Vaught’s note: Since this is Super Bowl Sunday, I thought there was no better time to share this “super” story about a remarkable young man, UK cheerleader Dylan Smith. His story is miraculous and heart-warming. It’s one that will make you smile and cry, often at the same time. Enjoy reading how this amazing young man not only survived a horrific fall, but came back to be part of UK’s national championship cheer squad last month. It was an incredible seven-month journey.
By LARRY VAUGHT
In July, University of Kentucky cheerleader Dylan Smith fell 44 feet and suffered a dislocated hip, fractured pelvis, and laceration to his spleen, and both his lungs collapsed. In January, he was in Orlando with the UK squad when it won the national championship again.
It was a remarkable journey for Smith. He was teaching a gymnastics class in Rhode Island when he lost his balance at the end of a series of moves and landed against a door that had been nailed shut, but suddenly opened into open air. Smith turned a back clip during the fall and somehow managed to land on his feet.
Smith, a sophomore pre-med major from Rhode Island, offered these insights into his remarkable story.
Question: What have the last few months been like for you and how did you manage to get back to this point so quickly?
Smith: â€œIn all honestly the past few months have been some of the best in my life. While I experienced a large setback this summer, the event has helped shape who I am as a person and athlete. From the rehab I was doing four days a week back home, to the transitioning back to school on my own, there was a lot of hard work that went into this process. My family, friends, teammates, coaches and other members of the University of Kentucky community helped push and support me during my time recovering both physically and mentally. People in the UK cheer program both past and present were very positive, providing inspiration and motivation for me daily.
â€œHow did I get back to this point so quickly? I had no doubts. I wanted it so badly that I truly believed it wasnâ€™t possible for me NOT to be healed and participating again. I worked all spring and the beginning of summer with a goal in mind and I was not going to let my accident this summer keep that from becoming a reality. This experience has shown me that by believing in yourself, with hard work and faith all things are possible.â€
Question: What did it mean to you to get to be part of the national championship experience again?
Smith: â€œWhile this is my second year cheering at UK, this is my first year on the Blue Squad and consequently my first time competing at the UCA College National Championship. Last year UK placed second, and this year I was proud to have contributed to the programâ€™s 19th national championship. The amount of work we as team have put into achieving this goal is unlike something I have ever experienced before. Hours a day in the gym, multiple practices, it became almost second nature performing our routine. Having that mindset that winning was the only option.
â€œLast year as a freshman, my goal was to work harder than ever to earn a spot on the nationalâ€™s squad the upcoming year. After doing all of that and having my accident, I was disappointed most by the thought of not having the opportunity to compete for a national title with my teammates. With motivation from my team and family, I quickly turned that thought process around and used this as more fuel to get healthy. Being selected by my coaches and teammates to compete this year was reassurance that the program recognized my passion, and hard work I had put forth. Winning a national championship this year has been the greatest experience of my life. Stepping off the competition mat crowned the best, but also the journey I had in getting there is something I will never forget.â€
Question: How did the UK cheerleaders/coaches support you during your injury/rehab?
Smith: â€œDuring the summer after my accident, most of my teammates and coaches were spread out all over the country. I had actually just returned home on July 3rd from a week long practice session we had at school. The accident happened on July 7th, and I was planning on going back to UK two days later to join some teammates on a trip to Singapore for a cheerleading camp. The word spread via Facebook, Twitter, etc, informing my teammates of what had happened. The outpouring of support and prayers I received by phone, e-mails, and Facebook was overwhelming. I had never realized how many people really cared about my well being. During the five days at the hospital and even after I returned home, I received cards, letters, and things to keep me occupied during my recovery time. This was the hardest part of this entire experience.
â€œI left the hospital on July 12th, and would not start physical therapy until Aug. 1st. I was on bed rest for nearly two and a half weeks, not able to sit up or walk on my own yet. Coaches and other team members met in Lexington for more summer practices, and then in August for UCA College Cheer Camp in Milwaukee, WI. I was not able to physically attend, but my team sent me updates, pictures and always made me feel like I was still with them. This pushed me to work harder in rehab, not feel bad for myself and encouraged me to get back to school and join my team as soon as possible! Without the UK cheer team support, I do not believe I would have made the same recovery both physically and mentally.â€
Question: Was there a time you wondered if you would ever be back part of UK cheerleading again?
Smith: â€œWhen I was in the hospital and had learned of the severity of my accident, I was not really sure what to think. I wasnâ€™t sure if my life would ever return to what I knew as normalcy. However, after talking to my head coach Jomo Thompson, and numerous teammates … It was without doubt I knew this was just a bump in the road and I would be back soon. I looked this as a test, one from God, challenging me to be at my personal best in all areas of life, for my sake and for those around me. With this new perspective and drive I knew that all was possible for those who work hard, believe, and have faith.
â€œAll three of those attributes allowed me to rejoin the UK cheer team, my extended family. Did it happen overnight? No this was a process with many checkpoints along the way. I was told I did not have to return to school this fall, yet that was my first goal … to be healthy enough to fly on my own, set up my apartment and attend classes like a regular student. Secondly, after I accomplished the first part I then wanted to be cleared to physically participate in cheerleading practices and workouts. Following that step, I set the goal to earn back my spot and be at the level to cheer with the Kentucky cheerleading blue squad … the 19-time national champions. Every time I set a goal, I would push it a little further and challenge myself more and more. Doctors, therapists, and others said I wouldn’t start physical activity for at least the spring or summer, everyone had their own opinion.For me that was unacceptable, I was determined to set my own goals and limitations. This was my body, my life, I knew how much I could push myself and what I’m capable of.
â€œFinally, my last goal was to make the Kentucky nationals team via selection from the coaches and team members. Once selected to go on and win the 2012 College National Championship in January. Every one of these goals on my checklist became a reality in seven months from not being able to get out of bed, tie my shoes or bathe myself. Setting smaller goals and achieving them gave me more confidence going forward in this process, and eventually reaching it.
Question: Did your cheerleading expertise actually save your life?
Smith: â€œAfter talking to doctors about my fall, it was made clear to me that the way in which I hit the ground contributed to my survival. Falling backwards out the door into mid-air, I remember seeing the doorway, the side of the building and then the sky. It was at this point I looked further back to see the ground, and began to pull my toes and legs over my head to help rotate. This is the same technique one would use in cheerleading when trying to do a back tuck or layout. While this happened so fast, my goal was to finish my rotation right when I made contact with the pavement in attempt to roll out of it and minimize the impact. I do not remember hitting the ground …Â just seeing the door, the sky, the ground. Doctors said the injuries sustained were consistent with the position I described falling in. If I had not had the body control and awareness from cheerleading, I very well would have landed on my back or head, most certainly not telling this story now.â€
Question: Do you hope your recovery serves as an inspiration to others?
Smith: â€œBy no means do I feel like my story is something that should be glorified or made to be more then it was. I feel given my quick thinking and acting, the training I had received, and some luck, I ended up with just the right combination that saved my life. However with that said, I think my story can be an inspiration to people from all walks of life. Given my turn of events, I have been able to experience the benefits of hard work, mental toughness, having faith, being positive and much more at a young age. All these things are life skills people learn over the course of a lifetime, and I was able to learn them all in only seven months at just age 19. This summer was by far the lowest point in my life, and in a few months with the right attitude, drive, belief, it soon became some of the best in my life. I am blessed to have had this experience; it is something that has changed my entire outlook. I have been given a second chance, a clean slate and with this I have tried to make the best of myself in every aspect of life. People should take this and use this as motivation and apply it to their own struggles. If anything good came from this accident, let it be this:
â€œAll things in life are possible with the right mindset and a strong a belief. Never feel bad for yourself, there will always be someone who has it worse than you do. Never settle, there is no limit for a motivated individuals potential. Finally, never let someone tell you that you cannot do something, only you know what youâ€™re truly capable of. If you want something bad enough you will go to the extreme, give all you have to make that a reality … the question is how badly do you want it? This is the part that I am most grateful for, the realization of just that.â€
Question: Finally, what would you like to say to the folks who supported you, prayed for you, asked about you, etc., over the last seven months?
Smith: â€œIf I said thank you to each individual person who has reached out to me in the last six months that wouldn’t be enough. If I said thank you every day to each of them, it still wouldnâ€™t be enough. The support of friends, family, teammates, the people of Big Blue Nation, and most of all the complete strangers, their support is what made this all possible. Literally, complete strangers have reached out to me through the Facebook, Twitter, mail, news sources, etc and have shared stories and concern for me. This provided the fuel to motivate me each and every day.
â€œSome people are not given second chances like this, and I was surely not going to waste mine. My way of giving back to the people who played a significant role in my recovery was by way of actions, walking again, going back to school, cheering on the sidelines at games, and finally helping bring home national championship 19 to UK. That was my gift and way of saying thank you to all the great people who have given me so much in the past year. I am forever thankful.â€