On a Roll with the Strength Coach

Greg Smith at the Jerry Lewis Telethon
by Bill Norman on April 1, 2009 - 3:41pm

QUEST Vol. 16, No. 2

The title of Greg Smith’s 2005 book “On a Roll” pretty well sums up the life experience of this 45-year-old, who’s not only an author but also a radio and television talk show host, sports commentator, popular public speaker and full-time single dad of three.

“Reflections from America’s Wheelchair Dude with the Winning Attitude” is the book’s subtitle, and positive attitude indeed is the dominant theme in all Smith’s communications, regardless of the media in which they appear. That’s because if anyone evinces the results of positive thought, it’s Smith.

A heavyweight lightweight

Smith has an undetermined form of muscular dystrophy that was diagnosed when he was 3. At age 13, he had three metal rods permanently inserted alongside his spine to help correct scoliosis and began using a wheelchair not long after. For decades now, he has reliably tipped the scales at all of 65 pounds.

Those physical challenges notwithstanding, Smith was a drummer in his high school marching band (special brackets mounted the drum to his power wheelchair, which he guided via foot control), and he graduated from Arizona State University with a degree in broadcast management. While there, his deeply resonant voice proved perfect for his play-by-play broadcasts of the school’s basketball and football games, and his work as a stringer (freelancer) for Phoenix Suns basketball games.

Despite his degree, Smith’s early efforts to enter the job market as a broadcast sales rep — including shipping his résumé to three dozen radio stations — were fruitless.

“Station managers had plenty of invalid rationale,” he recalls. “They thought my disability would be a turnoff for clients; they wanted to know how I would be able to get around town; they felt I couldn’t sustain a high energy level.”

Persistence pays off

Chin up, Smith persisted and finally got a job with KTAR, the largest radio station in Phoenix, as its research director.

He did well, but still felt the sting of discrimination due to his disability. “I knew I could do well in sales, and that’s where I asked to work, but management just bluntly told me, ‘you’re not the person we want for sales,’” he says.

With that door closing, he opened the next one for himself, and it resulted in an 11-year love affair with the airwaves.

Smith created a call-in radio talk show called “On a Roll — Talk Radio on Life and Disability.” The show’s discussions centered on concerns of people with disabilities. From the first show, when not a single caller phoned in, the show grew to the point where it eventually was carried by 70 stations across the country. Big-name guests like the late Christopher Reeve helped boost the show’s popularity and audience size.

Greg Smith has always taken life by the horns, and it was no different when he decided to try scuba diving.

The plaudits pour in

In 2005, a documentary film about Smith, “On a Roll: Family, Disability and the American Dream,” was broadcast nationwide on the PBS network. That led to profiles in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and on CBS News, and to being named an “Exceptional American” by the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia.

Some would have been content to rest on their laurels at that point and let the show continue to run almost solely on its own momentum. Not Smith.

He’d been exploring the possibility of joining the National Speakers Bureau, and when casting about for some personal aspect that made him stand out (and would appeal to groups seeking a speaker), the single word that popped up was “strength” — his own strength and resolve.

Getting a new gig

Not long after, “On a Roll” got a makeover. No longer was it geared only to an audience with disabilities, and its name was changed to “The Strength Coach.” Once a week for four years, Smith went on the air to offer listeners what he calls “a serving of positive mental nourishment.”

At the same time, he began honing his presentation skills and subject matter for the public speaking circuit, and that’s his main gig today. His topics include “How to Build Inner Strength for Victory in the Game of Life,” and “Disability 101 — Lessons Worth Learning from America’s Largest Minority (people with disabilities).” He describes his goal as “energizing audiences to build inner strength for peak performance by ‘working out’ with the weights of life’s challenges.”

Personal challenges

Life’s challenges for Smith included a tumultuous relationship with his former wife, the mother of his three children. He says that when someone set his house on fire with him inside, he knew it was time to take the kids and move on.

Today he shares a house with his two sons and daughter (ages 16, 14 and 11) and his parents in Ocean Springs, Miss. They had to make major renovations after double hurricane impacts in 2005 that lead to adventures such as Greg discovering a large snake at his feet when he wheeled in to check on the mud-filled garage.

But a reptilian encounter is hardly worth mention in Smith’s repertoire of hurdles hurdled. The Strength Coach continues to impart his personal lessons to audiences nationwide as an inspirational speaker, and his roll has no end in sight.

Visit www.thestrengthcoach.com for more details about Greg Smith and his world.

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