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Auburn amputee Tony Smith runs to help other challenged athletes
Tony Smith wasn't much for organized exercise — until he lost his leg.
Now, despite the motorcycle accident that ultimately took his left leg below the knee, the Auburn man has morphed into a dedicated bicyclist, a triathlete and a soon-to-be marathon runner.
This Saturday Smith, 56, will run 13.1 miles in the Seattle Rock 'n' Roll Half-Marathon. Even though he's mainly in it for himself, as part of his commitment to staying healthy and active despite the loss of his feet, Smith is running as part of Team REFUEL, to raise money for the Challenged Athlete Foundation, which provides grants to buy specialized athletic equipment, such as wheelchairs and racing prosthetics, for disabled athletes.
Smith's journey started on a sunny day in Southern California in 1993.
"I just finished restoring a 1939 Indian (motorcycle)," Smith said. "And I decided to take it out to the Good Guys street rod meet (in Pomona, Calif.). My wife had just told me two days before that she was pregnant. So I got on my bike thinking this is perfect, I was feeling good."
But on the way back from the car show, Smith said, a driver sailed through a red light and hit him, crushing his left foot.
Doctors struggled to save the mangled appendage, by rebuilding it with a procedure called degloving.
"They pretty much pulled everything off of my foot," Smith said. "They tried to put it all back together again."
After rebuilding the bones and tendons in the foot, doctors grafted on new skin.
The only problem, according to Smith, was that the new skin wasn't quite as strong as the original.
"After they pieced everything together, anything I did was a problem," he said. "If I ran down the driveway, it would break down and then it would get infected. And then I'd have to go for antibiotic treatment."
For the next decade Smith and his doctors fought to keep the infections at bay.
In 2003, however, an infection marked the end of the battle
"The infection got so bad that it got in the bone, and there was really no choice but to take off the foot," he said. "They probably should have done it years before."
Smith said the amputation was almost a relief.
"At that point for me it was a non-issue," he said. "I was ready for it. If they had done it the day of the accident, I probably would have had 10 better years. Knowing what I know now, yes (I'd have had it taken off then).
"They sent social workers into the hospital room, and I told them I was really fine with it, I'm good," he said. "They warned me that I'd be out of work for six months at least. But I was back to work in five weeks."
Previously, he'd worked as a welding crew chief, building gas pipelines for energy companies, a job that brought him and his family to Auburn in 1998. After the amputation, Smith said, the physical demands of the job forced him into a training role.
"I re-certified as a trainer," he said. "Now I train pipeline welders, pipeline inspectors and welding inspectors for Puget Sound Energy and any of their contractors," he said. "If you're a pipeline welder in Western Washington, you come through me."
Soon he realized that the loss of physical activity from switching jobs demanded a new approach to fitness and health.
"I did swimming and wrestling (growing up)," he said. "After high school, it was work. But after everything changed, you have to reconfigure your life. You have to think, 'what do I do now to stay in shape.' I'm not burning anywhere near the calories at work that I used to. Before I was active because of the work I was doing."
To compensate, Smith said, he begin bicycling, throwing himself into ultra-mileage treks, including the Seattle-to-Portland bike ride, a 200-mile ride that he's completed in one day.
When a group of his bicycling friends peeled off to began doing triathlons, he joined them.
Because of the demands of the triathlon – a mixture of running, swimming and cycling – Smith realized he needed a new prosthetic to run in, something a little lighter and more responsive than his everyday prosthetic "walking foot."
"If you want to put it in car terms, the walking foot is more of a Cadillac or Lincoln Continental," he said. "It's real soft and it rides really nice, but if you try to corner with it and run with it, it's just too heavy. It's made for being comfortable for hours on end. I get up at four in the morning and don't take it off until nine at night. The running one is very lightweight. It looks like a J and it's made from carbon fiber. It's built for your running style and your weight. It helps to run, but it's horrible to walk in."
Smith turned to CAF, which provided him with a grant to buy the $7,000 prosthetic. He paid out of pocket for the socket and custom fitting, which brought the total to $15,000.
"They're (CAF) a wonderful group of people to work with," Smith said. "They gave me the grant to get my running foot, because the insurance won't pay for that. They'll pay for your normal everyday walking leg. Anything above and beyond that, it's not considered a medical necessity, so it's all on you."
Now Smith is giving back to CAF by entering in the Seattle Rock 'n' Roll Marathon and helping to raise money for the organization with Team REFUEL, which hopes to donate $50,000 to CAF over the next few months (see sidebar).
"This will be my first half marathon," Smith said. "It will be fun. I'm not normally known for being a runner, so it'll be tough, but I'll get through it."
For Smith, it's really about more than just getting through it. It's about thriving, despite circumstances that can devastate lives.
"You just get in, you get what you need done and you get on with life," he said. "You can't just sit and mope around. It's not doing you any good. And I've got a family. You've got to stay positive both for yourself and them. And it's worked out fine. There is really nothing that I can't do. There is really nothing to hold you back but your own mind."
As a supporter of Challenged Athlete's Foundation, Team REFUEL hopes to donate $50,000 to help other athletes get the equipment they need to compete and live a healthy lifestyle, despite their challenges. Team REFUEL, which focuses on the recovery and nutritional benefits of dairy products, such as chocolate milk, is encouraging its athletes to post a 60-second video on www.gotchocolatemilk.com, detailing their after-workout ritual and the role low-fat chocolate milk plays in it. For each vote tallied for the videos, $1 goes to the CAF.