"The race is over; Steve-O has crossed his final finish line. ... It’s with deep regret that late this afternoon [Sept. 4], Steve-O had passed on from his journey on earth and is swimming with the sea turtles again at the Kona pier. He passed peacefully. Funeral arrangements pending and we will post information when available. Thank you for all the thoughts and prayers." -Steve-O's Family
Steve Smith, from South Bend, Indiana, is a coach, teacher and friend — and if you’ve been fortunate enough to meet him at a race or train with him over the years, you’d know he’s the kind of guy you can approach to talk about anything.
He probably wouldn’t tell you this, but he’s competed in over 250 triathlons and is one of the most decorated age-group athletes in the sport.
Smith, also known as Steve-O by friends and competitors, started his multisport career in the early ’80s after watching Julie Moss’ inspiring Ironman finish on TV. I can do that, thought the former swimmer who had gained some weight after starting a family. And so he did.
“Even as a kid, he always taught us to finish what we start,” says Sarah Cira, Smith’s eldest daughter.
Smith won the lottery for his first Ironman World Championship in 1986, completed the race and quickly found his place in the sport. Qualifying for his second Kona race was what he describes as one of his biggest challenges and only added to his passion for the sport.
Since then he’s built an impressive racing résumé boasting many accomplishments, including being a 12-time Kona Ironman competitor and a 15-time USA Triathlon All-American. He’s earned more than a dozen national and world championship titles, is a Boston Marathon finisher and is recognized as a member of the Indiana High School Swimming and Diving Hall of Fame for his coaching achievements.
For the past two years, Smith has been battling an aggressive, fast-growing brain tumor called a glioblastoma — and it’s that “I can do it” attitude that keeps him fighting each day and has inspired athletes around the world.
Lessons From Steve-O
Smith wasn’t only a teacher in the classroom. He’s been a mentor to his children and training partners and his legacy continues to guide and inspire Michiana families touched by the Racing for Steve-O Foundation and the greater triathlon community — even those who haven’t had a chance to meet him. From his dependability to his nonjudgmental attitude, he teaches by example.
“I’ve had the opportunity to watch how he’s approached triathlon and his work ethic. He’s had good days and not so good days, but he still moves forward. There’s always been this positive approach to things with him,” says Amy Kuitse, a South Bend triathlete and close friend to Smith, who says his get up and try again approach to life has influenced her own life, in and out of triathlon.
Smith knows how to work hard and at the same time knows when to laugh, relax and eat doughnuts.
“He is the kind of guy who believed, if it doesn’t kill you, it’s only going to help you. He is pretty much a hard-core, old-school, train-hard, live-hard, race-hard kind of guy,” says Tim Legge, who became close friends with Smith over many strenuous five-hour rides. “He taught me things about pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone to see what you could actually push yourself to do. It inspired me, and continues to in the way I approach the sport.”
Both Legge and Kuitse laugh about Smith’s tendency to make pit stops on a long ride or before a race to grab a pastry.
“I was worried about my bagel and banana and Steve was having pre-race doughnuts,” Kuitse says. “That’s something else I’ve learned from him — you’ve just got to relax and let it go.”
With humor in hand, it’s been hard work, dedication and the ability to fight through injuries and other roadblocks that have earned Smith so many triumphs. And it’s these qualities that make him one of the most revered triathletes of his time.
Paving the Way for Others
Written on athletes’ hats or across their legs, the words “Racing for Steve-O” quickly started popping up at races in Smith’s hometown and from coast to coast.
“Since he was diagnosed, I’ve had so many people say ‘I’m racing on his behalf.’ I’ve never had that happen,” says Tim Yount, USA Triathlon’s Chief Operating Officer, who has watched Smith compete for decades. “It’s a tribute to his character that so many people are interested in representing him in races since he’s not able to do so himself.”
His diagnosis in April 2012 left family members and friends shocked. People wanted to help but weren’t sure what they could do. That’s when Cira and her siblings Aaron Smith and Molly Woody started a blog to keep everyone updated on his progress and journey back to the starting line. It’s blossomed into a supportive community and helped lead to the creation of the Racing for Steve-O Foundation.
“He’s very honored that the foundation is in his name — but I don’t know that he would ever tell you that. Because it’s not about him. It’s about what it stands for, what it’s doing,” says Kuitse, who helped start the foundation, along with local triathletes Legge and Lisa James.
As Smith continues to fight his battle with cancer, he is helping others face their own challenges through the power of physical activity.
The Racing for Steve-O Foundation advocates and raises funds to give children with special needs the opportunity to be involved with recreational activities — a cause that is close to Smith’s heart as a teacher and coach.
This summer, Smith will be honored at the first Barron Lake Triathlon presented by Gurley Leep Hyundai Subaru in Niles, Michigan, with all proceeds benefitting the Racing for Steve-O Foundation. The funds will provide kids an opportunity to participate in summer camps and sports, regardless of their physical, mental or financial barriers.
Smith has clearly influenced the sport of triathlon, athletes he’s met along the way and is now passing his passion for fitness along to future generations. But triathlon has also shaped his life.
“I’ve made so many good, close, honest friends and have been able to travel all over the country and world to compete successfully,” Smith says. “The thing that means a lot to me is being able to leave my mark on the sport, and setting an example in inspiring others to set goals and develop a plan to achieve those goals. Not bad for a snooker-playing kid from Iowa.”To learn more about the Racing For Steve-O Foundation or to make a donation, visit racingforsteveo.org. To race the Barron Lake Triathlon in Steve’s honor, visit barronlaketri.com.