She’s soft-spoken, humble, and a fighter. Leah Smith is a force to be reckoned with.
As a sophomore at Klein Oak High School, Leah has already committed to the University of California, Berkeley and is competing among the best young gymnasts in the Junior Olympic National Championships on May 18-19, 2019 in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Leah did not get to where she is now without her fair share of trials and tribulations. At age 11, she began experiencing severe back pain which lead to her becoming diagnosed with spondylolisthesis, a condition where one’s vertebrae has been fractured or broken and has slipped forward. Doctors told Leah that her gymnastics career was over.
“I was so upset,” she said. “Sometimes, I got frustrated with gym, but when I stopped going I realized there was nothing else to really do. It was my whole life.”
Leah’s mother, Jeanne Smith, knew that the diagnosis was not the be-all, end-all for her daughter.
“As a physician and as her mother, I felt bad that I didn’t see the sign and symptoms right away, but I did my research to find out what I could do to help her,” Jeanne Smith said. “I knew that we needed to find a doctor who was willing to help her pursue her dream. Gymnastics is literally her world and she refused to give up.”
After going through two rounds of steroid injections, a spinal surgery, and learning how to walk again, Leah was ready to get back to the mat.
“I had to learn how to have patience,” she said. “I couldn’t jump right back into gymnastics like I wanted to because my back had to have time to heal. My mom really made me focus on my physical therapy and I took an entire year off of my sport.”
During her surgery and recovery time, Klein Oak administration, teachers, and friends rallied together in support.
“Leah is a great student,” Klein Oak Principal Thomas Hensley said. “We knew that this was an opportunity for us to foster her aspirations as a gymnast, while still allowing her to achieve her academic goals.”
For a long time, Leah’s dreams revolved around vaults, beams, and mats, but her injury sparked a new passion and purpose for her.
“I want to be a doctor when I grow up because of this whole situation,” she said. “How my doctor helped me made me realize that I can make a true impact on someone else. I want to be able to fix people and help them.”
Leah credits her determined mindset to succeed to a few very special people.
“I always like to keep going, even when it’s hard,” she said. “I think it’s important to believe in yourself and my parents—they’re my biggest supporters, they taught me that. They have always encouraged me whenever I get down.”
After mentioning her parents and her sister, Mya Smith who is a Klein Oak senior committed to the University of Louisiana – Lafayette, she paused and glanced at her necklace before continuing on about her grandfather, Michael Brown.
“My grandpa died in a bad car accident on the Grand Parkway last December,” Leah said. “It was the first real loss I’ve ever experienced. It was really hard, but it brought my family closer. My mom got necklaces for my sister and me and his ashes are in there. I know that he’s with me. He was so proud of all of us and he loved watching us do what we love to do and, now, I hope I’m still making him proud.”
Even after suffering the loss of a loved one, Leah has remained hopeful and it is clear that she has a promising future ahead of her.
“On her birthday in 2018, Leah committed to the University of California-Berkeley and chose to join the gymnastics team there,” Jeanne Smith said. “Gymnastics taught her how to be dedicated and competitive. It taught her to never give up and to work hard. If you set goals and you believe in something, you can get it. I am incredibly excited and proud of both of my girls. I am so grateful for the support of Principal Hensley and all of the teachers at Klein Oak who have encouraged us through all of this.”
Smith’s commitment to her success has drawn in countless others who stand behind her as she goes from promise to purpose.
“Her story speaks to the kind of adversity the student body here at Klein Oak experiences,” Hensley said. “Even though our students are all different, they have gone through so many things that ultimately culminated in strength.”
Leah Smith is only one of the thousands of bright, young forever learners and leaders in our district who have a story to tell. These stories are what make our Klein family strong.