Joe Smith, meet the New Zealand sprinter with cerebral palsy who owes sporting pedigree to childhood in Leeds

A sprinter wearing the famous black jersey of sporting mad New Zealand at the Para-Athletic World Championships in Paris this week might be recognisable to a fair few people from north Leeds.

For 25-year-old Joe Smith may talk with a Kiwi accent and look every inch a New Zealander as he contests the 100 metres in the T37 category, but he is actually a Yorkshireman at heart.

Smith was born in Leeds and raised in West Yorkshire until his family moved to the other side of the world when he was nine. But that is barely half the story.

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Just days before he was born prematurely at Leeds General Infirmary in 1997, Joe suffered a series of strokes that left him with cerebral palsy for life.

Joe Smith competing in Auckland. He will represent New Zealand at the Para-Athletic World Championships.Joe Smith competing in Auckland. He will represent New Zealand at the Para-Athletic World Championships.
Joe Smith competing in Auckland. He will represent New Zealand at the Para-Athletic World Championships.

As a boy he would not let the illness define him, even if now as a man he has come to use it to his benefit.

“I went to school at St Urban’s Catholic School in Meanwood,” begins Joe.

“I can remember playing for Moortown Rugby Club for many seasons, I remember going to a Leeds Rhinos summer camp.

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Sport has always been a huge part of my life as well as my family’s life.

Leeds-born Joe Smith, left, running for New Zealand in the Para Athletics World Championships.Leeds-born Joe Smith, left, running for New Zealand in the Para Athletics World Championships.
Leeds-born Joe Smith, left, running for New Zealand in the Para Athletics World Championships.

“I had lots of friends in Leeds and still talk to some of the boys, I actually met up with one of them the last time I was in the UK.”

Dad Jes Smith looks back on those formative years fondly.

“Joe owes everything to his years in Leeds,” says Jes. “As a pupil of St Urban’s he was lucky enough to be able to visit the Pennyfields school across the road. Everyday he would go across for physio. Their love and care made all the difference to his attitude and his physical abilities.”

Joe’s obsession with sport continued as the family made a home in Auckland. He played cricket, football and rugby, all as part of able-bodied teams despite cerebral palsy causing impairment to his right side, affecting his co-ordination, control, balance and strength.

Joe Smith as a young boy in his Moortown RUFC kit.Joe Smith as a young boy in his Moortown RUFC kit.
Joe Smith as a young boy in his Moortown RUFC kit.
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“I can remember sitting with my mum and dad and they were spelling out the condition and what it meant for me, that was an emotional time because I didn’t want to be seen as different, but also people were asking ‘what’s wrong with me, why do you run like that?’” Joe remembers.

“I didn’t know how to handle that, so I’d either completely ignore them or make something up so I didn’t have to confront the condition I had.

“Then in 2019 I was playing football with friends who started making fun of somebody who had had a stroke and as someone who has had a stroke, I got really offended and upset. I realised I needed to do something about it, I cannot continue to let this get to me.

“So I got in touch with Paralympics NZ, they have pathways where you can choose what sports you’re interested in and they put you in touch with the right people.”

Joe Smith also attended Leeds Rhinos rugby camps in his youth.Joe Smith also attended Leeds Rhinos rugby camps in his youth.
Joe Smith also attended Leeds Rhinos rugby camps in his youth.
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Which brings us to the present day, and Joe debuting for New Zealand at the Para-Athletic World Championships. “It’s an absolutely huge stage for me, much bigger than any meet I’ve ever been to,” beams Joe, who hopes to return to Paris for the Paralympics next year.