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Edison's Smith keeps on pushing through
IRVINE – Edison freshman swimmer Thomas Smith loves being on a team. He enjoys competing, encouraging his friends and the process it takes to succeed.
Smith, 14, takes so much pride in it all, he decided to keep a troubling secret from his teammates on one of the nation's most promising young relays.
This past fall, Smith and his club teammates on the Irvine Aquazot were aiming to break a national age-group record relay record. But as the race in December approach, Smith didn't share the news he had recently received.
"I didn't want my teammates to know about it," he recalled, "because I knew that hearing about their friend having something ... could really mentally throw them off."
Smith also didn't want to be the center of attention. The team mattered more.
A STRONG TEAM
Smith and his teammates arrived at the California-Nevada sectional meet at Golden West College in December with the goal of sinking the U.S. national age-group record in the 400-yard medley relay.
The time to beat in the 13-14 age-group was 3 minutes, 33.95 from 2009.
Smith, the backstroker on the team, joined forces with breaststroker Tyler Lin of Corona del Mar, butterflier Justin Hanson of Corona del Mar and freestyler Matthew Wong of University.
And when it came time to race, the foursome didn't just break the record. They each delivered lifetime-best splits to smash the record.
The Aquazot's quartet blasted a 3:29.45 to sink the record by 41/2 seconds.
What's more, the previous record belonged to a Maryland relay that included rising U.S. teen star Jack Conger.
Smith, Lin, Hanson and Wong have each become a strong varsity high school swimmer this spring.
And in a club meet in March, Smith validated his national standing by clocking the fastest times in the nation so far this season for 14-year-old boys in the 100 and 200-meter backstroke.
But his story doesn't end with the record-setting relay.
About a month before helping Aquazot set the national record, the ultra-fit Smith learned that he has bone cancer in his left knee.
Smith and his family had been monitoring the knee on and off for a few years.
As a 9 or 10-year-old, Smith noticed a bump on the top of his knee that he believed was a bruise. But while the bump was painless it also didn't fade away.
It grew, and became large enough that Smith had it examined.
The 5-foot-11 Smith said as he grows, so does the cancer in the knee. There's also a chance his leg could be amputated in the future.
"If I grow a lot in the next couple years, and it (the cancer) grows a lot, then it might be (amputated)," said Smith, whose brother, senior swimmer Josh Smith, is 6-foot-3. "It's one of those things where we'll see what happens and go from there."
As Smith prepared for the Aquazot's record-breaking relay, he focused on being positive.
"I knew that if I stayed focused on swimming and not on the negative that was going on at the time, that I could still be part of the team and set a record," he said. "I'm just blessed to be able to swim."
Smith said Aquazot coach Todd Hickman helped craft his attitude. "He said, 'You still need to be the same person you were yesterday. You can't let this change who you are,' " Smith said.
In the final minutes before their record-setting relay, Smith said he and his teammates weren't nervous.
"None of us were really nervous," he said. "There were the normal nerves you get before a race but it was like any other race because we had been trained by our coaches. ... We knew what we had to do."
A few weeks after the race, Smith finally told his teammates that he had cancer. Smith showed the type of maturity that his brother has noticed in recent months.
"(He) realizes that this may be one of his last races," Josh Smith said of his brother's approach to swimming. "I see that mentality throughout each of his races."
Josh Smith clears his throat.
"The whole story is inspiring to me," he said. "I could think the same way. 'What if this is my last race?' You might as well leave it all in the pool."
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