a smaller, weaker person can use leverage to take a stronger, heavier opponent to the ground and defeat him. The Brazilian version is a combat sport in which competitors score points for gaining a dominant position and holding opponents in submission.
After Smith’s accident, he never regained use of his calf muscles. His left leg is dead below the knee. On his right, his shin muscles work and he can move his toes. Yet Smith has advanced to a fourth-degree purple belt (with brown, black and red belts yet to go) in the rooster weight class of 127.5 pounds and lighter.
Smith traveled to Las Vegas to compete this weekend in the World Master IBJJF Jiu-Jitsu Championship 2022. Last year he won a silver medal in his category. This year he’s aiming for gold. That would enable him to advance to rounds in which gold medalists of all weights compete.
“It’s the same as in water,” Smith said. “Everyone weighs the same when you hit the ground.”
Smith was laid up in a Portland hospital for almost four months after his snowmobiling accident. Then his grandmother shuttled him to physical therapy appointments several times a week. After a couple of years, it became too much for them to manage. He decided to continue his therapy exercises at home on his own.
“I like to say I’m a physical therapy dropout,” Smith said.
Smith had participated in taekwondo as a youngster, but after what he calls the “double mom death” and his accident, he gave up his hopes of athletic prowess and his goal of becoming a Navy Seal. He found it torturous to watch his brother compete in high school wrestling matches because he longed to be on the mat himself.
Over time, he found a way to draw strength from this pain. Stares and ridicule from kids at school motivated him through grueling workouts that would eventually help him shed his “funky metal hardware,” as he called it.
His resolve had a bitter edge, though. When he was in high school, he instigated backyard fights at parties. A friend suggested he take up jiujitsu.
“Martial arts, I used to do that,” Smith recalled replying. “I’m disabled now.”
He continued to get into trouble, but his mind often wandered back to that friend’s encouragement. About 15 years ago, Smith walked into a jiujitsu academy in Portland. He was hooked.
“Jujitsu has saved my life in more than one way, including quite literally,” Smith said.
In 2012, he used his skills to defend himself against an attack at a light-rail stop in Portland, later forgiving the perpetrator in court.
After the Portland academy he attended closed, Smith found The Base in Vancouver, owned by Chris Dealy, now his coach and mentor.
“I try not to see Josh as having what you would call a disability. He’s very capable. I don’t treat him any differently than anyone else. But that said, there’s going to be some movements that are more difficult for him, because of the state of his legs,” Dealy said. “It comes down to training.”
Smith credits Dealy with helping him advance not only in jujitsu but in life.
“I’m a totally different person now,” Smith said. “I would still be a menace to society. I would be dead or in jail.”
Dealy said, “I always thought Joshua was a good kid, maybe a little troubled in his past. He just needed some people to believe in him.”
Smith, who lives with his grandfather, has made jujitsu his primary occupation. He receives some sponsorships, but mainly he gets by on disability benefits.
He found himself at loose ends when the pandemic closed The Base, so he turned his attention to another project — writing a book about his life.
In December 2020, he made a New Year’s resolution to write 30 minutes a day. He decided if he was serious about it, he wouldn’t wait for Jan. 1. He drove to the Dollar Store and bought spiral notebooks and pens. When he got back to his car and reached for his key, he thought, “Where am I going?” He sat in the car and began writing.
He finished his self-published book, “Spineless,” by Jan 16. It’s dedicated to his son, who he hopes will find him someday.