Life’s hurdles

  • Jennifer Aaby<br>Enterprise writer
  • Monday, March 3, 2008 6:39am

LYNNWOOD — Rain or shine, Evan Smith’s love of running draws him to the track.

As an experienced runner, he competed in track and cross country while in college. He also completed the Olympic trials and ran with the Snohomish Track Club.

These days his involvement differs.

Although multiple sclerosis limits him to a wheelchair, his love for the sport knows no bounds.

Smith, a Richmond Beach resident, is an assistant coach for Meadowdale Middle School’s track team and has been involved in the school’s track program for two years. Before that, he coached at Einstein Middle School and Shorewood High School in Shoreline as well as at colleges around the country.

Love of the sport

Smith works with students in many events at Meadowdale, but his love has always been running long distances. As a competitor, Smith set school records while an undergraduate at Whitman College. Some of these records still stand today.

Smith’s 2-mile time of 9 minutes, 21.8 seconds in 1966 at the Northwest Conference Championships remains a school record at Whitman, as does his team’s medley distance relay record of 10:23.7, set in 1967. While these events are now called the 3,200 meter and the 3,200-meter relay, the records remain, said Dave Holden, the sports information director at Whitman.

Smith’s daughter, Ellen, 22, grew up listening to her father’s stories about running.

He coached her while at Einstein and Shorewood, and followed her progress as she continued to compete in the hurdles and long jump while at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif.

Ellen Smith said she can tell a difference in her father’s voice when it is track season. When she called home from California, the two would chat about all sorts of things –- but mostly about track.

“Track puts him in a great mood,” Ellen Smith said.

After receiving his bachelor’s degree from Whitman, Evan Smith attended the journalism school at the University of Oregon, where he trained with the legendary Steve Prefontaine.

The running community is something he has been and continues to be a part of, Ellen Smith said.

Ellen Smith said she thinks her father is more well-known than most would expect. Her track coach at Pomona knew of him and was eager to meet him.

“I think he was a lot better than he lets on,” she said.

Love of the students

As a coach, Evan Smith is always encouraging and supportive, said eighth-grader Kristy Nguyen, of Meadowdale Middle School.

“He’s very determined,” Nguyen said. “He doesn’t give up on us.”

Fellow eighth-grader Allen Wong agrees.

“He helps me out a lot,” Wong said. “He cares a lot about the team.”

The supportive and welcoming side of Smith is part of what makes him a great coach, said Meadowdale Middle School coach Dan Taylor.

Coaches can be known as being unapproachable, but Smith is just the opposite, Taylor said.

“The kids know they can come up to him and ask him questions,” he said.

Ellen Smith said no matter how well the students compete, her father is always proud of them. She said he enjoys sharing stories when his middle-school students succeed just as much as he likes talking about his coaching days at the college level.

“He loves track, but he also loves the kids,” she said.

Evan Smith was a teacher after he graduated from Whitman and before he attended the journalism school at Oregon. Although his career ultimately focused on journalism, his passion for teaching– and coaching – was a mainstay as well.

He taught and coached at a number of institutions, including the University of Alaska, Southern Illinois University and Kent State. Along the way, he also earned a law degree from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.

Smith said he hopes he is guiding his students to become life-long runners.

“I always hope these kids – 30 years from now – will be running in the over-40 races,” he said.

He said he enjoys spending his time with the students and watching them grow and succeed.

“You want to do what is in the long-term best interests of the kids,” Smith said.

Knowing no bounds

Evan Smith has been in a wheelchair for the past 10 years or so. His struggle with multiple sclerosis – a disease in the brain or the spinal cord that’s associated with partial or complete paralysis – began almost 30 years ago, when he started losing the feeling in his fingers and legs intermittently.

He was first told in the late ’70s he might have MS, but that it wouldn’t affect his life.

Now, there are medicines that could have curbed the onset of symptoms, he said.

“If those medicines had been available 10 years earlier, I might still be walking around,” Smith said.

Physical limitations are not stopping him.

Ellen Smith said her father is the king of useless trivia, and he enjoys reading three newspapers every day. He contributes his views as the Forum editor for The Enterprise.

And because of his experience and knowledge of track, he’s also a great coach, Taylor said.

Although he can no longer demonstrate the techniques, he verbally explains the movements required when coaching the students.

“He’s very clear and precise,” Taylor said.

Ellen Smith said she thinks it’s a good experience for the middle-school students to work with someone with a disability.

“I think it’s great for a lot of kids who’ve never known someone in a wheelchair,” she said.

She said her first track memory was when she participated in a summer camp while in elementary school. She was competing in a hurdling race, and she fell part way through.

Using a cane, Evan Smith made his way out on the track to encourage his daughter to finish the race.

“To see him come out and struggle gave me a lot of courage to finish the race,” Ellen Smith said.

While she was able to share many memories from track with him throughout the years, this is a memory that stands out to Ellen Smith.

“He fostered my love for track,” she said.

What began with his daughter a decade ago continues with students around the area today.

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