“I want to say thank you and I love you to everyone in the sport and everyone around the world who has shown me support.” BRAD SMEELE
Perhaps none of us knew just how much Brad Smeele had endeared himself to our sport. The other tragedy exposed in the last few months is that it takes something like a crippling accident to remind us of those important to us. So when the industry heard that Brad was hurt, it reacted with shock and regret. With hindsight a galvanised wakeboard world holds Brad as an example of where passion and commitment will get you. His legacy is to live every moment and to have the courage to chase your goals. Now, even amid the most difficult time of his life, he still embodies that motto, albeit with a much more challenging set of goals to chase.
Brad Smeele’s journey from New Zealander to making his home at Lake Ronix in Orlando Florida, was a long and arduous one. Filled with some highs and, in truth, some lows along the way. He shot to universal fame when he stuck a 1080 on film for the movie Canvas, released back in 2009. A tall guy, good looking and as friendly as you could be, it was imagined that he would become a strong figure in the pro scene – as the release of that movie captured the young rider clearly matching it with the best in the world. But, things didn’t go exactly to plan for him from that point. His notoriety didn’t take off as expected and he found himself traveling the life of a rider but struggling to make ends meet.
Then a conversation with Paul O’Brien was to change the direction of his career for the better. Brad, as a long time Ronix rider, made the decision to move to Lake Ronix and work on helping the place take roots and ultimately grow into one of the most revered lakes on the map today. It was through his new found comfort that his star began to rise like we all assumed it would. Brad’s riding was taking another step. He was filming for one of the World’s biggest movies ‘Prime’ and he was announcing on the Pro Tour of Wakeboarding in the U.S.A. He was beginning to land tricks that he was literally the only person in the world to be able to ride away from – his life was finally on track. And as much as it pains me to write, and it may pain some to read, that is where his story takes a drastic turn. As Dean Smith and Chad Sharpe swam out to assess what they had just witnessed, Brad’s life was never going to be the same…
To support Brad – donate to the Brad Smeele foundation at bradsmeelefoundation.com
INTERVIEW BY CHRIS O’SHEA
Brad Begins “They got me into shore, I was conscious, and I was talking to them, I do remember getting a little frustrated with Chad for calling the helicopter cause I was thinking about how much that was going to cost, I guess that shows my mindset at the time. I was going in and out of consciousness as they waited for the Heli to arrive, for me it felt like maybe 5 minutes but reality was it would have been more like 30. Obviously, I was scared, but at the same time I felt like I remained calm, but when the paramedics came and they put the neck brace on me, that was when I was yelling at them ‘get this thing off me’. It was crazy uncomfortable, I didn’t want it on at all.
What do you remember of the day past that?
Nothing really. I remember parts of the Heli ride to the hospital. I remember going in for my MRI and I joking because the MRI guy told me to make sure I stayed still during the scan, I was like, ‘that will be easy’. But I guess because of shock or whatever, after that I don’t remember anything. Apparently a bunch of crew came and visited before my surgery, but I can’t remember a thing.
Before my surgery and after my surgery I had people coming to see me but I had no idea. Well now I do but at the time I didn’t remember a thing.
That seems crazy to me because I saw you in the hospital the day it happened and you were pretty ‘with it’. Brenton and I were talking with you and you were telling us what had happened.
Well, I don’t remember anything from the first week, except for one hallucination I had when they moved me from the ICU down to the ‘step down’ unit. I thought I had been kidnapped. That was the night I had a fever of 108 degrees (fahrenheit) – which when you get that hot it is verging on brain damage concerns! So that was pretty gnarly I guess.
Physical injuries are one thing but emotionally it is obviously the largest thing you have ever had to deal with. How have you dealt with accepting what has happened?
I guess the hardest part of all this is accepting the injury. The second week after my surgery was when it really hit me. That was the darkest time I had. Laying there thinking ‘What the f**k have I done?’ I didn’t want to even exist anymore. I kinda felt like if I had a way to just stop breathing and not carry on then I would have taken it. It would have be easier on my Mum and my family, so they would not have to look after me. (Pauses to think) It was pretty dark times. But that feeling lasted maybe only a few days really, a week tops. Basically once I had my family there and Jeff (Weatherall) was around, plus I was starting to be a little more ‘with it’, I started to realise that’s not a positive way to think, it’s not going to achieve anything thinking that way. So that was when I thought, ‘I need to get on with it positively to start thinking about my situation and my recovery.’ I even started dreaming about walking again, or one where I was running around on the beach at Lake Ronix or whatever. I’d wake up and think dam it, I fully thought that it was real only to realise I am in a hospital bed in Orlando – so early on were the toughest times, but even still I hadn’t shed a tear, I was more just angry at myself and what I had done. The first time I had a break down since the accident was two months after, I had been holding it in all that time. It felt like a few things piled up – anxiety about the injury, I just had to let it out. So I guess letting it out was healthy in a way.
“The second week after my surgery was when it really hit me. That was the darkest time I had. Laying there thinking ‘What the f**k have I done?”
What damage did you actually do?
To be honest, as far as I remember, nobody has actually sat me down and gone through it in its entirety, but from my understanding, I shattered my C4 vertebrae and that impacted on my spinal chord. One doctor told me I had a 1-2% chance that I would be able to move my upper body again.
I had a nine hour surgery, they picked out parts of my shattered vertebrae, put in a plate and two rods, they used fourteen screws to basically put things in place to support the gap where the C4 vertebrae used to be. Shattering your C4 means basically your head and shoulder have feeling, anything from there down, you don’t. No movement, no control.
I have this whole chart of what vertebrae relates to what part of your body. But that sort of categorised me into one certain group. It basically said, this is what you are going to be, this is what movement you will have, and I didn’t want to think like that. I wanted to be able to work on getting movement back without feeling like it was impossible.
I have been getting feeling down my arms into my elbows, which I shouldn’t have been according to the chart. On top of that since then there has been more sensation coming back, things I’ve noticed, little movements I‘ve been able to do.
So you have already proved that chart wrong?
As far as I’m concerned I have, even at the beginning the fact that I was able to feel when they put ice under my ‘nuts’ and it was excruciating, meant I had already had feeling below my shoulders! (laughs) They were trying to cool me off cause I had a fever and I screamed at them and told them ‘Get the ice away from my nuts!’ Things like that made me think I won’t accept to be classified the way they tell me I am.
Have you had anyone give you advice on how to overcome your situation?
Some people who know my situation are messaging me saying ‘I have an idea of what you are going through. This is how I dealt with it. This is how you can come through it’, guys like Josh Wood, Steve Murray, Chris Ackerman, really motivating people that have come from a similar lifestyle. So there have been so many people come through and have given me messages of hope.
So how are you feeling about moving forward and working in the industry? Your future?
I have a big job on my hands getting as strong as I can. When I am ready to come back (to the USA) the guys at Ronix have said they are more than happy for me to work with them however I can fit in, whether it’s as an ambassador or on board design, marketing, whatever it might be. Plus, I still want to be an announcer and help young riders learn the lessons that I had to learn – those things are a real motivation for me. But I guess first and foremost I want to go home for as long as it takes to at least get to a point where I have movement in my arms and I can be in a manual wheel chair. At that point I’ll look at if I can come back to the States and see what I can work out.
Well you always have a place at Union, whatever that be, we are always keen to get you involved in someway.
Thanks man, I appreciate that.
Is there anything you want to finish on, or people you want to thank?
I want to say thank you and I love you to everyone in the sport and everyone around the world who has shown me support. It is literally mind blowing. I had no idea my injury could have had the impact on so many people. Obviously I need to thank my family – my mum in particular, she has been amazing, my brother, my sister, the Weatheralls, everyone who has come and visited. I am going to keep pushing, keep positive, keep driving to get my arms moving then my legs moving then back on my feet and back on a wakeboard! Certainly not throwing any tantrum to blinds, but my ultimate goal it to be back in that lifestyle.
Thanks man we look forward to seeing you in NZ!
To support Brad – donate to the Brad Smeele foundation at bradsmeelefoundation.com