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Leap of Ambition

BY BRACKETT LYONS
PHOTO BY ED MORAN

Hallie Smith believes that rowing saved her life. 

One morning in 2014 Smith woke up on her bedroom floor. She had just had a seizure. She went to the emergency room where she endured more seizures. Her hip and ankle joints began to painfully lock up. Her condition was a mystery to everyone. 

In the lead up to her seizure walking had become more and more difficult for Smith. She began to walk with her feet turned inward and on the tip of her toes. She wasn’t sure what was happening. The trip to the emergency room sent Smith looking for answers.  

Those answers came from the Mayo Clinic. Smith was diagnosed with hereditary spastic paraplegia – a genetic disorder that causes progressive weakness and spasticity in the legs. Doctors told Smith she’d never walk again. The diagnosis was devastating. 

“I was told at the Mayo Clinic that I wouldn’t walk again, and because I was going to be in Minneapolis for the next week, we went to the Mall of America. There, I just cried, because I was overwhelmed, overstimulated, and it had taken a few hours to hit me—I was not going to walk again.”

Nevertheless, Smith continued her studies and was graduated from college in 2015. A year later, while working out at the MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington, D.C., Smith was approached by Patrick Johnson, coach of the hospital’s rowing team, who invited her to see what rowing is like and whether she was any good. 

“I turned out to be pretty good at it pretty quickly,” Smith said.  

Only two weeks after beginning to row, Smith captured first in the MidAtlantic Erg Sprints with a time of six minutes, 33 seconds, in the 1,000 meters. The result encouraged the novice rower to see what she could do in the sport. 

“At the time, I had just gotten out of college and didn’t have a job, so I was going to practice on weekends and a couple of times during the week. I can’t believe I got hooked during erging season, of all times.”

Six weeks into her rowing career, she hit the USRowing elite standard time. 

“My coach was, like, ‘You’re one of three or four women in the U.S. who have hit this standard.’ And from then on, my sights were set on the Paralympics.”

While training and competing, Smith relied on the encouragement of her parents, Joe and Vicky Smith. When she was rowing in D.C., Joe Smith attended every race.

“I used to compete on Saturdays, and my dad would always have a conference call, so he would take it at the boathouse where my races were, and he’d put himself on mute to come cheer for me, and then go back to his call. Which was really wonderful.” 

Smith moved to Boston and was making substantial progress when the pandemic struck, bringing her training to a halt and forcing the postponement of the Paralympics.  

“It was definitely difficult, especially because I am immuno-compromised,” Smith said, “so I actually did not go on the water at all in 2020. I had teammates who were going out carefully—you know, masks and all that stuff—but my coaches and I felt it wasn’t safe for me.”

Smith had to train alone at home. Like many athletes, she had to scramble to find workout equipment and routines that could be done down the hall instead of down the road. 

“I was able to keep in shape. I expanded my home weightlifting equipment and changed my weightlifting style—more reps with lighter weights. But through 2020 it was mostly a mental game.”

A year spent just erging without seeing teammates, coaches, and family took its toll. Smith, who was used to gliding through the water at top speed, felt stagnant. 

“It was tough to stay motivated. Not only was I not on the schedule I had in mind but also I was inside on the erg every day instead of out on the water. And not seeing my teammates—even though I’m in a single, being able to see people, even in passing, makes a difference.”

As she always has, Smith persisted. 

“We’ve been ramping up training. It’s so good to be back on the water as well, It’s helped my overall mental health, not just my rowing mindset. Just being on the water makes me happy.

“I’m not letting any uncertainty creep into my mind because I need to be fully focused, eyes on the prize right now. My big dream is to make it onto that medal stand.”

* Paralympic coverage brought to you by Hydrow.

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