Life-changing losses don’t define who I am

Life-changing losses don’t define who I am

'I know that my happiness is up to me — and me only'

By Claire Smith for CBC Sports
November 21, 2018

The phrase “who we are shapes our world,” resonates with me.

Although my world has changed dramatically since 1997, the same characteristics — I’m goal-oriented, driven and resilient — that were prominent when I lived in the equestrian world still shape my world today. As an athlete, these qualities were essential when I was reaching for the top of my sport; thank goodness that they were still a part of me when I had to cope, first physically, then psychologically, with two life-changing losses. Who I am has helped my life to evolve in a most positive way.

Claire Smith represented Canada at the 1996 Olympics. (Siegel Photography) Claire Smith represented Canada at the 1996 Olympics. (Siegel Photography)

Who did I used to be? Years ago, as a member of the Canadian equestrian team, I represented our country at the 1994 world championships and at the 1996 Olympics. Three-day eventing, the discipline I took part in, is the most dangerous of the Olympic equestrian sports. Often compared to a triathlon for horse and rider, the same combination performs each phase. First is dressage, a test of obedience, grace, and elegance. Then comes cross-country, a course of 15 to 40 solid natural obstacles that can’t be lowered, including banks, ditches, and water. Show jumping over a course of eight to 12 jumps is next where penalties are given for each lowered jump. The combination with the lowest score wins.

While I was sitting at my desk the other day, I Googled “equestrian sports” and “head injury.” An article, written two years ago, along with its frightening numbers, jumped out at me. In 2014, there were 4,788 reports of sports-related severe traumatic brain injury (TBI) in the United States. Of that total, 45.2 per cent occurred in equestrian sports. Interpersonal contact sports such as football, soccer, and rugby, accounted for just 20.2 per cent. More than twice as many TBIs are sustained in equestrian accidents than in football, ruby, and soccer combined, according to Neurosurgical Focus — the official journal of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons — in 2016.


The numbers spoke to me because on Sept. 13, 1997 I became a statistic. I sustained a severe traumatic brain injury when I fell on the cross-country course at the Open European Three-Day Event Championships. Post Traumatic Amnesia — the inability to store new memories — reigned for four of the six months I was in hospital. My stay was followed by several months of out-patient rehabilitation. During that time, I had but one wish: to return to North Carolina, where I’d spent the winter months of the last several years training my horses.


'Harsh fact'

A head injury can accentuate pre-injury characteristics; after the injury I was even more single-minded, focussed, and determined. My therapists knew that, unless I was given the opportunity to attempt to live my old life, I would forever resent those who had stood in the way of me trying to do so. I returned to North Carolina a year after the accident. As the months of 1999 progressed, I slowly realized that my injury was making it impossible to live life as I had known it.

One November day, I finally acknowledged the harsh fact that I could no longer be a high-level equestrian athlete, nor could I live in the equestrian world. Sobbing continuously, I’d arranged to leave my horses behind under someone else’s care before the end of the day. Early the next morning, I drove north, hastily packed suitcases filling my car. My mind swirling and my emotions numb, by time I hit the highway, there were no more tears to shed. Leaving that most beloved identity has been the most difficult thing I’ve done. It has also been pivotal to how my life has turned out.

Lost and without a goal or an identity, I returned to Canada. I wandered aimlessly through the next months, spending (too much) time haunted by my past. In 2000, my goal-oriented self found another single-minded pursuit when I became a student. As relentlessly driven as always, I first completed a master’s degree, and then a PhD. For both, I conducted studies of head injury, valuable explorations because as the researcher I was also a member of the culture under study. Although I have no statistical evidence, I believe that it is rare for individuals who have sustained head injuries as severe as mine to have recovered to the extent that they are able to pursue higher education.


In 2010, when I finished the PhD, I was left with not only the expected depression, normal after the years of intense focus inherent to that level of degree, but I also had to reconcile with a second life-changing loss, the chronic illness dystonia. In all probability an aftermath of the crash, this movement disorder originated in the brain and was insidiously making its way into my life. It had first made its presence known in 2006 when I started dragging my foot.


'Emotionally crushing'

The psychological consequences from this movement disorder were devastating. In many ways, dystonia was even more emotionally crushing than the head injury had been because, for the first two years after the head injury, I had not been cognitively well enough to realize its life-changing repercussions. However, when dystonia struck, I was well into my PhD. I had cognitively completely recovered. Nevertheless, I buried my head in the sand like the proverbial ostrich while I single-mindedly concentrated on my studies. Despite my denial of its presence, the chronic illness progressed up my right leg. At my PhD defence, I used a wheelchair. For several years after I graduated, I needed psychiatric counselling to guide me as I dealt with the disorder’s most unwelcome intrusion into my life.

Smith is in a happier place today.  (Betty Cooper/Sugarbush Studio) Smith is in a happier place today. (Betty Cooper/Sugarbush Studio)

At long last, I’ve learned to live with dystonia and put my loss of movement in perspective. When I put weight on my right leg, my brain tells my leg to be ramrod straight, so I wear a brace to support my knee from bending backwards. My leg is normal when I sit and when I lie, allowing me to take the brace off in bed. I swim, without the brace, for exercise. My competitive self forever wants to swim faster; there are no physical restrictions when I try. Because there is no weight on my bottom right foot in the water, my right leg works (almost) normally. 

I’ve overcome two life-changing losses with the loving support of my amazing parents. They took over when their 34-year-old daughter was severely injured; they had no choice but to become parents to a two-year-old in a decades older body. They were equally caring when I was diagnosed with dystonia. Mom and dad made sure that I had the best therapy and counseling after each loss. I’ll always be grateful to them for their steadfast belief that it would all work out in the end.


Even with such tremendous support, I know that my happiness is up to me — and me only. It took years for me to realize that I’m the only one who can control who I am, how I am, and the world in which I live. Being goal-oriented, driven, and resilient shaped my equestrian world. Along with those three fundamental characteristics, I’ve chosen happiness to be a major contributor to the shape of my world now. I’m excited to experience what lies ahead.

(Large photo by Roger Sands/Arranel Studios; Middle large photo by Perry Photographic

The Claire Smith edition

Q: The best book you've ever read? 
A: That’s a hard one but if I had to recommend a really well-written, thought provoking book, I’d pick A Stone Boat by Andrew Solomon. I love all his books.

Q: Must-listen Podcast? 
A: I’ve never listened to one!

Q: Best advice you ever received? 
A: My Dad, who didn’t understand my passion with horses, once told me: “As long as you’re happy, I’m happy too.” In other words, follow your dreams. It doesn’t matter what people close to you think.

Q: If your life was a movie, what would it be called? 
A: (Re)discovering myself.

Q: What word or phrase do you over use? 
A: Please let the dog (Annie) out…

Q: What is a skill you wish you had? 
A: Before I sustained a head injury, all I knew was to multi-task, all the time. Now, I need to concentrate/think about one thing at a time. It’s frustrating…

Q: What's something no one would guess about you? 
A: Most of those who know me now would never guess about my past with horses.

Q: If you could have the ultimate influential dinner party, who are the six people you'd invite? 
A: My friends Michael Anderson, Rosanne Dawson, Connie Adams, Carmelita Boivin Cole, and my partner Michael Rowland. Each one is from a very different part of my life, so the conversation would be great.

Q: What makes you cry, every time? 
A: Movies with animals. I bawled at the end of Eight Below.

Q: What's the next goal you want to accomplish? 
A: I’ve written a memoir (released November 2017): Falling into Now: Memories of Sport, Traumatic Brain Injury, and Education. My next project is also nonfiction  that’s all I’m revealing!

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