20-year-old Rob Smith was on the cusp of fulfilling a long held dream. Young and inspired, he was two years into his degree in mechanical engineering when a holiday trip with friends to Devon, UK ended in a nightmare.
While exploring, Rob slipped and fell into a system of caves. His neck snapped at the C5/6 level and his body was paralysed from the neck down.
”It was a bit of a wake-up call as to how life was going to be different.Rob SmithActive Hands Founder
Rob’s calm attitude as he recalls his thoughts during that time is admirable. Ordinary tasks such as eating, breathing, tying shoelaces, zipping zips and picking up money became significant challenges for Rob. How could he be so calm?
He was in a hospital for nine months while he dealt with the physical and mental trauma of his injury. He experienced different phases of frustration as he accepted how his future had changed. Although it was difficult to appreciate what his life would look like after his injury, exploring his faith and the support from his family and friends made the adjustments more bearable.
Just one year after his injury, Rob was determined to return to university and face the new challenges that would come with completing his degree.
His initial mindset dictated that recovery meant regaining full mobility, so he really buckled down and worked hard in physio. He rejected wheelchairs because using one felt like a backwards step in his physio progress. Instead, he resorted to using crutches to get around. While he is proud of his efforts in physiotherapy, Rob can’t help but look back and feel as though he limited himself and his experiences during that time. Using crutches was so physically demanding that simply having a coffee with friends or travelling between classes became exhausting.
“It took a few years for me to realise that I was less disabled in a wheelchair, even though people didn’t see that when they saw me in a wheelchair compared to seeing me on crutches.”
A chance introduction to wheelchair rugby allowed him to gradually accustom his mindset. He quickly realised how human perception can alter the truth of being in a wheelchair.
“The perception of the world is that people in wheelchairs are more disabled than those on crutches when in reality, using a wheelchair is just more enabling.”
Ironically, it’s easy to miss how exhilarating life in a wheelchair can be. It’s a certain liberation that only wheels can give you. You’re suddenly able to zoom through the streets, zip around people and ‘skrrt’ around corners.
“It’s quite good fun.”
It may seem hard at the beginning, and it’s okay to feel that way. Just know it definitely gets better over time. His advice would be to embrace it. Enjoy the experience so you can spend more time focusing on your well-being (hauora).
As a UK resident, Rob was fortunate enough to receive financial aid from the NHS, England’s National Health Service. He is incredibly grateful for their contribution to his care.
”It’s one of the best things we have in this country, and I’m very thankful to NHS. I wouldn’t want to be in a country where they didn’t have it.Rob SmithActive Hands Founder
Shortly after being discharged from the hospital, Rob found himself at the Inter-Spinal Unit Games, sponsored by WheelPower. This is an annual event held to bring those with spinal injuries together and offer them opportunities to play sport and lead healthy lives. Rob particularly enjoyed wheelchair rugby. By the time he returned to university, he was training regularly with the local wheelchair rugby team. Rob would relish the next ten years touring with teams, playing for the development squad for the Great Britain Wheelchair Rugby Squad and winning club competitions left, right and centre.
He approached the next chapter in his life craving a stronger sense of personal achievement. In his quest for fulfilment, Rob’s life pivoted.
“As much as I love the team sport, and I still do miss it, I wanted to do something for myself.”
He set sights on completing the first goal on his bucket list: do a marathon. Because of his injury, running or walking one was out of the question. Determined, he borrowed a racing wheelchair. Months of intensive training and studying the wheelchair-racing craft followed. His hard worked paid off after conquering his first London Marathon. By then, Rob’s passion for wheelchair racing had skyrocketed.
“I think my favourite part of racing would be the individualism in it and how what you put in is exactly what you get out of it. It’s the technicality of the push, the little tweaks you make to your carrier.”
Since then, Rob has achieved great feats while racing and has even manufactured his own line of racing gloves.
During his time as a wheelchair rugby player, Rob developed a passion for fitness. But he struggled to pursue this passion with his limited hand function. Once again, Rob took action. His mechanical engineering skills allowed him to brainstorm a few glove-like products that would improve his hand grip. With his mother’s help and her trusty sewing machine, they made working prototypes. Rob’s invention drew a lot of attention from his teammates at the gym. Many of them were struggling, similarly to him, with hand mobility. This invention was a solid solution. Over time, interest in his invention grew enough for him to set up what is now the Active Hands Company. While running a business was challenging, the company’s organic growth rate and success allowed Rob to manage a company that would go on to help thousands globally.
Take it from a living example: it can be as easy as looking at the problems you have and addressing them.
“Just make a start,” he says.
Rob Smith is now working hard to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics. His company is always busy, coming up with new prototypes. He and his wife have also been blessed with a new addition to their family, a little sister for their 6-year-old son Jacob and daughter Xanthe. It is no secret that Rob Smith is living a full, rich and rewarding life, certainly Adaptdefying and leading the way by example.
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