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Saved by the bench

Photo Credit: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO - J.C. Smith sets a new record in the bench press in his category. J.C. Smith was going about a typical day of work as a 30-year-old Nissan car salesman in 2006 when an imposing figure strolled into the lot. The muscular gentleman of daunting stature found a car to his liking and began negotiations with another salesman on hand. When the talks stalled, Smith took over the discussion.

While conversing, Smith discovered that the customer sitting across from him — who he came to know as John Anthony — was a competitive power lifter. Smith — a man with a linebacker-like build himself — mentioned that he occasionally lifted weights while working out. Anthony perked up at this, and as a condition to purchasing the vehicle, convinced Smith to start power lifting with him.

Smith, a Troutdale resident, was just trying to close the sale and wasn’t certain his burly customer was serious, but he was held to the condition of the agreement. Smith went along with it and complied with the terms. That decision ended up saving his life — twice.

Cultivating his passion

Smith was smitten with the sport of power lifting from the moment he started. From the first time he worked out with the equipment in Anthony’s basement, he knew he had found his passion. Anthony was a part of the Team Oregon lifting squad, and it wasn’t long before Smith joined.

“I was surprised at how welcoming the community was,” Smith said. “I gravitated toward it because it was all about self-improvement. Almost everybody I met was about making me, and themselves, better.”

This enlightening introduction to power lifting wasn’t his first exposure to athletics. Growing up in Seattle, Smith played an array of sports as an athletic youngster, but he had too much going on in his life to put all his time and effort into sports. Beginning when he was 12 years old, he started bouncing back and forth between foster homes and the home of his father and step-mother. It wasn’t a case where his parents were deemed unfit. They just didn’t really want him around.

Smith ground through the challenges in his home life and settled into a two-sport balance of wrestling and football by the time he reached high school. A knee injury ended his career in both sports, and the foster system took him from Washington to Oregon.

Getting into power lifting years later provided Smith an outlet for his natural athletic ability. He grew to crave the competition of the sport, but not in the conventional sense. Smith didn’t do it strictly to beat out other lifters. He did it to compete against himself.

“In team sports, you are relying on so many other people,” Smith said. “This was a whole new kind of competition. It was just me and the weight.”

Crashing down

Everything in Smith’s life was on an upward trajectory. He had a good job, a new house with two cars in the garage, a loving wife, Tina, and two young daughters, Priya and Yanni, and an activity in power lifting that kept his body and mind strong and healthy. He even had a spot in a bowling league.

All of that was turned upside-down in an instant.

On March 7, 2010, Smith hopped in his 2003 Nissan Sentra to make a quick run to the store. On his way back home on that Sunday morning in early spring, Smith lost consciousness and slammed into a wall on I-84 going 65 mph.

The details are hit-and-miss in Smith’s mind.

“I remember stupid stuff like thinking, ‘Should I turn on the cruise control? Which CD should I listen to? Is that smoke? Why are there all these people yelling outside the car?’

“I remember somebody using the words ‘jaws of life’ and I said, ‘get me out of here,’ “ Smith said. “When they folded me up to push me out of the car, that is when I couldn’t feel anything. It was like a switch. There was pain, then it was gone.

“I remember looking up from a hospital bed and seeing my wife crying.”

The impact of the wreck left Smith without feeling below his neck. Doctors told him if he had not been power lifting, the crash would have killed him. Because of his elevated core strength, the muscles surrounding his spine flexed and held everything in line. The fourth thoracic vertebrae broke across, but his spine wasn’t severed. It was the same story with Smith’s neck. At the time, he had a strong 22-inch neck that kept his spinal column from moving too much.

After the significant swelling went down, Smith regained feeling in his arms and upper body. He never did get back the use of his legs.

The aftermath of the accident was brutal physically. Smith had to re-learn simple life tasks, even simple things like picking up a spoon or brushing his teeth. The mental toll was more profound. Smith slipped into severe depression as his world crumbled around him.

“There were very few bright spots,” Smith said. “There was my family, but I isolated myself from them. I would hear that I couldn’t or shouldn’t do things anymore, and those things were enlarged in my mind. I had the mindset that I was going to be the handicapped dude who wasn’t as good as anyone else.”

From bad to worse

Not long after his release from the hospital, it was discovered that he had a heart condition known as ventricular tachycardia. In his case, the condition essentially means his heart is more dense than normal. The chamber walls are too thick, so his heart struggles to pump enough blood.

The tachycardia can cause him to pass out, which is what happened on the day of his accident. Then, in 2013, Smith went to the hospital with a heart attack, and was diagnosed with congestive heart failure.

Smith was beginning to think there was no rock bottom. He resigned himself to the belief that he would just keep falling into an endless abyss of physical failings and mental anguish. Something had to change.

The comeback

One of the worst parts of Smith’s plight, in his eyes, was that he couldn’t control his own destiny. There were days when he felt as if his existence was out of his control. Then, one day, he woke up and decided to take back his life.

Almost four years after his life-changing accident, Smith pushed aside his insecurities and picked up his weights.

It was an act of liberation.

“I had to put myself out there to be picked apart, and I had to be strong enough to deal with that. I needed some victories,” Smith said. “I needed to be able to have one area in my life where I could measure improvement. That was power lifting. It gave me back the confidence that I had to have again.”

Smith jumped back in and began to build up his strength again. Just a few months after getting back into the power-lifting world, Smith entered a competition in Medford on April 26. In that first event back, Smith broke the bench press world record in the disabled division for his weight and age with a lift of 217 pounds. Later in the day, he broke his own mark by putting up the bar at 225 pounds.

Despite leaving with a world record, Smith wasn’t satisfied. He felt like he could have done more. Three months later, he proved he could. On July 19 at the National Bench Press and Dead Lift Championships, held at the Shilo Inn in Portland, Smith scooted himself out of his wheelchair and onto the bench and pressed 231 pounds. In his next lift, he hit the 253-pound mark to shatter the world record he already owned.

“J.C. has the heart of a lion,” Anthony said. “Power lifting is about overcoming fear, and he knows what it takes to get over the fear of the lift.”

Smith’s series of record-breaking lifts qualified him for November’s World Championships in Las Vegas. He thinks he can crack the 300-pound threshold in that competition. From there, Smith doesn’t see a ceiling to the progress he can make, on the bench or in life.

A weight was lifted

As Smith, now 38, prepares for the Worlds, he looks back at the year he has had and his outlook is a far cry from what it was before power lifting saved him from despair.

Instead of tallying the negatives he has experienced, he focuses on the good things. He’s grateful for his association with his friends, fellow lifters and especially his wife and daughters, now 6 and 7 years of age.

“People look at me and say I had to be so strong to go through everything I went through, but I had no choice,” Smith said. “My wife did have a choice. She didn’t have to be there supporting me, but she chose to. If I’m strong, she is stronger.”

With the backing of the people most important to him, Smith continues to use lifting to heal from the accident. It has been such a valuable source of therapy for him that he is investigating ways to pass it on to other people in need of healing.

Anthony and Smith have discussed plans to head up a lifting enrichment program to give people with physical or mental disabilities a place to go to feel at home.

“He is what lifting is all about. He is always willing to learn. He is always happy and positive. He knows how to take risks and step out of his comfort zone,” Anthony said. “He coaches me on how to be a better person.”

There have been a handful of individuals who have questioned whether or not lifting is a wise choice for Smith. He knows there is an inherent health risk in competing, particularly with his heart. Smith is on the heart transplant list, but he refuses to waste away doing nothing. He wants his daughters to see him working every day to become a better person. He hopes to teach them they can do anything they want to do in life, regardless of any perceived limitations.

If Smith spends his days getting that message across, he will be fulfilling his purpose in life.

“This is something I have to do. I have to keep pushing myself to become the best me I can be,” Smith said. “I’m alive, and I shouldn’t be. I should not have survived what I have survived. God still has reasons for me to be here. I know I’m on borrowed time, but aren’t we all?”




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