Shayne Smith contracted a potentially deadly condition, and underwent multiple amputations. But to whom much was taken away, much was also given. Today, Smith, 25, is powered by his high-octane confidence. Over the years, he’s made history as an athlete, crossed paths with tons of A-list celebrities, and now focuses on motivating young people to breathe fire into their dreams. Recently, he spoke with our Lia Martirosyan.
Lia Martirosyan: Tell me more about the journey that got you to where you are today.
Smith: When I was four months old, I contracted a rare form of meningitis called meningococcal septicemia, which attacked my bloodstream, so all the blood in my body stopped. Doctors had to amputate my legs, my left hand, and some fingers on my right hand to get the blood flowing again.
As I grew up, my mom was always very supportive of my independence; she didn’t let me feel sorry for myself. And I was not going to let what happened to me stop me from being a kid and going out and achieving things. At 3, my mom got me into swimming. At 6, she got me into horseback riding. At 7, it was sledge hockey.
Martirosyan: Sledge hockey?
Smith: You have to understand: When you’re 7 years old and living in Canada, hockey is everything. Back then, my cousin, Mitch, was my best friend, and after he started playing hockey, I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t do it, too. I was very jealous. So then I found out about sledge hockey, where you sit on a toboggantype sled, and you have two sticks. On one end is a hockey blade, and on the other is a figure-skating pick. So you dig into the ice, and that’s how you skate. To make it work, we used a little plastic cup that slipped onto my arm, we cut a stick in half, and coming out of the tip was the hockey blade, and coming out of the elbow was the figure skating pick, so that I could skate. In my second year, Mitch and I got to play together. Moments like that made me realize that different doesn’t mean inferior. Everyone is equal.
Martirosyan: But you didn’t stop at hockey…
Smith: Right. When I turned 8, I found wheelchair basketball, which opened doors for me. It took me four years to score my first basket, but by 15 I was playing on the Canadian Junior Team. I was there until I was about 23, and then I started doing little motivational speeches here and there on behalf of the team. Finally, about two years ago, I decided, “You know what? I want to do motivational speaking for a living.”
Martirosyan: I’m sure your story motivates people.
Smith: People always tell me, “Oh, my gosh, Shayne, you’re so strong! You’re so amazing! You have such a big heart.” And my answer always is: “I got it from my mom.”
Smith: She not only raised me, but she did it on her own. My dad split. So she was Mom, Dad, taxi driver, basketball coach, hockey coach… She was everything. To this day, if anyone asks me who my best friend is, it’s my mom. I know it sounds cheesy, but we’re best friends.
Martirosyan: That’s beautiful. Tell me more about your motivational speaking? Did someone approach you about getting into it?
Smith: I gave my first presentation during a luncheon where Wayne Gretzky’s dad had won Father of the Year. There were about 900 people there, and little 8-year-old Shayne got up and started speaking. It was on behalf of Variety Village in Toronto, the gym where I played basketball. It’s a sports and training facility for people with all kinds of challenges, and people without any. Meaning that it was basically a training facility for everybody. I happened to be there to promote it. So after I spoke, everyone came up to me and said: “You’re really good at this; you should do it for a living.” So I gave another speech and another one, and now at 25 I run a speaking company.
Martirosyan: What does running a speakers’ bureau entail?
Smith: I’m the boss. I’m the president. It’s called Nolimitz, spelled with a “z”, because I want it to be hip and cool. I just go out and do motivational speaking, and it’s awesome. Financially my company’s very new, and we’re not there yet, but I have a great sponsor in Tutor Doctor. They send me to all their franchisees to spread my message to kids. Without their help I would never be able to do what I do.
Kids always say, “I’m not dumb, I don’t need a tutor.” But I ask them: “Did Michael Jordan have a coach?” And they say, “Yeah.” Then I say, “And he was one of the best basketball players in history. A coach and a tutor are basically the same thing.” So if I can get kids to look at it like that, they can get the help they need to create a brighter future for themselves.
Martirosyan: Great reference.
Smith: Exactly. Now, I could stand to be brought down a few notches on the humble chain, but I think I’m one of the best speakers in the world, and I have a speaking coach, too.
Martirosyan: When did you start getting coached on how to speak?
Smith: About two years ago. As a matter of fact, I was coached by the people at Tutor Doctor.
Martirosyan: Would you say motivational speaking is your passion?
Smith: Definitely! I see myself doing this for the next 10 or 15 years. And when I’m done speaking, I’ll be the first physically challenged coach of an NBA team. That’s gonna happen.
Martirosyan: How are you working towards that?
Smith: I know the sport very well. I know the plays. I know how to coach people. When the time comes, I’ll get there. Right now I’m just focusing on the speaking side, and a little bit on of the hip-hop on the side.
Martirosyan: Tell me about your rapping.
Smith: I started rapping and free-styling at 14 or 15, and then everyone again said, “Oh, you’re really good, you should pursue this.” My best friend is my producer, as well as my speaking manager. We’re really, really tight. We do everything together. He came over one day and he made a beat. He was like, “Spit. Spit on it. Let’s go.” Next thing you know I wrote something, and now we have two songs up on Sound Cloud. We’re working on an entire project, actually. Most hiphop artists today—, and don’t get me wrong, I love Wayne, I love 2 Chainz, I love that stuff—, but what are they really saying? Not much.
With me, there’s no cussing; my music is all motivational. How many songs like that are there out there? We’ve got guys like Macklemore, who I think is incredible. He’s got that “Same Love” song, which is great and empowers people. A couple of weeks ago, I got to hang out with him in Philadelphia. I want to do stuff like he does, letting people know that just because you’re different doesn’t mean you’re not as good.
Martirosyan: Macklemore, nice experience. Tell us something else that you want people to know about you.
Smith: The biggest thing that people need to know in this world is that there’s no limit. We always hear people say: “The sky’s the limit.” I think that’s a load of BS. We have footprints on the moon; we have Felix Baumgartner skydiving from space. So don’t tell me the sky’s the limit. The sky was the limit back when we didn’t think going above the sky was really possible. Now there is no limit.
Speaking of which…let’s talk about my basketball career. I played for about 17 years for on the Junior National Team in Canada. I feel proud of the fact that I’m the only player in history to do that with half a hand. I’m the only Jewish Canadian wheelchair basketball player in the world right now. When I was approached by the Maccabi USA team to go to Israel and play there, it was a great opportunity and a great experience. I had already retired, and hadn’t played in about a year and a half, but then when I thought about it, I figured, as a Jewish athlete, what better way was there to formally retire than a tournament in Israel? It was a great experience. I met great friends. I connected with a US soldier who was one of the most awesome dudes I’ve ever met. He really went out of his way for me after the US hockey team went up the mountain for a tour of Masada. We could have taken a cable car back down, which would’ve been easier, but the group chose to walk down the mountain, and Jason wanted me to get the same experience as everybody else, so he threw me on his back and carried me down. It was a great experience.
Martirosyan: That’s incredible.
Smith: And a great way to finish out my basketball career.
Martirosyan: I’d like to hear more about how you got to meet Nelson Mandela.
Smith: I was 12 years old when I found out that Nelson Mandela was coming to give a presentation in Toronto at the SkyDome (now Rogers Centre), I handed in a résumé to be given a chance to hear him speak. Of the 60,000 kids who handed in résumés, I was chosen to have lunch with him. I’ll never forget that experience; it was one of the best days in my life. I’m not a shy dude. So I said, “Mr. Mandela, sir, it’s an honor for me to meet you.” And he looked down, put his hand on my shoulder, and replied: “No, my child, it’s an honor that I got to share a meal with you.” To me, that was priceless. He was my role model and my mom’s hero, too. When trying to empower other people, who better to have as a role model than Nelson Mandela? No words can describe him. Also, before she passed on, I got to meet Princess Diana. I was only three at the time, and it’s my first memory ever.
Martirosyan: Lovely for you.
Smith: We were all lined up against the wall, and she walked into the room and shook hands with us. She started at one end of the room and made her way down. I was in the middle. She walked right up to me, talked to me for a little bit and then, after she shook some more hands, came back to me and talked a little bit more before she left.
Martirosyan: And you remember that?
Smith: I do. I don’t remember what she said, but I have a vivid memory of her walking into the room, this beautiful princess, and walking right up to me.
Martirosyan: How did you happen to get in that line?
Smith: She came to the place where my prosthetic limbs were made.
Martirosyan: So again, your mama made things happen for you?
Smith: Exactly. It was all because of my mama that I got to do that. I also met the Queen of England and presented her with a commemorative doll for Variety Village, the training facility where I played basketball. Then, when the rapper Drake was on the TV show, Degrassi High, I taught him wheelchair basketball.
Martirosyan: Look at you.
Smith: Yeah. So when his character on the show was shot and started to use a wheelchair, Drake had to learn to play wheelchair basketball. I coached him on how to do it. That’s why he was so good.
Martirosyan: How did the Drake connection come about?
Smith: He came to Variety Village to learn how to play basketball in the chair, and I just happened to be there. I was at the right place at the right time.
Martirosyan: You’ve built some different experiences for yourself.
Smith: It’s about creating your own experiences.
Martirosyan: Let us hear some of your rapping.
Smith: Okay. When my producer and I rap together, we always try to work something in from comic books or a TV show. The first song we did together was “Mad Hatter.” The second one was “Riddle Me This,” like the Riddler. These are a few lines from “Bebop and Rocksteady”—from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles back in the ’80s. This is the world premiere; no one’s heard this yet.
Martirosyan: Do it.
Smith: Sittin’ in rush hour
On my way to get some moo shu
When God gives me lemon
I be prayin’ that they lulu Haters
want me out the game
They claimin’ that I’m too Jew
Look ‘em in the eyes like,
Dude, you got a screw loose.
All you do is chirp
I’ve got your birdies goin’ cuckoo
Then the last few lines are:
You just sufferin’
With a bit of succotashin’
Now it’s vacation time
I’m gonna hit up spring break
I hear that’s the best place
To go and find a little Fake.
Martirosyan: I hear it.
Smith: Thank you. A lot of people don’t know this about me, but my celebrity crush is Selena Gomez. In the movie Spring Breakers, her character’s name is Fake. “I’m gonna hit up spring break, to try to find a little Fake.” So that’s where that line came from.
Martirosyan: Hopefully you get to meet her.
Smith: Meet her? She’s my future wife. So anyway, when I do my motivational speaking my favorite exercise is to bring up two kids and two teachers. I get them to tell me something that they love to do… Let me give you an example. Give me anything that you love to do, Lia.
Martirosyan: I like to sing.
Smith: Are you the best at it?
Martirosyan: I am.
Martirosyan: I AM!
Smith: Imagine two kids and two teachers doing that at a presentation in front of 1,000 kids. And that whole energy of the room just explodes. And then I quickly tell them, “Now imagine if we were all to decide that we were the best at something on a daily basis. How powerful and incredible we would be.” And then I don’t exclude myself from it. I put myself into that situation, and I’ll tell them what I think I’m the best at. I tell them. “Best onehanded wheelchair basketball player in the world. I’m also the best white disabled Jewish rapper in the world. I tell them that, too.”
Martirosyan: That’s pretty detailed.
Smith: I go even farther than that, and this is where I really like to connect with them. I tell them that the only reason why Channing Tatum won “Sexiest Man in the World” is because the people who write the articles haven’t met me yet. When you truly love who you are, it’s very easy for other people to love you, too. If you ask 100 people what’s the sexiest quality in another person, 99 of them will say that it’s confidence.
Martirosyan: When people approach you with questions, how do you handle it?
Smith: Any question you can think of, I’ve been asked—appropriately and inappropriately. If you’re gonna ask me inappropriately in front of your entire school, I’m going to make you look like a fool. And if you ask me appropriately, I’ll answer.
For instance, when I speak at high schools, sex is a very big topic. I have a lot of kids ask me if I can be active. When they ask it like that I’ll say, “When it comes time for me to have a family, it’s possible.” I had one kid in British Columbia who, in front of his entire school of 2,000 kids, including his girlfriend, said: “Yo, bro, can you get laid?” And I said, “Ask your girlfriend.”
Smith: I’m very sarcastic and kids are very sarcastic, so I think that’s why we connect so well. I’m here to motivate you, and I’m also here to have a great time. I get to meet all these awesome kids, too, and the kid who heckled me that day and I are friends now. He emails me.
It’s all about reaching people. To do that, I try to start my presentations out just right. I wheel onto the stage, maybe while the kids are filing in, and start shooting a basketball. And when I’m ready, and when the teachers give me the okay, I stop playing basketball and start talking. There’s sometimes 1,000 kids. It gets so quiet that you could hear a pin drop. Sometimes I wait a good two minutes. I keep them quiet without even speaking, and then I’ll very comically say, “What up?”
Smith: And that’s the reaction I get. And then the first thing I ask them is, “How many of you look at a guy like me and think: ‘Poor guy, he’s got, like, no legs, and half a hand, life’s got to be so hard.’” And they all raise their hands. And then I’ll say, “How many of you want to ask what happened, but think that would be rude?” All the hands go up again. And then I say, “Who wouldn’t be shy? Who would ask?” A kid throws his hand up. I make him stand up, and I say:
“So we’ve just met. How would you ask me?” And he’ll say, “What happened to you?” And I’ll say, “Wow, man, that’s so rude! We just met! You don’t start off with, ‘Hello, how are you, what’s your name?’ Nothing? Dude, you’re so rude.” And then I get a little giggle, and the kids gets all shaken up and shy, and I’m totally kidding, but I start wheeling myself away, and then I’ll come back and say: “I’m totally kidding. Can we give Jeff a round of applause? That was really great!” And then I’ll answer the question.
Martirosyan: You’re interactive.
Smith: I like it to be fun. So many speakers out there are so stiff. They have all the points they want to hit, and they lecture to the kids. No wonder kids tend to get on their phones or have their headphones in their ears, not paying attention. You’ve got to keep them engaged. My presentation is very animated, very comical. I really get through to them, and keep it interactive by asking them a lot of questions. Once I had a kid who was listening to his headphones during my presentation, and I took them. (laughs) I took his cell phone, too, and I made him sit down in the front for the rest of the presentation. A lot of speakers don’t know how to reach the kids; they come in wearing a suit and tie, looking professional. I wear track pants and a t-shirt. I want kids to connect to me, and to feel like I’m a dude just like them. I may be 25, but I’m a kid at heart.