Lessons From a Thirteen Year Old

How to thrive in these uncertain times

Leah Smith

On my office wall I’ve always kept a sketch that never fails to encourage me when I’m feeling down. It depicts a large duck who’s almost devoured a small frog. All that’s left of the frog is a tiny pair of flailing legs that are about to disappear down the bird’s throat. But on second glance you notice that the frog’s tiny webbed fingers are doggedly strangling that big bird’s throat — next to which is a caption that reads: “Never Give Up!”

Right next to that drawing I’ve now added a picture of a little girl named Leah Smith to constantly remind me that, whatever your circumstance, winning the game of life requires but two simple elements: working hard and never giving up. So whether you’ve got the holiday doldrums or, like me, the election blues, we can all take a lesson from Leah’s story.

From the time she was 6 years old, Leah knew that she wanted to be an Olympic gymnast. That meant spending the next 7 years progressing through 9 levels of Junior Olympic competitions, grueling gym training, countless qualifying competitions and, then, repeat. At age 9, she’d already skipped two qualifying levels and was training at Level 7.

At 11 years old Leah was on a roll and dreaming about the Pre-Elite training she’d start once she completed Junior Olympics. She was now working with Olympic producing coaches, training over 30 hours a week year round and, to avoid all distractions, being schooled at home. Then, unexpectedly, her world started to turn upside down. She was beset by a gnawing back pain, one that she recognized as different from the chronic pain that athletes like her grow accustomed to. X rays couldn’t identify it and ice packs, massage therapy and Motrin couldn’t alleviate it. Last August, after a successful Level 8 competition season and shortly after turning 12, she learned the source of her pain — she had broken her back.

Despite her anguish at what she saw as the unfairness and inexplicability of her plight, remarkably, Leah decided to press on to the Level 9 competition season.

Following 6 weeks in a brace, 3 months of physical therapy and daily conditioning at the gym, she had only two weeks to train. With a green light from her doctors, and undeterred by a broken toe that made entering the State Competition impossible, Leah completed her Level 9 season, where she won the title of Vault Champion at all five of her meets, finished 1st on Vault and 2nd All Around at the Regional Competition and finished 1st on Vault and 5th All Around at the Western National Competition — broken back and all.

Her Level 9 Championship titles were now in the rear view mirror and she’d just qualified for the Pre- Elite training she’d spent half of her life preparing for. She felt invincible.

But her well-deserved elation was short-lived. Her therapy, discipline and determination had all paid off but the debilitating back pain had returned. New treatments from a new doctor weren’t helping and training was now impossible. To stay in shape, she tried diving and then swimming, but to no avail. For her, it was gymnastics or nothing.

At age 12, when her peers’ most pressing dilemma was how to cope with acne, Leah made the hardest decision of her young life. Instead of proceeding to Pre-Elite training, on August 31 she underwent back surgery that may change her path forever. She’s now got 2 rods and 4 screws stabilizing her back and she’s half way through an 8 months recovery period. The doctors say that if all goes well she can still be a gymnast.

But whatever the outcome of the surgery, I’m betting on Leah to succeed on whatever path life leads her on, because she’s already proven that she’s got what it takes not just to survive, but to thrive. Her story was a gift to me just when I needed to hear it and I hope it’s the same for you. No matter what’s going on in this uncertain world, it’s 2017, so let’s snap out of it, press on and fear nada!!

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