Deaf Sports Stars22nd October 2013

Double Deaflympics Medal Winner Tom Smith

Against an agonising background, the highly professional Tom Smith shows his metal

by Sarah Lawrence

One of Britain's brightest young cyclists in his late teens and early twenties, Cardiff born Tom Smith has faced more than his fair share of sporting challenges. Picking up a Silver and Bronze Medal at the recent Deaflympics in Sofia, you could be mistaken in thinking Tom has had a relatively easy path to the top. You could not be more wrong. 

‚Äč26 years old Tom Smith, or Smiffy as he is more fondly known, has 74 decibel hearing loss, with his hearing loss deteriorating from the 40 decibel loss he was found to have aged four or five, when his deafness was first identified. Schooling locally in Cardiff his home City, Tom attended Llanishen High School which had a Partial Hearing Unit. However, Tom's recollection of school is far from positive and despite achieving academically at GCSE and AS level, he tells me bluntly that he hated school.

The problem for Tom, is that the support he had fell short of dealing with his understanding of what he was being taught, and that left him unfulfilled and frustrated. He had the additional problem that no-one would take his cycling ambitions seriously, and he was pushed into areas of learning and career advice that did not support any of his own thinking. Well intentioned it might have been, but it fell well short of what Tom needed by way of advice and support.

Like many deaf children in school, Tom was not always welcomed by his peers and he suffered bullying because of his hearing loss. Tom recalls one incident when he pushed over and broke his wrist. The treatment by the authorities and students has left a bitter taste in his mouth.

With varying degrees of isolation and social exclusion when growing up, it was in cycling that Tom felt he was most at home and able to flourish. A winner of his British Championships aged just 12, Tom went on to join the GB Cycling Team aged 17, alongside some of the current household names in British cycling. Being part of the mainstream GB team was a brilliant achievement, but Tom does feel that his deafness inhibited some of his opportunities and put him in conflict with one of the riders and at least one the coaches.

In the mix with the best of British cycling talent, Tom picked up a leg injury in 2004 that prevented him competing at the major championships. The injury continued to affect him for several years until an MRI scan in 2007 discovered that his spine was out place. Operations followed in 2008 and 2009 and Tom tried to return to racing in 2010, but he found it was just too painful.

With competitive racing seeming more and more like a pipe dream, Tom had to look elsewhere for some life choices and he returned to study, gaining his qualification as a personal trainer. Learning more and more about his body but still training hard, Tom felt his back pain was easing and in 2012 he started racing again. A natural in the saddle, Tom picked up a Bronze Medal at the 2012 Deaf European Championships and his cycling ambitons were well and truly re-kindled.

Whilst much of Tom's life is about elite training, there are also experiences he laughs about. During a race meet in Edinburgh, Tom was sharing a hotel room with three other competitors. Tom removes his hearing aids when he gets into bed, and recalls being shaken in the night, but fell straight back to sleep. In the morning he jumped into the shower only to find that there was only cold water. Moaning to his team mates, Tom was told that the fire alarm had gone off in the night and the boiler had had to be shut down. They had shaken to wake him, but when they were outside they realised that Tom had not left the room and could not get back in to do anything about it.

In pursuit of further sporting achievements Tom decided to move from his Cardiff home for half of the year to a new base in Belgium where there are signifcantly more cycle racing opportunities than there are in the UK, along with excellent training facilities. Funding himself through a mix of sponsorship, parental support, prize money and his work as a personal trainer, Tom was able to train for the 2013 Deaflmpics including paying roughly £2000 each for himself and his father for travel, accomodation and food. 

Competing in both track cycling and road race events, I asked Tom whether his deafness caused him any difficulty. Unsurprisingly, he said, "I can't hear cars when I am training on the road, so I have to be more aware of things around me". In addition to entering the Deaflympics as a cometitor Tom is also responsibe for running Deaf Cycling in the UK. After the severity of his back injury, the fact Tom was even able to compete is a feat of determination worth applauding. Winning two of the GB Team's five medals, Tom had what can only be described as a highly successful games.

I asked Tom about the difference in achievement between the deaf athletes in the Deaflympics and the achievements of Team GB in the Olympic and Paralympic Games.  "It's not the whole answer," he said, "but we had funding withdrawn from us to fund the Paralympic Team, I and others had to pay for ourselves to go, and if you compare that with the Russian team who are fully funded and get £100,000 for winning gold, it's simply not a level playing field. We are amateurs competing against professional outfits."

With immense pride Tom shows me his medals, but he is already pursuing further success, and that lies in getting back into mainstream competition. Upon his return to the sport in 2012, Tom was classified as a 3rd category rider, but he is already bordering on the elite professional category.

As with most elite sport I asked Tom, where he gets his inspiration from to continue. "I love the freedom of cycling," he explains, "I get in a zone, and life is just so much simpler. I am able to get away from all my troubles and just be in the moment."

Well intentioned teachers, careers officers and supporters tried to push Tom away from his cycling ambitions into more mainstream work opportunities. In relecting on his own up-bringing Tom had this to say to any young deaf youngsters. "If you like something enough, want it enough, it doesn't matter what barriers or hurdles are put in your place. You do it, go for it, and don't let anyone tell you differently."

Deafness comes to people in lots of different ways, and I asked Tom if he knew why he was deaf. He explained that about 5 years ago he had undergone some DNA tests and it had been established that in his case it was hereditary. His grandfather was Deaf, and it had simply been a case of that particular gene skipping a generation. 

You can find out more about Tom Smith and keep track of his progress by going to his website at http://tomsmiffy.wordpress.com

Article by Sarah Lawrence

posted in Deaf Sport / Deaf Sports Stars

22nd October 2013