Smutz is getting back in the swim

June 29, 2008|By RICK MAESE

Whether it's on the medal stand or on the starting blocks, the movement is nearly the same. The long athlete bends over, head deliberately bowed - ready for a medal or ready for the water.

We're trained to celebrate the victors at race's end, but sometimes our champions are just as easy to spot before the clock starts rolling and before anyone has splashed into the pool.

The last time the nation's top swimmers gathered to select an Olympic team, Joseph Smutz was in a hospital bed, a neck brace holding his head - his entire life, for that matter - steady.

"If someone would've told me then that I'd be here today, I would've laughed at them," says Smutz, a Marriottsville native and Naval Academy graduate.

This week, Smutz will join elite swimmers such as Michael Phelps and Katie Hoff in Omaha, Neb., for the U.S. Olympic swimming trials. Smutz, 24, is competing in the 50- and 100-meter freestyle events. No, Smutz is not a favorite to win either - Phelps brings the top qualifying time into the 100 free - but as I said, success and victory aren't reserved solely for the first competitor to the wall.

Up on the starting blocks this week, you can still see a tiny reminder. Under his chin, near a crease in Smutz's neck, there's a 2 1/2 -inch scar. That's where doctors dug in, where they removed his broken C-3 vertebra and replaced it with one from a cadaver, everything held together by a metal plate and four screws.

Smutz stands 6 feet 8, but he has always been tall. He was 22 1/2 inches at birth, in fact, and at his one-week checkup, he had already grown to 27 inches.

"He was my first and only child. I just thought they all outgrow those onesies that quick," Regina Smutz says.

His mother is a swimming instructor and introduced her son to the water almost immediately. She taught a toddler class and used Smutz as her demonstration baby. While many of the swimmers at this week's trials grew up in a pool - their lives focused on the black line below them - Smutz was busy on basketball courts and lacrosse, soccer and football fields.

Midway through high school at Loyola, Smutz's mother forced him to try out for the water polo team. Smutz took instantly to the sport - and the sport eventually took him to an appointment at the Naval Academy.

It wasn't until his sophomore year at the academy that his coach urged Smutz to join the swim team. It would be good training, he was told.

His future looking bright in both sports, Smutz was in the midst of summer classes when he took weekend leave in July 2004 for a trip to Virginia Beach, Va. Smutz and his buddies were leaping into waves. Smutz had his sights set on a wave when another clipped his knees. Smutz went headfirst into a sandbar just below the surface.

"I went into instant shock," Smutz says. "I was weak. It felt like I was dumped in an ice bath - an intense prickling sensation throughout my entire body."

His friends helped him to the shore, stabilized his neck and used surfboards as a barrier that kept the water away. When the paramedics arrived, they started asking Smutz questions: How old are you? Where are you? What's the date? The only one he got right was naming the president.

As Smutz was raced to the hospital, his parents' phone rang. They were 4 1/2 hours away but wasted no time getting to Virginia. (Huber Smutz, Joseph's dad, was pulled over for speeding, in fact.) Prayer circles began lighting up as the extent of Smutz's injury came into focus. The C-3 vertebra was broken in two directions. Shards of bone were less than 5 millimeters from his spinal cord. He had feeling in fingers and toes, but one bad twitch could mean his entire life would be spent in a wheelchair.

The next morning, before surgery, Smutz signed a waiver that outlined the risks and possible consequences, from paralysis to infection to death. Smutz's mother sought out the neurosurgeon. "I just knew in my heart that what I needed to do was put my hands on her and pray," Regina says.

Turns out, before entering the world of medicine, Dr. Cynthia Piccirilli spent two years preparing and training for a life in the church. Suffice it to say, Regina isn't surprised that after a 6 1/2 -hour surgery, her son gingerly walked from his hospital bed that night to the window of his room and watched the Fourth of July fireworks explode outside.

And she isn't really surprised that her son recovered so quickly, wore a neck brace for 3 1/2 months and returned to the water in October 2004.

Rejoining the water polo team posed too steep a risk, and Smutz focused his efforts on the swim team. In 2006, Smutz became the academy's first men's swimmer to win the prestigious Thompson Trophy Cup, presented annually to the midshipman to have done the most to promote Navy athletics.

During his senior year, Smutz qualified for the Olympic trials in the 50-meter freestyle.

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