From the water to the bike: Smith’s wave of success on the road
While things happen in life, both good and bad, Stephanie Smith feels that everyone should enjoy each day and make the most of it. She is a living witness to the idea that anything can happen.
Smith, 35, is no stranger to commitment, dedication and hard work as a former triathlete of swimming, running and cycling. At the same token, she has also witnessed difficult times and moments of failure.
Some people feel the urge to quit when failure falls upon them. For Smith, defeating moments build character. She is not afraid to run the distance, persevere through each lap in the swimming pool and endure the uncomfortable, burning sensation in her thighs and calf muscles when cycling.
Before riding through the hills or running to the finish line, Smith began swimming at the age of two and joined her first swim team at the age of four. Her parents put her and her two brothers, Matthew and Alvin, in swimming lessons. She instantly fell in love.
Roughly 12 years later, in her senior year of high school, Smith ran into a “obstacle” on her journey. After warming down from an event, some kids were playing around the swimming pool. All of a sudden, a girl dove in on Smith’s head, tearing a ligament in her neck.
The doctors felt Smith had a simple neck sprain but this was not the case.
“It took the doctors two years to figure out that I had a torn ligament,” said Smith.” Surgery was not an option as I would lose 70 percent of the motion in my neck forever.”
Instead of giving up, Smith wore a neck brace for two months, completed a ton of physical therapy and kept the determination to will her way back to doing the first sport she fell in love with.
The Metairie, La., native swam the distance freestyle 500m, 1000m and 1650m at LSU and still holds the school records in the 1000m and 1650m events today.
While turning and splashing through the water, Smith also began running.
However, she said running was not one of her favorite sports when competing in triathlons.
“I never enjoyed it. I got stress fractures my first three years from running,” Smith said. “I swam my whole life so my body was not used to the physical pounding. I thought if I could swim 10 miles, I could just go run 10 miles.”
Along with running, Smith added cycling to the “physical pounding” her legs experienced while training for triathlons. When Smith started running, she recalled telling her college swim coach how hard cycling was for her.
“It was horrible,” Smith said. “I remember telling him how windy it was. He said think of the wind like going up a mountain. I said for 40 miles. My coach then said you better suck it buttercup.”
Despite her early growing pains for cycling, Smith endured them and gained a true passion for the sport as she began riding her bike six days a week as oppose to running and swimming.
As her love for cycling grew, her passion for swimming and the idea of running diminished, allowing her to make the decision to not do triathlons anymore.
“I loved being on my bike. I would look forward to riding,” Smith said. “I was burnt out with swimming. It was like pulling teeth to get in the pool, and I never really loved running, it was just something I had to do to finish a triathlon.”
In October 2015, Smith devoted all of her energy and time to cycling, unaware to the fact that she would accomplish the success she has achieved in 2016.
Smith’s goal was to land a spot on a women’s pro team. With her goal in mind, she asked Jed Darby, owner of Joe’s Perfect Endurance Bikes, to be her cyclist coach.
“After our first conversation, I was excited to start this journey and I totally trusted him,” Smith said. “He told me to put Nationals on my bucket list. After that, I tried not to think too much about the outcome and just focused on my training to get there.”
With Darby’s training, Smith completed a 20-minute cycling power test to prepare for the USA Cycling Master’s National Championship. After completing the test, she felt like she did bad, but according to Darby, she was right on pace to compete in the MNC.
Prior to official race day for the MNC, Smith raced the course a few days before and finished in fourth place. As the race day inched closer, her fourth-place finish was on her mind.
On the morning of the MNC, Smith recalled how nervous she was before the race began.
“I was looking over the start list which can play with my mind sometimes; so, I put it down and just stayed focused,” Smith said. “I had friends and training partners text me throughout the morning to calm me down.”
Smith got to the race course early enough to warm up and to sit under the tent to wait for her start time. She took off on the hot and hilly course at 1 pm.
After finishing the race, Darby took Smith’s bike and got her a bag of ice while Smith sat down to wait on the results.
The Wi-Fi signal at the MNC was weak, limiting the cyclists to get updates on times.
Hot, hurting and nervous all at once, a USA Doping official came to get Smith for a test.
“I asked the official if I won and he told me he didn’t know,” Smith said. “Once USA Doping has you for testing, you can’t leave them. Thus, I asked him if we could look at the results on the way.”
As the two walked over to view the results, tears of joy came rolling down her face as Smith found out that she won the race.
Smith said winning the MNC was an unforgettable moment.
“I gave Jeff a big hug because we worked so hard for that race, not to mention it was Jeff’s birthday,” Smith said. “I could not really enjoy the awards ceremony too much because I was still under doping control supervision. Once the ceremony was over, however, I just held my jersey and said I can’t believe I did it.”
Winning the MNC was also an emotional moment for Smith in regards to her family.
Her younger brother, Matthew, or Chewy as everyone referred to him, committed suicide. Chewy was not only Smith’s brother but her biggest fan and supporter.
Smith has a tattoo with her brother’s initials inside of a butterfly to remember him during races and along her journey in life. Smith said the tattoo has a symbolic meaning behind it.
“After he passed, someone gave me a poem about how a butterfly is the symbol of hope for the bereaved,” Smith said. “A butterfly lights beside us like a sunbeam, and for a brief moment, its glory and beauty belong to our world. But then it flies on again, and though we wish it would have stayed, we feel so lucky to have seen it.”
Filled with emotions and one championship under her belt, Smith has her eyes set on competing in the 2016 Gran Fondo World Master’s Championship in Perth, Australia in September.
Whether or not she wins or finishes in a certain position, that remains to be seen. For Smith, however, competing on the international level is truly a blessing.
“I hope to take away a lot of knowledge about racing, cycling and traveling in general,” Smith said.
As Smith continues to ride the hills of challenging courses all around the world, everything remains simple for her. She makes the most the most of her experiences, even when unforeseen circumstances fall into the intersections of her journey in life.