April 23, 2014, Lawrenceville, NJ (ISN) – Greg Smith knew he had jumped far, but he wasn’t quite sure how far. Then the official called out the mark — the metric equivalent of 22 feet, 8 inches — and he ran over and hugged his parents at the side of the long jump pit.
“That’s when I completely knew I finally beat cancer,” he said. “I came back better than I was.”
Less than two years after a testicular cancer diagnosis and 15 months after abdomen surgery left him struggling to lift even a fork, the Rider University senior and Delaware Valley High School grad won the long jump at the Rider Invitational April 12, adding three inches to his personal “pre-cancer” best.
This was a victory of the human spirit.
“He had every opportunity to give in, to throw in the towel, with his athletic career,” Rider men’s track and field coach Bob Hamer said. “The great thing about Greg is he really thought he was going to come back better than he was before cancer — and he actually did it. What he’s accomplished, that’s someone who is a hero.”
Smith was diagnosed in July of 2012. He withdrew from Rider for the ensuing school year while undergoing four rounds of chemotherapy. For five days at a clip, he would undergo four hours of chemo per day at Sloan Kettering in New York.
“Me and my dad, we both said, ‘There’s no losing,’ ” Smith recalled. “We had an athlete’s mentality from day one. We attacked it hard.”
There were complications — high fevers, bone pain that left him immobile, dehydration, an immune system nearly wiped out by the treatment. Chemo ended in November of 2012 and six weeks later he had the lymph nodes in his abdomen removed.
“I have a scar from my pelvis up to my chest — 70 staples long,” Smith said. “My first question when I woke up was, ‘When can I eat?’ ”
Informed that he had to walk first, Smith vacated his bed and walked the equivalent of five miles through the hospital corridors that night.
“They said I was the first person they ever told to stop,” he recalled with a sense of pride. “I was actually walking too much.”
Recovery from the surgery lasted six months. Basic tasks were difficult.
“By April they told me you can jog one lap and do one crunch a day,” Smith said. “That crunch was the hardest thing in the world.”
All the while, he said, “Track never left the picture. From day one I was coming back. Even if I came back and only jumped 17 feet, I wouldn’t care.”
Hamer assured Smith he would have a spot on the roster no matter what. Smith attended meets as a spectator last spring, posing in the team photo after Rider won the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference crown. He put on spikes and started jumping into the sand over the summer, then rejoined the Broncs in September for preseason workouts.
“Lifting was tough. I had lost a lot of muscle,” he said. “I was struggling the whole beginning part of indoor season.”
By the MAAC indoor meet he had come around, making the finals with a 21-10 leap. “From there I was like, ‘I can do this,’ ” he said.
Now Smith stands just a few inches from qualifying for the IC4A Championships (23-3.5), which is his ultimate goal. He’s also hitting the books hard, balancing a double major in math and secondary education, with an eye toward becoming a teacher and coach.
“I’m really excited for him,” Hamer said. “You hear all these things about athletes wanting to get paid, how they feel they don’t get enough. Greg is just happy to be competing.”
That’s because he already faced the longest jump of all.
“It puts things in perspective,” Smith said. “When things get hard, at least I’m not sitting at the dinner table trying to keep food down and barely able to hold up my fork.”
He paused before adding, “I tell myself, ‘This weight isn’t as heavy as that fork was.’ ”