Evan Smith’s plans for the final weeks of his senior year changed in an instant.
At about 2 a.m. April 8, the driver of an oncoming car crossed into Smith’s lane as he was driving from his hometown of Lawrence back to Ottawa. He was only about a mile away on Old US 59 when the car collided with his vehicle head-on, he remembered.
“It was really, really scary,” Smith said.
With agonizing pain shooting through his back, he knew immediately something was wrong.
“Right as we collided with the other driver, I knew something in my back was broken because it was just extreme pain,” Smith said. “Nothing else really rivals it.”
Despite the pain, Smith avoided a life-altering fracture in is back. He broke his first lumbar vertebrae, but it did not break all the way through, he said. However, the road to recovery would not be short or easy, and the possibility of finishing his track and field career at Ottawa University the way he had planned was no longer an option.
Smith was a senior cross country/track and field athlete for the Braves at the time of the wreck, and set to run the 5,000-meter race in the coming Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference Championships. Before he could think about running anything, just standing on his own two feet again became a priority.
After getting two rods and eight screws put into his back, Smith was at Ransom Memorial Health in Ottawa for six days recovering.
“The first three days after surgery was just trying to get me to stand up,” Smith said. “I had been lying down on my back since the wreck for three or four days and even sitting up made me woozy and seem like the room was spinning.”
Smith walked for the first time that Tuesday with a walker and a back brace, he said, able to make it out of his room about 15 feet to a window and 15 feet back before getting back into bed, exhausted. But each day was easier with progress. The next day he walked 1,000 feet, and the day following he practiced going up stairs with handrails, getting in and out of the shower and grabbing a five-pound pan so he could make his own food.
“They wanted me to get out of there as fast as possible,” Smith said. “As soon as I had pain that really bothered me or altered my walk, they cut me off.”
After six days, he was out of the hospital, and had the drive to end his collegiate career on a high note.
“He actually walked into practice with his walker a few weeks ago and the team was just so thrilled to see him,” Jim Whittaker, OU head track and field coach, said. “Everybody was hugging him and just so happy for him. That is when he approached me about entering him in the 100-meter [dash] at conference. At first, I honestly thought he was joking. He said, ‘I want to be on the track one more time.’
“Evan is probably the hardest working kid I’ve ever met since I’ve been a head coach. He was also in the best shape of his life [before the wreck]. He got sixth place in our indoor 1,500 [meter run] conference meet, and you would have thought he won the way he came through the finish line with his hands in the air, and as surprised as he was to see the time he ran. Everything was just starting to come together for him.”
Whittaker sent emails out to all of the KCAC track and field coaches letting them know of the plan for Smith to run the 100-meter at the May 4 conference championship meet in Wichita. He got nothing but support back from his colleagues, he said.
And so the stage was set. That day, Smith lined up against his fellow KCAC competitors — including teammate Peyton Hajok, who was in the same heat — with plans to run the 100 meters at a slow pace to cap off his senior season. The gun went off, and Smith received rousing support from his coaches, teammates, friends and family. Hajok bypassed the race to run by Smith’s side.
“It was a surprise because he had just got done with the open 400-meter dash, and he was looking super beat up afterwards,” Smith said. “I knew he was in the 100, and I knew he was in my heat. I told him before even before the 400, I said, ‘Hey man, since I’m not going to win the 100, you better go out and win the 100.’ So, I expected him to explode out of the blocks and compete, but when I saw out of the corner of my eye him jump out of the blocks and run with me, it was awesome. I thanked him afterwards. He’s supported me all season long, along with the other athletes and my other friends on the team.”
Smith’s official time was 30.70 seconds, but it was the opportunity to run one more time that made the moment.
“I just wanted to represent the university one more time, and represent the people who made my dream of running collegiately come true,” Smith said. “I’m extremely blessed.”
That wasn’t the end of Smith’s journey. On May 5, he walked across the stage at OU’s graduation commencement, a moment he said was one of the greatest in his life.
“I was just so happy that I was able to walk without my walker or back brace from the library to the chapel and sit through the speeches and master’s candidates,” he said. “Just being able to walk across the stage and shake Chancellor Eichner’s hand without any assistance was the greatest feeling. I had a lot of support from the student body there at Ottawa and my fellow classmates. The faculty and even some of the parents were cheering me on.”
Now that his work is completed at OU, Smith said he is doing physical therapy three times a week and eyeing a hopeful return to running in the long-term. He is on a weight restriction where he is not supposed to lift more than 20 to 25 pounds while the therapy focuses on strengthening the muscles around his spine, he said. His bone should be fully healed in six to eight weeks, Smith said, but to get back to running 60 to 65 miles per week, the recovery time will be about 10 to 11 months in order to get back to the cardiovascular shape without any pain.
“I figure it would be really, really cool if I was able to do something like a marathon at the end of next summer,” Smith said. “I’m trying to stay positive and hopeful, but there are some days where I wake up in quite a bit of pain and even rolling out of bed hurts my back. There are some days where I feel like I’m not going to be able to run like the way I could again, or run as far as I want to again. But, I’ve always had a positive mindset in trying to go for it and improving everything I can. Hopefully in 11 months I’ll be able to run well again, but only time will tell.”
In all, Smith made sure to note he wouldn’t have been able to get to where he is now without his support system of family, friends, coaches, teammates and the teaching staff at OU.