Former Olympian who suffered brain injury earns PhD

A former Olympic equestrian rider who suffered a brain injury after a fall from a horse 14 years ago cleared a major hurdle in her recovery when she received her doctorate in education.
Claire Smith receives congratulations from University of Ottawa president Allan Rock. (CBC)

A former Olympic equestrian rider who suffered a brain injury after a fall from a horse 14 years ago cleared a major hurdle in her long road to recovery when she received her doctorate in education at the University of Ottawa.

Claire Smith represented Canada at the 1996 Atlanta Games, finishing 14th in the three-day equestrian event. But in 1997, she took a serious fall off her horse at the European Championships in 1997 in England.

"My horse flipped over the jump," said Smith. "I fell off and was airlifted to hospital and diagnosed with a severe traumatic brain injury."

Smith was transferred from a hospital in Nottingham to Canada and for four months had post-traumatic amnesia. She had to relearn to carry out simple tasks, as well as the ability to plan, analyze and reference.

"You have to relearn everything," said Smith. "When I was in the hospital, I had porters taking me because I'd get lost in the hospital."
Smith competed in the 1996 Atlanta Games. ((CBC))

After three years of cognitive rehabilitation, she enrolled in university.

In 2004, she began to slowly lose all motion in her right leg, and was later diagnosed with dystonia, a neurological disorder that leads to sustained muscle contractions.

With her brain no longer able to send the proper signals to her leg, Smith now uses a wheelchair and a cane.

But she continued her studies, and on Monday, the 48-year-old Ottawa native took the podium at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa to accept her doctorate of philosophy in education.

The focus of her PhD was a subject close to home: looking at how elite athletes recover from major head trauma. She said the same will to succeed in their sport helped elite-level athletes in their rehabilitation.

"When they were recovering from a head injury they tried to be at the top and I'm the same way," said Smith.

"I think I tried to be at the top of my sport and so I tried to be at the top [in my recovery] and I think I went as far as I can go now."

Her father, Brad Smith, said his daughter faced the difficult task of altering her goals in order to succeed.

"For her to have got over this injury, she had to abandon what she worked for 15 or more years for — hard, full-time — because of the injury. Start all over again academically and get this far. That's a great thing," he said.