To Lee’s Summit West and the local high-school swimming scene, Sam Smith is “Superman Sam,” a red-headed 15-year old sophomore courageously staring down cancer for a second time.
Sometimes, though, even super heroes need super heroes. And Smith has them in droves. When the word got out that Smith’s cancer had returned, and that his family was struggling financially, the outpouring of love and support – even from rival swim teams – was nothing short of staggering.
“It’s kind of weird,” Smith said. “No one sees themselves as inspiring others or being someone else’s hero. People embrace me and say I’m really inspirational to them.”
Smith has osteosarcoma – a cancer of the bone which usually develops in rapidly growing teenagers. He broke his leg playing football in the eighth grade and when the cast came off, an extra growth was found in the bone.
A biopsy in February 2012 confirmed it was osteosarcoma. After 12 rounds of chemotherapy and surgery, Smith was declared cancer-free last June and started training with the Titans for the upcoming swimming season.
But September brought devastating news: The cancer had returned and spread to his lungs.
“The hardest part for him and for me was that he had already overcome the cancer once,” Lee’s Summit West swim coach Colleen Gibler said. “He had just built himself back to strength and a varsity level. I don’t think (his reaction to) the cancer diagnosis had anything to do with swimming. The hard part was he had just got back to health and feeling strong.”
The cancer’s return brought Smith back to the routine of chemotherapy and trips to the doctor. It didn’t, however, keep him out of the pool. Despite all the treatments, Smith made most of the Titans’ meets, even the Suburban Conference meet.
“I kind of do it not only to get better at swimming, but I want my body to be healthy and ready for all the chemo and surgeries,” Smith said. “Sometimes I think about it too much while I’m swimming but then there are times where the guys on the team help me get my mind off of it.”
Soon other teams became inspired by Smith’s determination, most notably conference rival Blue Springs South. When the two teams competed in a meet early in the season, Blue Springs South coach Errich Oberlander asked how his Jaguars could be of help.
It just so happened that Gibler had compiled a list that day, one she put together with the help of Smith’s family.
“They saw him swimming and asked what they could do to support this kid,” Gibler said. “So I said his mom actually just gave me a list. They asked for the list and it was incredible what they did.”
What the Blue Springs South swimmers did was raise thousands of dollars in cash and gift cards for Smith and his family, which have struggled under the weight of medical bills. They also got a local auto dealership to donate a much-needed second car.
“My brother needs it to get my sister around,” said Smith, who says the car will be his when he turns 16. “We needed an extra car to get me to the hospital and stuff.”
But the giving didn’t end there. Other swim teams raised money, too, and he also received tickets to Chiefs and Missouri basketball games. Students at Lee’s Summit West sold T-shirts, and the Titans held a fundraiser during the team’s senior night.
“It was just cool to see all the high schools team up with us,” said Ben Peterson, a LSW senior and member of the swim team. “Obviously we’re all competitors when it comes to swimming, yet that all seems so little when it comes to having a kid with cancer on our team.”
Gibler has one more item she hopes to cross off the wish list: The Smith’s house needs some foundation repair work.
“When you have that many medical bills and four children, two of them in college, fixing the foundation isn’t something that’s in the budget,” Gibler said. “If we can find a company that’s willing to do it pro-bono, we have a lot of volunteers who are willing to do the hard labor.”
The hardest job of all, of course, still belongs to Smith. He’s had four rounds of chemo since the cancer’s return, and he faces more surgery in December. It’s hard to stay positive at times, but he said he mostly remains upbeat with a one-day-at-a time attitude.
“I believe I’ll be all right in the end,” Smith said. “I’ve done it once. I don’t see why I can’t do it again.”
The super heroes who have Super Sam’s back certainly agree.
“He’s been through it before, and if anyone had to go through it again, I think Sam would be the strongest one to do that and deal with it the best,” Peterson said.