It’s been a while since she’s seen it, but Sarah Cira can still picture the turtle on the back of her father’s leg pumping in time with the bicycle pedals.
Perhaps an odd tattoo choice for a World Champion triathlete, but the turtle has followed Steve “Steve-O” Smith, a retired South Bend Adams High School teacher and swim coach, through a long and illustrious career.
Plus, the tattoo echoed his personal motto: “Always be the fastest turtle in the race.”
And for 30 years, Smith was.
He began his multi-sport venture in the early 1980s, grinding through races until he became one of the most decorated triathletes in his age group. His trophy room is peppered with tokens from 250 competitions, notably a dozen Kona Ironman World Championships and seven consecutive USA Triathlon National Championship titles.
Barron Lake TriathlonWhen:
8 a.m. Aug. 30.Where:
Howard Township Fire Department, 2681 Detroit Road, Niles, Mich.What:
Olympic (1500 meter swim, 40K bike, 10K run) and Sprint (200 yard swim, 8.3 mile bike, 2.5 mile run) races benefiting Racing for Steve-O
$55 for Olympic, $85 for Olympic Team, $45 for Sprint, $75 for Sprint Team. Online registration available through Aug. 27. Onsite registration available Aug. 29.
For more information, visit www.barronlaketri.com.
“Growing up, it was the norm,” Cira, a Penn High School graduate, said. “I didn’t really understand the scope of how good he was and how amazing he was until I became an adult and experienced for myself how difficult it was to compete at that level.”
While preparing to qualify for his 13th Kona Ironman, Smith’s storied career came to a grinding halt.
On April 24, 2012, Smith, now 66, was diagnosed with Glioblastoma, an inoperable brain tumor that typically carries a 15-month life expectancy.
Smith has been battling his cancer for nearly 26 months.
Paying it forward
After hearing of his diagnosis, a few of Smith’s training partners kickstarted the Racing for Steve-O foundation. They began collecting donations and selling wristbands and red ’Steve-O’ t-shirts.
But instead of using the donations for treatment, Smith wanted the foundation to focus on getting Michiana special needs children involved in athletics.
During his Indiana Swimming & Diving Hall of Fame career at Adams, Smith coached a handful of special needs swimmers. He also helped out with the special education program, which Cira said was his favorite class to teach.
“I think he just had a soft spot in his heart for these kids,” Cira said. “He wanted something positive to come out of his illness.”
The Racing for Steve-O foundation is still in its early stages, but it already has plans to provide scholarships for special needs athletes to participate in recreational activities such as Reins of Life, Camp Millhouse and the Special Olympics.
Because Smith’s illness made him unable to speak to The Elkhart Truth, his wife, Roxie, relayed his comments through email.
“He says he enjoyed coaching special needs kids, as they worked hard and never quit (that represents Steve's philosophy, too, I believe),” Roxie Smith wrote. “Brian Hendricks was a ’special’ swimmer on his Adams team with Downs (Syndrome). He worked hard and also pulled the the team together. When Brian swam an event, he gave it his all. He might have finished last, but his team was on its feet cheering him on — as well as the opposing team cheering him on.”
Hendricks visited Smith after his former coach’s diagnosis, handing him the Special Olympics medal he earned.
The medal now hangs in a special place among Smith’s Ironman trophies.
A fitting tribute
The turtle on Smith’s leg may have run, swam and biked its last race, but the turtle on hundreds of ’Steve-O’ t-shirts have eagerly picked up the reins.
Cira met with local race organizers and struck a partnership for the first-ever Barron Lake Triathlon. Held Aug. 30 in Niles, Mich., the triathlon will benefit the Racing for Steve-O foundation.
“I've heard it's the race of the year,” Cira said. “So many people plan on doing it. Nationwide, I know there are people coming out of state.”
Smith was immediately on board, telling his daughter that he hopes to be there to compete.
“That's kind of been his driving force,” she said. “He's outlived that normal expectations for this type of cancer. He's a very determined guy.”
Smith’s health has recently taken a turn for the worse. Steve and Roxie Smith currently live in Florida, but family and friends scrambled to collect $10,000 for the Grace on Wings charity air ambulance to fly him back to Michiana.
He’ll be home by Father’s Day, June 15.
He’s still determined to see the race, though, even if he can no longer participate in it. He’ll watch hundreds of people competing in the race he loves, raising money for the cause he loves.
“If he says he’s gonna be there, he's going to be there,” Cira said. “This may be what's been keeping him going for so long.”
For those hoping to tackle their first triathlon, Smith has some advice to pass along.
“Triathlon is about fitness, health and friends for life,” Roxie Smith wrote on behalf of Steve. “Beginners will learn that you have to train for it. It takes effort. Call for advice and learn from other triathletes. Train with people better and faster than you (Thus the idea of the Hare and the Tortoise).
“Slow and steady does it.”