CANDLER, N.C. – Zoe Smith locked eyes with her coach from across a makeshift gym littered with small children practicing forward rolls and cartwheels.
The 10-year-old took a deep breath and leaned back on her prosthetic left leg before taking off in a sprint toward the vaulting table. She hit the springboard at full speed and landed a back handspring perfectly on the mat.
She raised her arms and flashed a mischievous smile towards her coach, Jennifer Nikitopolous, as she ran to the back of the line.
“Oh, she puts sass into everything she does,” Nikitopolous said, laughing. “But she’s also fearless.”
Zoe, whose full name is Zuleikha, has used that attitude to her advantage since taking up gymnastics five years ago.
After placing first in two qualifying meets, she finished fifth at a statewide competition in April. On June 13 in Orlando, Florida, she competed in the AAU Gymnastics National Championships at the Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World Resort.
“People look at me and think, how does she do that with one leg?” Zoe said. “They learn not to underestimate me.”
‘She’s a trooper’
Zoe was born without her fibular bone, a birth defect called fibular hemimelia that occurs in about 1 of every 40,000 births. She was also missing half of the growth plates in her left leg, and her parents were told it would grow at half the rate of her right leg her entire life.
Her parents, Laila and John Smith, struggled with their options, but decided to take doctors’ recommendations to amputate the front portion of Smith’s left foot while keeping the heel for support. She had the operation at the age of 1, and after spending time in a cast, began to learn to walk on her first prosthetic.
“The foot just wasn’t working,” Laila said. “It was only going to grow half as fast as her other leg. It was so hard because the people around us didn’t understand the decision, but it was the way for her to have the best quality of life. I mean, who wants to send their kid off to surgery?”
Zoe has needed multiple surgeries to readjust her knee. She’s up to six surgeries so far, and will need at least one more as she continues to grow. She’s also gone through around 10 prosthetic legs.
“She’s a trooper,” Laila said. “She just keeps going no matter what. She amazes me how much she can overcome whatever is happening to her.”
Living in Northern California on a 10-acre farm, Zoe’s parents, who owned a goat-breeding business, enrolled her in gymnastics when she was 5 years old. They were concerned she wouldn’t be able to keep up with the other kids, but it was quite the opposite.
Her mom said she quickly began to spend more time on her hands than her legs.
“I’d have to tell her to get off her hands so I could talk to her,” Laila said, laughing.
At the age of 7, Zoe won her first state championship, outperforming her entire division in the vault, balance beam, floor exercise and uneven bars.
Competing with a prosthetic leg, also known as a flex-foot cheetah, came with physical disadvantages.
“It’s harder, and it doesn’t flex or bend,” Zoe said. “I get bruises all over my leg and it can hurt when I land.”
She also picked up some emotional bruising growing up with a disability.
Zoe said she was teased, but mostly got annoyed from questions about her leg, especially from kids her age or younger.
That’s where her big sister, 11-year-old Fatima, stepped in.
“Fatima has always been her protector,” Laila said. “She’s the muscle, basically. The mama bear on the playground.”
The two take gymnastics together and are best friends.
“Sometimes she just doesn’t want to talk about it,” Fatima said. “That’s where I come in. Especially with the young kids. They ask a lot of questions.”
A new home
Zoe is new to the Asheville area. Her family moved cross-county from California last August to escape the wildfires that put their community and home in harm’s way.
The move forced her to take time away from gymnastics as they got settled in North Carolina.
Zoe started taking classes with Jennifer Nikitopolous and her husband, Fred, in January and they quickly put together a routine to get her into local competitions.
“We just dove right in,” Laila said.
She competed well, despite a small window of training, but found herself without a place to train before the state competition in April.
The gym where the Nikitopolous’ had been renting space asked them to leave, and other area gym’s would not allow them space to train.
“It was so disappointing,” Laila said. “They didn’t give us a reason. They just asked us to leave.”
Smith found less traditional ways to train. They went to Carrier Park and worked on routines on the jungle gym or found a grassy area to put down a homemade wood panel floor so she could practice her floor exercise.
“We did a lot of conditioning out there,” Zoe said. “It wasn’t my favorite, but it was okay.”
She still finished in the top five at the state competition, including first place in the floor exercise, and earned a spot in this month’s national championships.
“That training actually helped her at state,” Laila said. “They used a beam that was more like the one we had trained on and she did amazingly well while everyone else struggled. The floor at state was stiff like the one we had trained on.”
Laila said her daughter always performs her best at competitions.
“I just love it,” Zoe said. “You are out on the floor and usually the judges don’t know what your routine is and if you mess up, it’s OK, you can just make something up.”
The Nikitopolous’ were able to find a temporary training space in time to train for nationals, using an outbuilding that is only 1,000 square feet at the Candler Church.
There are no uneven bars and the homemade balance beam rests on the floor. There is little room for Zoe to spread out and complete her full floor routine at practice.
But it’s the space they have and where Smith has been training for the biggest competition of her life.
“She doesn’t complain,” Jennifer Nikitopolous said. “She just does the work and always has a lot of fun.”
Of the nearly 2,500 athletes who will compete in Orlando, Zoe was picked to light the torch during the June 14 “Celebration of Athletes.”
“I really don’t know what to say when people call me an inspiration,” Zoe said. “But I’m OK with it. I think it’s cool.”