Adaptive U.S. Army Major Finds Rowing to Aid Recovery

After spending 23 years serving her country in the United States Army, Major Tia Smith was looking forward to retirement and spending more time on the basketball court through intramural leagues and 3-on-3 pickup games.

But those plans took a devastating turn just six months before her planned discharge from the military.

In December 2015, Smith was diagnosed with an arterial blood clot and after a series of unsuccessful surgeries, her doctors determined her left leg would need to be amputated above the knee. News the lifelong athlete had a difficult time initially accepting.

“It is something that no one can prepare you for,” said Smith, who did a tour of duty in Iraq and was stationed in South Korea for a time. “But I was in good care and had tremendous support from my family members.”

During the long months of rehabilitations at the VA hospital, her physical therapist started discussing possible alternative sports options with Tia as a way to stay active and satisfy her competitive nature.

“My physical therapist Debbie Fitch really helped me envision what I could do,” Smith explained to USRowing. “She gave me a lot of information about athletic alternatives for adaptive sports.”

But it wasn’t until attending the 2016 Valor Games, the VA-support Paralympic competition for disabled and wounded services members, that Tia saw the possibilities for her in rowing. Deb Arenberg from USRowing introduced the adaptive rowing program to Smith at that event and felt she would be a natural in the sport.

Smith required a little more convincing.

“No water sport was in my periphery at all,” Smith said with a laugh. “After this occurred, I was at a loss but I knew I wanted to do something.”

This weekend at the 2017 San Diego Crew Classic marked Smith’s first regatta as she and other military members competed in the Freedom Rows race. Freedom Rows is a program offered by USRowing through a grant from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to promote the benefits of the sports to disabled veterans and members of the armed services.

“Initially, I thought it was going to be an all-out bloody race but I appreciated it not being that,” Smith joked following her first Crew Classic race. “The purpose of his exhibition is to gain experience, especially for a novice like me, and to experience what the venues are like and what the expectations are like.”

“The difference between the Freedom Rows racers and the other crews here is most of them have been rowing together for quite some time so they’ve developed as a team,” continued the Northern California resident. “Most of us on the Freedom Rows teams just met each other yesterday and never rowed together so that can make for a rocky row.”

With the first race under her belt, the ever-determined Smith now has her sights on a much bigger goal. A goal she shares with most of the rowers who competed at the 2017 San Diego Crew Classic, to make the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic team.

“That is my long-term goal,” said Smith. “As soon as I got introduced to rowing and found I had a niche, I looked at it as an opportunity for me to get in the gate for the 2020 Paralympics.”

Only time will tell whether Tia will be a member of the 2020 United States Paralympic Team but one thing is certain, Smith is going to continue to train and is committed to returning to San Diego in the spring of 2018 to compete in the Freedom Rows race at the Crew Classic.

“This is done annually and as I get more experience I will continue to come here to do the exhibition races to support the Freedom Rows program,” she concluded.

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