Sam Schmidt’s life has been defined by his passions, but he readily admits politics isn’t one of them.
For many years, Schmidt lived to race. He moved swiftly through the ranks and worked tirelessly to fulfill a childhood dream of starting in the Indy 500. When a January 2000 crash during a practice run left him a quadriplegic and on a respirator for six weeks, Schmidt’s passion shifted to fighting for survival and, after several grueling months, struggling to support his wife and two children.
Now the 44-year-old Henderson resident’s passion manifests itself in the Sam Schmidt Paralysis Foundation, which holds its 3rd annual Racing to Recovery Golf Tournament on Nov. 3 at Reflection Bay Golf Course on Lake Las Vegas (Information: firstname.lastname@example.org).
The foundation helps persons with spinal cord injuries and neurological disorders and also funds research in the field.
The Nebraska native laughs about starting the foundation in May 2000 and, less than a year later, creating Sam Schmidt Motor Sports. Most in his condition would be satisfied to be off a respirator and watching television. Not this guy. He travels more than 120 days a year on behalf of his racing team and the foundation.
At first his motivation was selfish: Get out of the wheelchair and on with his life. Gradually, he realized life went on while he was in the wheelchair, and he had it better than many. He had insurance, a belief in God, a loving family.
From that epiphany, the Schmidt foundation grew. He could have waited, but he didn’t want to wake up 10 years farther down life’s road without having begun the fight.
“It didn’t take us long to realize that getting me out of this wheelchair and curing paralysis was going to take a lot more than our personal resources could manage,” Schmidt says. “The foundation has undergone a huge evolution. Initially it was friends and family members who wanted to help. We realized pretty quickly we needed to do more. We needed to do a lot more to get involved in research and raise a lot more money.”
Although his passions run to racing and his foundation, Schmidt volunteered his perspective on the presidential campaign as it pertains to persons with disabilities. While he said either candidate would be a dramatic improvement over the past eight years in which the importance of stem cell research has been wickedly politicized, for Schmidt it’s not a close call: Illinois Sen. Barack Obama has focused far more time and attention on the subject than Arizona Sen. John McCain.
Whether it’s out of personal compassion or a savvy campaign strategy, the Obama Web site includes a section on empowering Americans with disabilities. His campaign has organized groups of interested academics and disability specialists to act as sounding boards on the subject.
“Obviously, the last eight years have been a setback,” Schmidt says. “No matter who is elected, it will be an improvement. But Obama is better on this issue. I spent some time with the man three and a half years ago, and I appreciate the fact he’s a listener. He appears to be compassionate. Clearly, if you’re voting to improve the lives of people with disabilities, there is no option. Somebody asked me at a recent conference: ‘Do you want to vote regarding health and disabilities, or do you want to vote your wallet?’ My response was, ‘If I could walk my daughter down the aisle in 10 years, I wouldn’t care how much money I had.'”
But no matter which way the political winds blow, Schmidt will remain optimistic and undeterred by the formidable challenges he faces in everyday life.
Because he cannot move his arms, he needs assistance to perform basic tasks. It takes him more than two hours to dress and prepare for each day, which finds him in his wheelchair for more than 12 hours as he conducts the business of his racing team and foundation.
“It sucks to be paralyzed, but it’s not a death sentence,” Schmidt says.
In fact, being paralyzed has provided him with an opportunity to use his passion to fight to improve the lives of people he will never know.
To help find a breakthrough for the thousands of Americans who suffer from spinal cord and related injuries: Now there’s a race worth winning.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.