In Los Angeles, California, Katie Smith eases her kayak to the start line. Ahead of her, a 200 metre sprint. Alongside her, the best international paddlers over the distance. The tension is palpable. The gun cracks. Paddles dip. The crowd roars and Katie noses home in second place. It’s an Olympic silver medal. The achievement of a lifetime. The tears flow. The podium beckons.
Katie has Downs syndrome and this is the Special Olympics, where over 7000 athletes from 177 countries go head to head. I was curious to catch up with Katie to find out what makes her tick.
Congratulations on the silver Katie. Can you tell me what it felt like to be on the podium?
I was absolutely delighted. It took a lot of effort – a lot of training, the support of all those people round me for which I am so grateful. I’ve won a lot of races, and went to the last Special Olympics in Shanghai but this was extra special.
How much training do you do?
I get on the river once a week in the summer with a group called All Ages All Abilities and I train in the gym in the winter. On top of that I go the national watersports centre in Nottingham once a month to race. Because we have such diverse disabilities, we race against ourselves, trying to beat our PBs [personal bests.] It’s not a lot compared to the professionals but then of course, Special Olympians aren’t pros and we need support to get places. We all do as much as we can. I rely heavily on my parents to drive me around and sometimes Dimensions – my support provider – helps out too.
Why did you pick kayaking?
With my disability, walking can be difficult but my upper body is strong. I was introduced to kayaking through the Guides – which I am still active in – and I did my kayaking badge. I loved it, I found a regular group to go with and it went from there really.
It’s not all been plain sailing though. I did capsize once when my hat fell over my eyes and I hit a tree growing out of the riverbank! Fortunately, I could swim…
Thank goodness! So the Guides were critical?
Yes. I’ve spent 20 years in the Guides and am a Queen’s Guide. The Guides encouraged me to get active and get involved. Along with my parents, they helped me believe that I could do anything I wanted – that I didn’t have to be limited by my disability. I like to think I’ve stuck to that belief ever since.
Sounds interesting. Tell me more.
Well, within the Guides I am an adult leader. That means I help out with all the day to day activities of my unit. Beyond Guides, I am the deputy chair of my local PHAB – Physically Handicapped and Able Bodied group – which is a mixed group of people that get together for things like dancing and nights out. I’m also involved with Causeway, a group where people with learning disabilities get together to support each other and to sing and pray. And I spent a few years training with St John Ambulance.
Friendships are really important to me. I’ve found mine through kayaking and also through groups like these. And I suppose I’ve been lucky – I have many friends with and without learning disabilities. Not everyone can say that.
And I’ve met some famous people too. I was introduced to Gary Lineker, Sue Barker and even Zara Philips at the Sports Personality of the Year Awards after the last Special Olympics – they all seem very supportive of the Special Olympics movement.
It’s amazing that you can fit it all in! Do you work as well?
I certainly do. I’m a breakfast assistant with Holiday Inn. I’ve been there for six years now and they’ve been really supportive of me. I do the same job for the same money as other breakfast assistants. They say, and do, the right things.
Tell me a bit about the support you need for your learning disability
I’ve been living independently since 2008 which is great. But I particularly need help with a range of life skills. Cooking, cleaning, shopping, that sort of thing. I’ve been allocated a few hours each week by my local authority and the support is provided by Dimensions. Over the years I’ve had a number of different staff but they’ve all been good. Some have been there for the long term as well, which is brilliant.
Beyond house work, my main support need is getting around – going to my training and groups. And my parents have been so supportive in that.
It sounds like their support helps you live your life to the full. What’s next for Katie Smith?
Well, next year is about consolidation really. There’s no major championships other than the Nationals. So, my focus is switching. Sport has changed my life and I think it can help other people too. I want to promote the Special Olympics. To try and get more people with learning disabilities involved in competitive sport and active in their communities. I’m giving some talks and interviews like this one to help with that.
That’s an important role. What advice would you give to other people looking to get into sports?
Life is what you make it. Get involved, take part, do your best. No-one can ask for more than that. Sadly a cataract operation is stopping me from joining in – so good luck everyone.
Thank you Katie