Rob Smith sits ramrod straight in his wheelchair, a twinkle of success in his determined eyes. Since 2010 he has been flying down to Dubai from London every year to participate in the Standard Chartered Marathon. And every single time he has taken the top spot on the podium in the wheelchair category.
Now, with just a few weeks to go for the 2016 edition of the marathon on January 22, Rob, 40, is training hard to race home with the trophy and make it six in a row.
‘Each time, each race, each day… my mantra is to better myself. I race with myself not just on the track but also in the many roles I play – as a father, husband, businessman and last but not the least as myself,’ says Rob, British wheelchair athlete and owner of The Active Hands Company, which manufactures grips for people with disabilities.
To date, he has participated in more than 13 marathons across the world, including London, Berlin, Las Vegas and Oita (Japan) and he has had creditable success everywhere.
‘My dream is to keep breaking records, whether they’re mine or set by others, and of course to lift the trophy in my category,’ he says.
This from a man who very nearly lost his life in an unfortunate accident when he was a student. ‘It was in 1996 and I was in the second year of mechanical engineering at Warwick University,’ says Rob. Like most boys his age he was very active. ‘I loved clubbing, gym, running, canoeing, climbing and dancing.’ Rob was out with friends on a cliff that night at a campsite in Devon, England… laughing, joking, without realising that he was also walking closer to the cliff’s edge. ‘Suddenly I stepped over some undergrowth and there was nothing below my feet.’
Rob fell 12 metres on to the rocks, head first. The impact left him frozen, unable to move his limbs or body. ‘I could not feel any pain at the time, perhaps because my body was in shock,’ he says. ‘My friends quickly called for an ambulance and I was rescued by a helicopter airlift and rushed to the Salisbury District Hospital.’
There, he was found to have sustained serious spinal injuries that would require surgery and months of therapy. ‘I had dislocated my spine between vertebrae C5 and C6,’ he says.
The spinal injury division of the hospital would end up being his home for more than nine months.
The injury affected most of his body. ‘I had a tiny bit of feeling in my lower body but could not move any part except my head. My arms too were affected. I had no finger movement and my triceps were so weak I could not even lift my arms off my body.’
As soon as he was strong enough to begin therapy – six weeks after the incident – Rob began to undergo rehabilitation every day.
‘There was a lot of strength building, stretching, movement and manipulation of limbs, physiotherapy, hydrotherapy, occupational therapy, weights and wheelchair propulsion, and later on assisted walking training,’ he says.
Rob left the hospital with still virtually no finger movement but stronger arms and a little movement and feeling in his lower body. He used a wheelchair to get around but could walk a few steps with crutches.
‘It was hard when I left hospital. Everything was an effort. Just performing little tasks that would have been easy before was very frustrating.
‘I missed climbing, dancing and just being able to do things spontaneously. Now everything had to be planned and slow.’
Rob says the biggest challenge he faced was the loss of his finger strength. ‘Tasks such as eating, dressing, writing and typing were impossible. It takes time to get used to the realisation that your body cannot do what it used to.’
However, after close to four years of extremely intensive physiotherapy for five hours a day, five days a week for three months, Rob realised the ‘level I had achieved with using my fingers and lower body was about as good as I was going to get and that I needed to maintain that level but get on with my life as well.’
He had taken a year off university for rehabilitation, but as soon as he was better and could move around on the wheelchair he decided to get back to earning his degree. ‘It isn’t easy when your body just will not work the way you want it to. But I was no quitter,’ he says. ‘I wrote my exams with a pen with thick foam around it to help me grip it.’ He was also allowed extra time as it took him much longer to write.
As soon as he finished with the exams, he started trying several wheelchair sports. ‘I am fortunate in some ways that I have some amount of movement below the level of my injury [lower body]. And since I always enjoyed an active lifestyle, I was determined to take up some form of sport.’
Wheelchair rugby was his main sport. ‘I used to enjoy playing rugby earlier but now I had to use a wheelchair.’ And he was so good that Rob soon found himself being part of teams that won the British and European club championships. But while he enjoyed team sport, he wanted an opportunity to shine as an individual. ‘In a team sport a lot depends on your teammates,’ he says. ‘While I do enjoy team sports, I also wanted to make a mark on my own.’ Which is why he decided to give wheelchair racing a go.
‘I borrowed a second-hand racing chair with the plan of working up to doing the London marathon,’ he says. He quickly made a mark in the sport. Once he realised his potential as a wheelchair racer, he managed to get some funding for a custom-built racing chair and swiftly switched from wheelchair rugby to track racing.
‘Due to my disability affecting most of my body unlike some other wheelchair racers – for instance, lack of hand and wrist strength, weakness in outer pectoral muscles and left side triceps, and the fact that I cannot breathe properly as some of my chest muscles don’t work – racing is very difficult. Due to these disabilities, I am classified as a T52 wheelchair racer, which is a couple of classifications below some of the more famous wheelchair racers like David Weir.
‘Normally I compete only against others in my category, but in an open marathon such as Dubai I have to compete against all racers regardless of category.’ Over the past 10 years, Rob has raced marathons across the world. He got a bronze in the 2014 T51/52 Paralympic World Cup marathon held in London. He then went on to a track season and managed to get new personal bests in 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m, 1,500m and 5,000m events.
Rob was selected to represent Team GB for the first time and he went as part of the squad to compete in the European Championships in Swansea in August 2014, where he won a silver medal in the 1,500m. He then attained a new personal best in the half marathon at the Great North Run.
But he has a fondness for Dubai – he likes the Dubai marathon because the course is fast and flat.
‘Dubai still remains my largest prize money, but apart from this I have to survive on a small salary from Active Hands and assistance to cover racing costs from my wife Johanna’s job as a primary school teacher,’ he says. ‘I’m hoping some companies or organisations may be interested in sponsoring me as a wheelchair racer.’ Rob, who has trained under Jenni Banks – the Great Britain wheelchair racing coach who also mentored double-Paralympic-gold medallist Hannah Cockcroft – completed the London Marathon in 2014 in a time of two hours 13 minutes, after suffering an illness. ‘I also did some racing on track in the UK and in Switzerland, the Great North Run and the Oita marathon,’ he says.
‘I was first in my category in the London marathon and the Great North Run. I had five new personal bests and broke two British records during the track season in 2014. Now, I’m ready and looking forward to competing in Dubai.’
Indeed, 2014 brought him many victories and proud moments. In March that year, he became a father. ‘Having Jacob is the biggest life-changer. He is really amazing when he is happy and it’s great to spend time with him, but also really hard when he is awake late at night and crying. I think I am stronger now in life, in training and in business and I feel encouraged, with an increased will to succeed by having Jacob around.
‘Just getting around is a big achievement for someone in my shoes. I train hard to race as fast as I can. Sometimes I win and sometimes disappointments do happen. But I learn from each track. I take from each race and know that the rush and the thrill have to be beyond the finish line. I am here today because I choose to be. Whether they mark me on the top ranks or not is not as important as where I stand in my own eyes. I want to be a better me – any day, any race!’
What does he do during his free time?
‘Actually, with so much of training, working and being a dad, I don’t have much free time,’ he says. ‘I do a bit of DJing now and then.’
Rob’s dream is to get selected for Rio 2016 and win a medal. ‘I’m sure I’ll get it. It just means I have to work harder.’