Oregon State University senior and Decatur alum Spencer Smith knows a thing or two about being pushed beyond limits.
He traded in football and wrestling for a four-year career with the Beavers’ rowing program, and the training it took to be a successful rower was far more intense than any football or wrestling drill.
If that wasn’t enough, Spencer Smith learned just how tough he was after losing his father, Sean Smith, to stage 4 pancreatic cancer in 2016. With no family in Corvallis, Spencer Smith turned to rowing for healing. He pushed himself, helping lead Oregon State to the Intercollegiate Rowing Association Championships each year, and, for his efforts, Spencer Smith was named to the 2017 Pac-12 All-Conference team in June.
The combination of the strenuous daily training required, and the painful loss of his loudest cheerleader, gave Spencer Smith something far greater than any award.
“When you go through something that hurts really bad, you find out you can definitely do more than you first thought you could,” Spencer Smith said.
IT’S A SMITH THING
Growing up, Spencer Smith idolized two people: His dad and his older brother Josh Smith.
He followed both to Decatur High School, where Sean Smith taught engineering and Josh Smith was a senior.
Like their father, both Smith brothers dreamed of being engineers. Their interest started by fixing up old cars in the garage, and it grew when they took his courses in high school.
Since Sean Smith coached soccer, the Smith brothers found a love for sports independent of one another. For the elder brother it was soccer, but Spencer Smith developed a love for football and wrestling.
As Spencer Smith grew older, the more and more we wanted to be just like his older brother. Once Josh earned a soccer scholarship to Oregon State University, there was no question where Spencer wanted to go.
“Once I got to Decatur, he kind of accepted me as his little brother,” Spencer Smith said. “Then I started hanging out with him and his friends more and more. We would go down to Corvallis on the weekends to visit and we’d hang out. Once we did that, picking Oregon State as my school was a no-brainer.”
Spencer Smith was talking to coaches at multiple schools his senior year, including Mike Riley of Oregon State, to potentially play football.
One afternoon he was sitting in Gator wrestling coach Mike Bressler’s classroom. Bressler asked his decorated wrestler what his plans for college athletics were.
Unable to provide Bressler with an answer, his coach recommended he give rowing a try since it was the only sport that physically matched that of football or wrestling. Spencer Smith went home and emailed Beavers coach Gabe Winkler about the program.
“At Oregon State, rowing is structured, almost like an elective course,” Winkler said. “So, I explained that he should sign up, and that basically your first day of class is like your ‘tryout’ for the team.”
Once Spencer Smith arrived on campus in the fall of 2013, it didn’t take long for him to adjust.
Spencer and Josh Smith reconnected, and their bond continued to grow.
The brothers crossed paths frequently as they both declared as engineering majors, just like their father. Josh was in the chemical engineering program, while Spencer was initially drawn to mechanical engineering but switched to constructional last year.
Most athletes at Oregon State become involved in “SAC” or Student Athletics Committee, which helps provide resources for student athletes. Josh Smith took Spencer Smith under his wing and got him involved in the program. He also introduced his younger brother to other prominent Beaver athletes.
If Spencer Smith needed help with homework, he was instructed by his brother to come to his apartment so he could help.
“He really helped me get acclimated to life there as much as he could,” Spencer Smith said.
ROW YOUR BOAT
Oregon State rowing practices on Willamette River, which is just minutes from campus.
Because it is not deemed a full course by the NCAA, Oregon State hosts “home” meets at Dexter Lake, an hour drive from Corvallis, just southeast of Eugene.
Since it’s one of the shortest teams [height] in the Pac-12, Oregon State’s practices are grueling. Winkler hosts twice-a-day practices, five days a week. The Beavers have indoor erg [rowing maachine] practices in the winter called “3×20.”
It’s training at an extremely low stroke rate. The Beavers spend 20 minutes rowing as hard as they can for three cycles with just one four-minute break after the first set, but the team’s stroke rate must beat the previous.
“Rowing is a sport that demands you perform really well while being extremely exhausted,” Winkler said. “And Spencer was good at that almost immediately.”
As a freshman, Spencer Smith emerged as a versatile member of the team, spending time in the 2, 6 and stroke seats for Oregon State.
Spencer Smith helped Oregon State to a bronze-medal finish at the Pac-12 Championships in the 6-seat.
That earned the Beavers a spot in the IRA Championships. Spencer Smith helped the Beavers take 12th his freshman year.
“In Decatur wrestling, you are worked unbelievably hard,” Spencer Smith said. “Rowing is the only sport I’ve ever done where the work is so much harder than it was in wrestling. You get pushed beyond your limit every single day.”
NO TIME TO CELEBRATE
It was Christmas 2014, and both Josh and Spencer Smith, returned to Federal Way. Spencer had just finished finals.
After Sean Smith began feeling ill in the fall of 2014, the Smith family learned Sean had stage 4 pancreatic cancer, a terminal diagnosis.
Both Sean and Tami Smith, his wife, had to explain to their boys that this form of cancer yielded a 1 percent, five-year survival rate.
If that wasn’t enough, Spencer Smith had to return to Corvallis shortly thereafter to begin spring term, right when Sean Smith started undergoing multiple surgeries in an attempt to fight the cancer.
“Having to go back to school when all of that was going on, and he was undergoing surgeries, was pretty challenging emotionally,” Spencer Smith said.
For the next 15 months, Spencer Smith made sure to take a proactive approach in staying in touch with his dad as much as he could.
He considered transferring back to Washington state, and he even contemplated putting school on hold, taking a year off to help his family.
After a period of no response from from either of his parents, Spencer Smith’s phone rang and the caller ID read “Dad.” During the call, Spencer Smith became emotional.
He told Sean Smith he hated being so far away from him and his mom and that he wanted to come home.
“He told me that no matter what happened, I wasn’t doing that,” an emotional Spencer Smith recalled. “He said he expected me to finish out my time at Oregon State because he loved nothing more than watching me row and he loved Corvallis so much. He said he would not allow me to change my life just for him.”
That was it. End of discussion.
Sean Smith also told his son to have a discussion with his team. They were practically brothers and deserved to know what he was going through.
“We were just like: Take your time,” Winkler said of the discussion. “You can deal with that, this is just stupid rowing over here. But he didn’t miss anything, and with the way he carried himself, if he hadn’t told you, you would have had no idea he had that going on.”
The final race Sean Smith saw Spencer Smith compete in was against Stanford on April 11-12, 2015, at Redwood Shores in San Francisco.
Spencer Smith had no idea his parents were making the trip.
Spencer Smith had grown to accept that his father would likely never see him race again because of how aggressively the cancer had progressed, so he formed a level of understanding and acceptance.
Sean and Spencer Smith locked eyes once Spencer hit the water. It was a moment Spencer Smith won’t forget.
“That was really cool,” Smith said fighting back tears. “That day meant the world to me because that was the last time that he got to see me race.”
Sean Smith passed away on March 13, 2016. Eight days prior, Oregon State faced rival Stanford.
After getting word the Smith family wasn’t sure how much longer Sean Smith had, Winkler wanted to do something for Spencer and the Smith family.
“I told our coxswain to make a call for Spencer’s father in that race,” Winkler said. “We lost by half a second, but they were all pulling 100 percent for Spencer and his dad. They backed him up, and it was just so cool.”
Spencer Smith was in the middle of final exams when the time came. After discussing the situation with professors, they allowed Spencer Smith to postpone his finals until he returned.
Luckily, Spencer Smith arrived in Federal Way on March 12, just in time to say goodbye.
He returned to Corvallis three days later to finish finals and rowing season.
Two weeks after Sean Smith’s death, the Beavers faced Wisconsin at the Stanford Invitational. Winkler could see Spencer Smith was and had been struggling all week.
“He was stroking the boat in and out, and initially, we were like ‘What do we do?” Winkler said. “Do we make a change? We don’t know how he’ll react.’”
Oregon State lost the race by inches.
It was a post-race comment by Wisconsin coach Chris Clark cemented Spencer Smith’s legacy within the Oregon State program, however.
“The Wisconsin coach afterward said to me: ‘Man, somebody had to ball out on that team to make that happen,’ ” Winkler recalled. “He was talking about Spencer. He really took it over and ramped up his stroke rate in the end. That was his ‘wow’ moment for me.”
Following Sean Smith’s death, Spencer Smith helped lead Oregon State to the IRA Championships his junior season where it took fifth.
In 2017, he helped the Beavers return to the IRA Championships. A solid individual senior season at the front of the boat earned him Pac-12 All-Conference honors.
It was an accolade Spencer Smith never saw coming.
“I honestly wasn’t really expecting it,” Spencer Smith said. “I was actually in my exit interview with the coaches when they got a text message, and they told me right then that I made it.
“I think my mom was the most excited. Josh reminded me that he got three of these, though.”
Spencer Smith will be at Oregon State for an extra year after switching his major to constructional engineering.
Despite the setback, the switch landed him a summer internship in 2016 with a company in downtown Seattle.
Spencer Smith helped produce an office building in the heart of the city.
As it turned out, the opportunity was supposed to last through the summer, but the company kept him on through the rest of the year.
He was there from the day the company broke ground, to when the building’s framing went up, to when the doors opened.
Spencer Smith had such a great experience, he’s working in Seattle again this summer with the same company on a second internship.
“It was the most fun thing ever,” Spencer Smith said. “Watching it go through every phase was a really cool experience, and I’m just grateful to be working with them again.”
Spencer Smith has been put through a lot the last four years.
He followed his brother Josh Smith, a multi-sport athlete with three Pac-12 All-Conference First Team awards, to Oregon State University.
Spencer Smith walked on to a sport he was completely unfamiliar with. One that takes every ounce of energy he has, twice a day, five days a week. As each year passed, he worked harder, became the Beaver’s standout stroke seater, and earned an All-Conference First Team award of his own.
He also lost his biggest cheerleader, his father, to cancer in 2016.
Spencer Smith didn’t have much time to grieve. With his brother long gone from Oregon State, Spencer Smith found reprieve through rowing.
But he’s found the most solace in the gift Sean Smith left behind, a passion for engineering.
A passion he hopes will bring him back to Federal Way some day, to the place majority of his family met – Decatur High School.
Spencer Smith hopes to walk his own children through those halls, too. He’ll show them where he became a decorated high school wrestler. He’ll show them the classroom where their grandfather produced some of the brightest engineers.
The room where Sean Smith taught Spencer Smith that there’s far more to give when he feels like he’s given it all.
“I hope to have enough of him in me to show them what he was all about,” Spencer Smith said. “And to teach them what he taught everyone: If you love what you do and you work hard, there are no limits to what you can do.”