Adversity seems to bring out the best in Thomas Smith. So does getting a little help from his friends.
Smith, a freshman at Edison High, is a member of the Irvine Aquazots Swim Club boys' 13-14 team that last month set a National Age Group record in the 400-yard medley relay. The four, each 14 years old, set the record in the 13-14 boys' division with a time of 3 minutes, 29.45 seconds at the 2011 Speedo Championship Series California/Nevada Winter Sectional, hosted by Golden West Swim Club at the Golden West College pool
Smith started the team's bid by turning in a time of 51.24 seconds in the backstroke. Tyler Lin followed with a 57.87 in the breaststroke, Justin Hanson was next with a 52.42 in the butterfly and Matthew Wong secured the record by going 47.92 in the freestyle.
The previous record in the event was set in 2009.
"We all had a single goal in mind during this past summer, and that was to set the record in this event," Smith said. "Each day, six days a week, we worked hard to achieve this goal. The time we spent together at swim practice really developed our relationships, both in and out of the pool.
"Tyler, Justin and Matthew are great guys. I really think the journey toward accomplishing what we did is more important than those 3 1/2 minutes in the pool that day."
What is stunning about Smith's accomplishments is that they came within a month of receiving some potentially devastating news.
On Nov. 30, Smith noticed a "large lump" on his left distal femur (knee). An X-ray confirmed he had a 2.1 centimeter bone tumor. He had an MRI on Dec. 2 to determine if the cancer was malignant. A malignant diagnosis would have required surgery to remove "part of his leg, up to his thigh area," his father, Brad Smith, said.
"The MRI showed that I did have bone cancer (distal femur) but right now, it's not harmful or malignant so I don't have to have any surgery," Thomas Smith said. "That was a huge relief."
Fifteen days after visiting the doctor and going to radiation appointments, Smith, Lin, Hanson and Wong smashed the national record in the boys' 13-14 400 medley relay.
"To go from having to possibly have my leg cut off, to swimming and setting the record, really is unreal," Smith said. "Once I got the 'green light' from my doctors, my thoughts immediately went to swimming. It was like a burden had been lifted off my shoulders. This (400) relay record had been a goal of mine, of all of us, and we were determined."
Smith said he didn't reveal to his teammates the ordeal he had gone through before the Winter Sectional last month.
"I didn't want to burden them," he said. "I didn't want them worrying about me and I didn't want to bring any negativity to the team. We had to stay focused."
This wasn't the first time that Smith has bounced back from adversity. The scar on his neck serves as a reminder of a comeback in the not-too-distant past.
In September of 2009, Smith had undergone testing for lymphoma and went on to have surgery to remove lymph nodes in the neck area. But, just as he did last month, Smith battled back strong. Three months after having lymph nodes removed, Hanson, Hanson, Wong and then-teammate Ken Takahash teamed to set a National Age Group record in the boys' 11-12 400 medley relay at the Winter Age Group Swim Championship at the Cerritos Olympic Swim Center. Smith had a personal record time (58.08) in the backstroke and the start set his team in motion toward the record.
The only person who knew of Smith's diagnosis before the Winter Sectional last month was his Aquazots coach, Todd Hickman.
"For Thomas, it's pretty amazing that a kid knows he has some type of ailment and is able to block it out and concentrate on the goals he has and not let anything affect him, " Hickman said. "For a 14-year-old kid, that's really amazing.
"As for these four kids, I told them that there has never been a finer group assembled. For this one moment in time, they are the fastest in their age group in this event. Setting a national record is a great accomplishment for them. It's great to have a fast individual swimmer, but when you have four, very fast swimmers, it's amazing. What's great about these kids, is that they encourage each other all the time, especially at practice, to be their best."