Telford Muay Thai champ chasing Paralympic dream after horror eye injury
A Thai boxing champion from Telford who had to shelve the sport after a life-changing accident found a new passion in climbing - and is now on the verge of qualifying as a Team GB Paralympic athlete.
Luke Smith, a former English champion in Muay Thai, climbed casually as a side project until May last year, when in the middle of a high climb he fell and injured his eye.
Climbers are used to 'decking', but Luke landed badly and his retina became 90 per cent detached from the back of his right eye.
"I stayed conscious but there was a lot of pain," he said.
Most of the sight in the eye was saved after a gruelling eight-hour scleral buckling operation, but in light of the accident he was advised it would be reckless to return to boxing.
Ironically, it was a climbing accident that proved the catalyst for his renewed focus on the sport.
"That was my turning point," said Luke, 29. "After the operation I told myself I was going to get stronger and become a better climber.
"I wanted to focus on something outside of myself and work hard at it.
"I emailed the British Mountaineering Council (BMC) and they told me what I would have to do to qualify as a paraclimber for Team GB.
"That’s when the idea properly formed in my head."
So after a seven-year fighting career that saw him crowned the UKMF English Champion and compete across the world, Luke hung up his gloves and devoted himself to becoming a Paralympic-standard climber.
He specialises in bouldering - climbing at relatively low heights with no equipment apart from shoes, gymnastic chalk and a crash mat, although he competes on taller roped routes too.
He trains at least twice a week at the Shropshire Climbing Centre in Newport, juggling his climbing ambitions with his job as an assistant physiotherapist for the NHS and his studies at the University of Wolverhampton.
And despite the talipes (club foot) he has lived with since birth, he developed quickly and by the autumn of 2018 he was climbing at a national level.
Luke has had to contend with his club foot all his life, but he said that he has adapted to climb to his limits.
He said: "I do have a leg length discrepancy, my left leg is shorter and has lower muscle tone and I can't rotate the ankle much.
"There is also a tendency to roll the ankle. When I fall from a climb I've got to be careful I don't land badly on that foot - but I manage.
"It doesn't really make a huge difference because it just comes naturally to me.
WATCH Luke in action:
"I just love climbing - it is like working out a puzzle but with your body. The feeling you get figuring it out and making your way from the bottom to the top is amazing."
In the second half of 2018 Luke entered a BMC Paraclimbing Competition, which comprised a series of four events across the UK, each with six climbs where competitors were judged on the height they could reach.
Finishing first in the first two contests, Luke took the second place medal in his category for the overall competition.
“I was super happy, overwhelmed really," he said. "It’s a massive achievement from starting off climbing at a really low level.
“If I keep progressing the way I am now I’ve got the chance to get to where I want to be.
“I know I’ve got the dedication and the discipline to work hard for what I want. One thing I’m not scared to do is go outside my comfort zone."
His achievements didn't go unnoticed, and he has since secured a sponsorship deal with Boot Bananas, a company that makes shoe deodorisers for climbers and other athletes.
The next step in his development is a try-out session in March, when the best performers will be hand-picked for the Team GB development squad, or even the main team.
From there he could represent his country in European and World Championships, and if paraclimbing is ratified in time, the 2024 Paralympic Games.
But for now Luke is staying grounded - figuratively - and honing his natural ability.
He emphasised his gratitude for all of the people that have helped him along the way, including his Muay Thai coaches Dean James and Tony Myers.
Since starting his climbing journey Luke has also linked up with OpenCrag - a collective of Shropshire-based climbers who train at the Newport centre and also make expeditions into Wales, Staffordshire and the Peak District to climb outdoors on real rock.
He said: "The people I climb with and everyone I've met through climbing are amazing.
"There's a supportive atmosphere and we all push each other every time.
"We're developing as climbers but also as people."
The group's founder Andy Myers was the first to work with Luke to develop a structured training routine, and the latter said it was integral to his progress in 2018.
Karl Smith, who runs the Shropshire Climbing Centre, said: "Andy deserves a lot of credit, there are a lot of people who have progressed a lot with his training and Luke is obviously one of them."
To learn more about Luke, visit his Instagram profile at instagram.com/lukey.climbs