When Canada’s men step on the field for the first time at the World League Semi-Final in London on Friday, midfielder John Smythe will be doing so for the fiftieth time.
As far as hockey accomplishments go, 50 caps is a good one. But for Smythe, reaching the milestone is even more impressive than normal considering there was a point not so long ago when Smythe thought he wouldn’t even play one senior match.
Smythe’s uncertainty about hockey stemmed from uncertainty around his health.
In the heart of his junior cycle, Smythe was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis (UC), a disease that results in inflammation and ulcers of the colon and often comes along with severe abdominal pain and weight loss, and makes it almost impossible to play hockey.
The disease – at its worst – can also result in death.
“If you were my son, I would tell you to do the surgery, because you are literally bleeding to death right now,” is what he was told by his team of doctors in 2007.
“They said ‘we’re going to remove probably 95% of your colon and you should be somewhat cured,’” Smythe says of his first course of treatment. “And effectively if you don’t have a colon, then you can’t have ulcerative colitis.”
Despite the thought that his UC was cured after the colon removal in October 2007, his battle with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) was far from over.
“Problems persisted on for 2-3 years after that and they decided that it was probably Crohn’s now, and then finally they diagnosed me with Crohn’s.”
Crohn’s is also a type of IBD that affects any part of the gastrointestinal tract from the mouth down.
It comes with similar symptoms as UC, and for Smythe it also came with the caveat that his international hockey career was on hold – or maybe over – before it really even got started.
WATCH – John Smythe on Living With Crohn’s:
But with tireless work from his doctors, a never-say-die attitude, inspiration from his brother Iain – who also plays for the Men’s National Team – and an olive branch from a provincial coach, Smythe was able to get a handle on his disease and give hockey another go.
“One day, Kinder (Gill) was working for FHBC and he called me up and asked me if I wanted to come to a tryout and I said I have nothing to lose, I might as well go for it.”
And in 2013 – six years after his diagnosis – Smythe made his Senior National Team debut in 2013 in Chile.
And while life as an athlete is far from normal – “I can’t eat anything before morning trainings, so now I don’t have much energy to go on. Because we train so early, it’s just going to digest when I’m in the middle of training” – he has learned to deal with.
Medication helps him cope, and despite ongoing hiccups like this past March at World League Round 2 in Trinidad and Tobago, where Smythe says he “took a hit” to his system and “was puking before almost every game,” he is in the best playing shape of his life, evidenced by his inclusion in Canada’s World League Semi-Final team.
“I don’t think of it as a big burden anymore. It’s part of me, and it makes me who I am.”
And as he prepares to step on the field for Canada for the fiftieth time, he offers words of wisdom for athletes who may not see a future for themselves in sport.
“If you love something so much – like I love field hockey – just continue to play. Even if it’s for fun. You never know if you’re going to get past those flare ups and start getting into a stable diet and medication…and then finally get in to a position where you’re able to go for a National Team. So just continue to do what you love, and things will get better.”
Smythe and Canada’s men’s field hockey team face Pakistan at the World League Semi-Final on Friday, June 16.
A word of thanks from John Smythe:
“I wanted to mention that I am incredibly blessed to have such an amazing support system. I wouldn’t be close to where I am today without the support of my friends, family, coaches, teammates and incredible medical team. Most notably, to my skillful team of surgeons lead by Dr Terry Phang, and my incredible Gastroenterologist Dr Robert Enns who continuously finds a way to make my dreams come true. And lastly, I have to say a huge thank you to my biggest support system; my parents. My parents have been unbelievably caring, and supportive throughout the worst times and without them I may not have bounced back to where I am. I can truly say that I wouldn’t be getting my 50th cap without their love and support. “