With the crowd roaring, Thomas Smith steps into position under the barbell, with 380 pounds loaded on, at the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games in New Jersey. His parents, aunts, uncles and coaches all sit in the crowd, cheering him on.
He grabs hold of the bar, and awaits the directions to begin the lift. Smith gets the go-ahead from the judge, and with force and power lifts the bar up to his waist. The crowd, which had quieted down for the start of lift, gets louder as he raises the bar higher and higher.
Smith finished the movement, and as he sets the bar on the ground, a smile of relief spreads across his face as the announcer proclaims that be beat his personal record.
“It was absolutely fabulous,” his father, Ralph Smith, said. “He came in fourth, in his first competition like that, and he was the youngest. It was a great, great competition.”
Smith began participating in Special Olympics Maryland in Howard County at nine-years-old, first with track and field and later with powerlifting.
He was born in New Jersey and was diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder, which is now part of the Autism spectrum, and seizure disorder when he was two-and-a-half years old. When he was nine-years-old, the family decided to move to Jessup, Maryland.
“The schools up North in Jersey, they put kids no matter how severe you are in one big room and they leave you there,” Ralph Smith said. “In Howard County, it’s absolutely fabulous. It was like night and day the school system, that’s why we stayed in Howard County.”
Smith attended Marriott Ridge High School, where he excelled. He was a member of the track and field team, and earned the Coach’s award and the Eqqus Award, which is given to six outstanding members of the senior class. In addition, the track and field team established the Thomas Smith Spirit Award in his honor.
He said his favorite memory of high school didn’t come on the track, but rather in the halls during spirit week.
“On twin day, me and the principle dressed up in orange hair and were men in black,” Smith said.
The principal and him have stayed in touch since his graduation in 2011. Smith now works at Weis Market, where he works in various departments including check out, flowers and the bakery, which he said is his favorite job.
He also practices four times a week, two times each for track and field and powerlifting. Smith said the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games was his favorite competition, but track and field is his favorite sport. He competes in shot put and javelin and occasionally some relays, but because of a foot injury he won’t be competing in any running events this summer.
Smith is also now a global messenger, and at the age of 23 is one of the youngest.
“This is my first year doing this,” he said. “Global messenger is when someone goes out to speak to people in public about Special Olympics. I talk about the sports I do. It makes me happy and is a lot of fun.”
Among the many accomplishes and opportunities he has earned, Smith got to light the torch at the 2012 Special Olympic Maryland Summer Games opening ceremony and travel to Annapolis to meet with a senator.
His mother, Lavonne Smith, is a sports coordinator in Howard County for Special Olympics Maryland for both basketball and athletics.
“It has been awesome to be involved and be present to watch him being coached,” Lavonne Smith said. “We have been blessed with some awesome, devoted individuals who work very hard at encouraging our athletes to do their best.”
Before he began Special Olympics, Ralph Smith said he would have described his child as shy. Now, he has a bubbly personality and a whole long list of friends, including Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, with whom he regularly has contact with. The two met at the 2009 Special Olympics Maryland Summer Games, before Flacco had even taken a snap for the Ravens.
“I was nervous before I go up the stage to meet him,” Smith said.
Ralph Smith said the impact of the program has been bigger than they could have imagine, and Smith’s personality and people skills have improved significantly.
“He was very shy when he was younger,” he said. “His whole life is geared around Special Olympics. It’s something every special needs child should do. You get involved with different people and there is always something to do.”
Lavonne Smith said her son enjoys participating in Special Olympics Maryland, regardless of whether he wins a medal or not.
“Special Olympics has given him great confidence and willingness to try hard and do his best,” Lavonne Smith said. “He takes a great deal of pride in his sports and wants everyone to be proud of him for his efforts.”
Smith is a basketball volunteer, and stopped playing the sport in order to help other athletes. He said his goal is to eventually become a Special Olympics coach and to make it to the World Special Olympic games.
“Special Olympics is a lot of fun to meet new people,” Smith said. “It’s good to meet new people. It takes teamwork and friendship. It’s a lot of fun.”
This article was written by Special Olympics Maryland