“My father was always trying to think of ways to help us get [ahead] in life because he did not have a great life,” Keeth reminisced about his dad. “One of the last conversations that I had with my father was about an article that he read in The New York Times about a successful black man. What struck my father was that this black man had an MBA.”
Keeth explained, “My father told me that I needed to get an MBA, because you don’t want the rest of the world to pigeonhole you as only an athlete. He told me that when I go into an interview, I need to show them that I have ‘checked all of the boxes.’”
The very next day, his father died. “It was one of those hot New York City summer days, and my dad was going for a light jog around the neighborhood. He was a fit person, but his heart just gave out. This hit me and my sister extremely hard, because it was the first time that we had dealt with death so close[.] We didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye, which left an extra void,” Keeth said.
Their father’s death refocused the Smart siblings. They set out to fulfill their father’s wishes by both earning MBAs — in addition to coming back stronger for the 2008 Olympics. “This is when I started researching business schools. I had never thought of it up until that moment.”
Keeth eventually found a program called Management Leadership for Tomorrow, which helps underrepresented minorities gain acceptance into top 20 business schools. He applied and was accepted. “It’s funny that someone who never truly had formal education could be so wise,” he said of his father’s inspiring idea.
For the next three years, Keeth fenced at night and worked during the day. During that time, Keeth married. Yet, tragedy hit the Smart siblings a second time. “As I was pursuing the three separate channels of work, athletics, and business school applications, my mom was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. They told her that she had two months to live and needed to get her affairs in order. My dad had just passed away, and my mom was given this death sentence in 2007.”
Things went from bad to worse. In April 2008, Keeth was diagnosed with ITP, a rare blood disease that causes extreme internal bleeding — 3 months before the Olympics. “The average person has between 130,000 and 150,000 blood platelets,” Keeth explained about his condition. “I had 8,000 and was very close to bleeding to death. As my body was doing this, my mom was barely holding on. This caused a major emotional whirlwind with my wife and sister.”
But, no matter how bleak things looked, Keeth refused to give up. The Olympic committee tried to bar Keeth from competing because of his condition, but he continued to push towards his goal. “What kept me going was a conversation with my mom. She said to me ‘you’ve got to keep the faith. God has more stuff in store for you and this is not the end for you. I believe you will go to the Olympics and business school. You have worked too hard and come too far for this to be the end.’
“That’s all that I needed to hear,” Keith said. “My mom’s words gave me the strength to stop listening to all of the negative medical reports and remember that it is all about positive thinking.”
Unfortunately, Keeth’s mother passed away before she knew that he had been reinstated to the Olympic team. With the support of his wife and sister, Keeth competed in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. “My only goal was to leave the Olympics with a medal, because I knew that it was going to be my last one,” he said of this challenge.
While most athletes are sequestered the day before an event, Keeth decided to break convention to cheer on his sister as she competed in her Olympic fencing event. “There was no way I was missing that for the world.” Good thing that he was there, because Erinn won a silver medal that day. Keeth won a silver medal in the team event the very next day.
“It was the greatest experience of my life,” he said of this team win. It was a validation of the power of never giving up.
But after their Olympic blitz, there was not too much time to celebrate. Keeth started class at Columbia Business School as soon as he got off of the plane. His wife, Shyra, started at NYU’s Stern School of Business that same semester.
“It was a great experience to go from one structured environment to another.” Yet, Keeth “was excited, because it gave me the opportunity to spend time with my wife as a couple. I had been training so hard for the Olympics that I missed this, and business school gave me the opportunity to do so. Lastly, business school allowed me the time to finally mourn the loss of my mom.”
After going from tragedy to triumph, life remains good for the Smart family today. Keeth is a vice president at Bank of America in a role that mixes his passion for finance and entrepreneurship. His sister Erinn is a second year business school student at the prestigious Wharton school. She is currently completing a summer internship at Google.
Keeth is also a new father. His 4-month-old baby daughter Taylor has taught him addition life lessons. “There is more than one way to work on a team,” Keeth told theGrio about the new phase of his family life. “I don’t get mad if she is crying. There are always going to be ups and downs and wins and losses. It is not the end of the world.”
Every week, Keeth also donates his time as a coach and a board member for the Westbrook Foundation, the organization that gave him his start more than twenty years ago. Keeth’s story is a prime example of what can happen if you never give up, believe in yourself, and take advantage of the loving support of your friends, family, and mentors along the way.
Lawrence Watkins is the founder of Great Black Speakers, Great Pro Speakers, and co-founder ofUjamaa Deals, which is a daily deal site that promotes black-owned businesses. He graduated in 2006 from The University of Louisville with a B.S. in electrical engineering and earned his MBA from Cornell University in 2010. Lawrence currently resides in Atlanta. You can follow him on Twitter@lawrencewatkins.