CORNELIUS – Getting up on the podium to receive his first place big air prize at a Pro Wakeboard Tour event in Washington in mid-July, Stephen Pierce knew what he had to do.
Ignoring his bills and other things his money could be spent on, the Cornelius 22-year-old made the decision to donate his $1,000 winnings to help a fellow wakeboarder recently paralyzed in an accident. And his efforts haven’t stopped.
“On the podium I made a speech that I would donate all my winnings to Brad, who needs it more than I do,” Pierce said.
Brad Smeele, a New Zealand citizen living in Orlando, was ranked 20th in the world in the sport, just above Pierce’s 26th standing, according to the 2014 World Wakeboard Association world rankings. On July 6, Smeele was performing a trick when he had a rough landing. On his second attempt, he didn’t complete a flip and crash-landed on the ramp headfirst, breaking a vertebrate in his neck.
He is in critical care, paralyzed and battling pneumonia. A foundation has been made in his name to help pay medical bills, since he doesn’t have health insurance.
“Riders are all trying to support him,” Pierce said, adding Smeele is an awesome guy and always positive. “The whole sport is coming together.”
Upon returning home, Pierce auctioned off a wakeboard board he’d won to raise more money. Taking the prize with a $1,000 bid was Kerby Ballard, a manager of a NutriShop vitamin and nutrition store, expected to open this fall in Huntersville.
Ballard, a former wakeboarder, said the board will be housed in a trophy case in the store for customers to see along with gear and trophies from their sponsored youth athletics team.
“We wanted his wakeboard because it’s a local rider who lives in the community and helps spread the message of nutrition,” Ballard said, adding it was for a good cause.
Since participating in a Lake Norman wakeboarding contest last year, Pierce was ranked 23rd in the 2013 Pro Wakeboard tour standings, narrowly missing his goal of being in the top 20. This year, with one more tour competition left, he's ranked 11th.
“I’ve improved a lot and trained really hard,” he said. “I still have the same goals and dreams.”
Pierce lives in Cornelius during the summer where he teaches youth and adults the sport before going to Orlando to continue training in the winter. Some of his students have gone on to compete in a national level, including Mooresville's Daniel Johnson, who at age 9, is already winning in junior national competitions.
Pierce plans to continue raising money, including auctioning off a lesson.
Deep down, Pierce said he knows accidents like Smeele’s are a risk, but he doesn’t let it get in the way.
“I can’t let life pass me by because I’m scared to get hurt,” he said. “Brad reminds us all how fragile our bodies are and this could easily all go away. It’s scary, but I’m going to keep going the way I’m going.”
Pierce knows what it means to competitive, but has enjoyed seeing the athletes come together for Smeele.
“This sport is an individual sport and not a team sport. Everyone is in it for themselves and trying to win,” Pierce said. “It’s cool to see the wakeboard community lift Brad up. You don’t see that often in this sport. … Everyone is a part of it and giving a helping hand.”
To keep up with injured wakeboarder Brad Smeele's progress or to donate, go to www.bradsmeelefoundation.com. To learn more about Lake Norman wakeboarder Stephen Pierce, go to stephenpiercewake.com.