For Tristan Smyth, much of his path to the 2016 Paralympics in Rio De Janeiro was mind over matter.
And he’s not satisfied just being in Brazil.
Tristan, 30, moved to Maple Ridge from Richmond when he was seven years old. He never showed much of an interest in sports, but took a liking to mountain biking while in high school.
He had a bike with front suspension and rode at the woodlot on Blue Mountain on weekends, preferring the teeter-totters and ladders. He did the four-metre drops, but not the steeper ones.
Later, a girlfriend was interested in longboarding, so he bought her one to ride. But he ended up riding it more. So he bought himself one.
After graduating from Maple Ridge secondary, Tristan was working at a climbing gym at BCIT. A guy walked in, Patrick Switzer, and noticed Tristan’s board, a Kebbek Revenger.
“I use to race on the same one,” said Switzer, a world champion downhill skateboarder.
The two became friends. Tristan rode with Switzer and his friends. They all raced, against the best in the world – Europe, Australia and Brazil. They’d be gone all summer. Tristan would see them when they returned in winter.
“I wasn’t as good as they were. I was more of a tag-along,” Tristan said.
He learned from them, though, and wanted to compete.
Tristan was getting ready for his first event in late January 2011. He went with his friends to practice cornering on the south side of Burnaby Mountain. They took turns spotting each other at the top and bottom of a bend off Gaglardi Way.
It was getting dark, and raining.
As Tristan slid around the corner, the wheels of his board caught an edge.
The board stopped.
Travelling about 30 kilometers and hour, he travelled 50 metres down the hill, coming to stop under a parked car.
He doesn’t remember anything until after waking up from surgery.
Jonathan and Anneke Smyth were at a grocery store in Pitt Meadows when his cell phone rang.
It was Switzer, from Royal Columbian Hospital.
“Tristan’s been in an accident, You better get down here.”
His parents tried to stay calm. They were in shock.
They got another call before they arrived, and headed for Vancouver General Hospital instead.
They got there before Tristan did. Jonathan said Tristan was awake.
“Fourteen hours later, they were operating on him.”
His T12, L1 vertebrae had folded in half. The surgery fused them.
It was considered an incomplete spinal injury.
Doctors weren’t sure if Tristan would walk again, and advised he would have some level of permanent nerve damage.
“He’s classified as a permanent paraplegic,” Jonathan said.
Tristan was transferred to G.F. Strong, where he spend four months in rehabilitation. He first started with a walker, and could move his legs some.
“They got him up and walking pretty quickly,” Jonathan said.
It was a great relief.
It was at G.F. Strong that staff from B.C. Wheelchair Sports Association approached Tristan about getting involved.
He was interested.
He first tried wheelchair basketball. Every Tuesday, in the gym at G.F. He liked belonging to a team, being around others in the same situation as him.
“It felt good to be in a place where you feel normal.”
A happy distraction.
At the time of his accident, Tristan didn’t have much direction in his life. He was living every day as it happened.
But then he had to start over.
Rather than focus on what he couldn’t do, or wouldn’t be able to do, he accepted his injury. No expectations. Make the most of every day, every opportunity.
He focussed on getting better, stronger.
After four months, he returned to his parents’ Maple Ridge home.
He bussed to rehab. He bussed to work, at an insurance office in Vancouver.
He bussed to wheelchair basketball at Douglas College in New Westminster. He did that for a year.
Because he was tall, 6’4’’, and had good trunk function, compared to others, he played post, under the hoop. It was his role to score.
At the same time, he started bussing to the Richmond Oval for track practice, racing in a wheelchair.
He wasn’t serious about it, at first. He just wanted to stay active; another group to hang out with.
Then his coach, James Hustvedt, introduced Tristan to Kelly Smith – a Paralympian athlete who won silver for Canada in the marathon at the 2004 Games in Athens, Greece.
“He was a guy we all looked up to,” Tristan said.
Smith saw potential in Tristan. They started working together. Training became a priority.
In his second year of track, Tristan was invited to a national team development camp.
At that point, he knew what he wanted to do.
He wanted to be the best in the world.
“I want to do this,” he said. “For the first time in my life, I wanted to commit to something.”
It was a four-year plan – one year at a time, built around competition dates.
The would train back from three or four significant meets, tapering those periods. Tristan would do his heavy workouts, in the gym and on the road, in the off-season. In the gym, he focussed on his upper body – bench press, dips, medicine ball work; getting his muscles to fire.
He did distance work on the roads, 30 kilometers in the morning and 15 more later in the day.
Training during the season was more maintenance, to stay sharp.
Tristan is classified as a T54 wheelchair athlete – T for track, 54 being the highest level of ability with the least amount of disability.
He has full arm function and some trunk and back function. He can walk, balancing on his heels, but not too far.
His first track meet was in August 2011 – six months after surgery. It was the B.C. Summer Games in Kamloops. He won three gold medals, including the 200-metre and 400m events.
His parents were watching.
“It was great,” said Jonathan.
He was proud.
Athletics Canada offered to support Tristan’s training.
He moved to Kelowna two and a half years ago and trains there with Smith.
Earlier this year, at the Canadian nationals in Edmonton, Tristan qualified for the Paralympics. He will compete in the 1,500m event in Rio, as well as the four-by-400m relay.
The relay team set a Canadian record at the nationals and is expected to medal at the Paralympics.
While Tristan is hoping for gold, he said China is a really strong team.
But you never know.
“You have to believe in yourself,” he said.
“You can never be in awe of your competition. You can’t hold them above you or you’ll never beat them.”
Mindset is a big part of his success.
“If you don’t believe it can happen, it won’t.”
He credits a friend for that.
Tristan’s friend was paralyzed in a car accident. He was there when it happened. He visited his friend in the hospital, and during rehab. Tristan saw him struggle with expectation, disappointment, regret, going through the stages before coming to terms with his future.
His friend completely severed his spinal cord and lives in a wheelchair.
Seeing that helped Tristan through his own ordeal. It provided him context.
“I knew what I had to do,” he said.
“Beating yourself up … “
He didn’t want that.
He wants to compete in the 5,000m, maybe by the next Paralympics, 2020 in Tokyo.
Athletes in that event are amongst the best, some training since they were 12.
He hopes to beat them, one day.
He leaves for the Paralympics Aug. 26, from Vancouver to Toronto, then to Brazil.
The Paralympics, for which the motto is “A New World,” are Sept. 7-18.
Tristan will race in the 1,500m first. He can finish it in 3:04. The top competitors can do so in 2:58.
The 1,500m will come before the relay, so Tristan will get to experience entering the stadium and competing in that environment before the relay.
His parents and sisters, Caitlin and Jannemarie, will be following to see how he does.
“This is definitely a different path in life than I expected,” Tristan said. “But I am happy I’m here.”
He is happier and healthier than he’s ever been, and honored to be representing his country.