INDIANAPOLIS — Savannah Boehrer is standing in her wedding gown, waiting. She’s been waiting for 21 years.
“Now for the father-daughter dance,” the DJ announces. The song starts playing: “Daddy Dance With Me.”
Since she was two years old, Boehrer has wanted that so badly. But her dad Sam Schmidt couldn’t dance. He couldn’t walk.
On this day in April, though, as the words “I know what you see when you look at me…as we walk down the aisle” play out, she sees something remarkable.
Schmidt walking toward her to dance.
Boehrer’s hand goes to her mouth. She starts crying. Everyone in the reception hall starts crying. There are cheers, gasps and wonder.
For the first time since 2000, when a crash paralyzed Schmidt from the neck down, he dances with his daughter — with the aid of an exoskeleton.
“I always dreamed this day would come,” said Boehrer. “So, for this one dance, it was incredible just to be his daughter, and for him just to be my dad. For us to get to have the daddy-daughter dance that every little girl dreams of. For me to actually look up at him, to hold his hands and just dance.”
“It was the best day in the last 21 years period,” Schmidt said this week. “Bar none.”
Same injury as Christopher Reeve
Schmidt was testing in Florida in January 2000, preparing for the IRL season opener Indy 200 later that month. He was in his Treadway Racing G Force-Aurora at Walt Disney World Speedway when he spun and hit the retaining wall.
He doesn’t remember it happening.
Schmidt blew apart his C3 and C4 vertebrae and wasn’t breathing for almost four minutes. Because it was an IndyCar test, the safety crew was there, which to this day Schmidt contends saved his life. The crew pulled him out, resuscitated Schmidt and put him in a helicopter to Orlando.
What followed were days and weeks in a hospital, filled with disbelief and devastation.
On a hospital television, a story flashed across SportsCenter. “It’s a lot worse than we first thought,” a spokesperson for Schmidt’s Treadway Racing team told ESPN. “He has the same injury as Christopher Reeve.”
Doctors told his wife, Sheila, to start looking at nursing homes, that her 35-year-old husband might not live to 40, that he would remain on a ventilator. If Superman couldn’t get out of this, Schmidt almost certainly couldn’t.
But Schmidt, now 56, got off the ventilator. He founded Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, now known as Arrow McLaren SP. He started the foundation Conquer Paralysis Now. He learned how to live life in a wheelchair.
And for two decades, in the back of his mind, Schmidt had a dream. To walk at his daughter’s wedding.
Missed a lot of moments
The journey goes back to 2013, with Schmidt’s dream to drive again. He started a project with Arrow Electronics which, with its team of engineers, modified a Corvette to allow Schmidt to drive using only the motion of his head.
Seven months later in 2014, Schmidt drove on Carb Day in Indy and went 107 miles an hour.
“Just joking around I said, ‘You know if we’re successful with this Corvette when my daughter is ready to get married, you’re going to have to create something for me to walk her down the aisle and be part of the wedding,'” Schmidt said. “And ‘ha ha ha, laugh, laugh, laugh.'”
But Schmidt wasn’t joking.
Boehrer, now 23, was two and a half when Schmidt was injured. His son Spencer was six months old.
“We were just getting into life. It was that time in life where I could take her to swim lessons…just have fun and then I got in the accident,” he said. “They’ve only really known me in the wheelchair. I just missed a lot of full body hugs and those moments.”
In 2019, Boehrer had been dating her now-husband Adam Boehrer for about two years.
“I kind of got the feeling things were headed that direction and he was about to ask,” Schmidt said. So he went to Arrow. “And I said, ‘I don’t know how much time we have, but it’s not a lot. We’ve got to get going.'”
Arrow got on it with the same passion, force and ingenuity it had with the Corvette, Schmidt said. Four engineers were assigned solely to design an exoskeleton that would allow Schmidt to walk.
They took an existing exoskeleton product that was tried and proven then adapted it, added technology and customizing it for Schmidt’s level of injury, which is much higher than most exoskeletons are designed for.
The device goes on from the waist down and has motors at the knees and hips to simulate walking.
Walking. Schmidt had to get to the gym. Bone density and atrophy can be issues after sitting for two decades. He hadn’t used any of those muscles. He had to make sure they were strong enough.
He spent four to five days a week, two hours a day doing exercises, losing weight.
“It culminated on April 25 in Laguna, California,” he said. “And we shocked a lot of people.”
‘It was crazy. It was chaotic’
The wedding took place outside in a 120-year-old grove of trees. Schmidt had hoped to walk Boehrer down the aisle, but it was rough ground, even getting his wheelchair around was difficult.
“And frankly walking down the aisle should really be about her and not about me,” he said. “And she was gorgeous.”
After the wedding, Boehrer was in that reception hall waiting. The exoskeleton requires a person to balance Schmidt from behind.
“And we walked in together and that was the first time she had seen me standing and walking at all,” he said. “So to say there wasn’t a dry eye in the room was pretty much an understatement.”
Growing up, Boehrer said, no part of her family’s life was “normal,” at least not in the traditional sense.
“My brother and I have come to love and cherish all of the ways our childhood and now adulthood were different, and we would not change our circumstances for anything,” she said. “That being said…to be able to dance with my dad at my wedding was more than a dream come true.”
Schmidt danced the first dance with Boehrer and the second with his wife to the song “Stand By Me.”
“When my mom came up to have the next dance with him, that was when the emotion crashed over the room,” Boehrer said. “It had been over 21 years since my mom had been able to experience standing and dancing with my dad. In that moment, even just for a dance, she was able to get back. (It was) the most special moment I have ever witnessed.”
For the third, fourth and fifth dance the rest of the wedding crowd joined in.
“It was crazy. It was chaotic,” Schmidt said. “It was better than anybody could have ever planned.”
More tears, this time at IMS
He is running out of words to describe what it’s like to walk. How do you describe what it’s like to sit for 21 years and then stand up and take steps?
“It’s euphoric. I had forgotten what the view was like up there,” Schmidt said. “Because I’m sitting here looking at people’s waists for 21 years and then I stand up and I’m looking at the tops of their heads.”
Schmidt is 6-1, but he had forgotten what it felt like to be that tall.
Weeks after the wedding, Schmidt had another emotional moment walking. He was at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the GMR Grand Prix on May 10.
Tim Baughman, IndyCar manager of track safety, is the man who pulled Schmidt from the car in Florida after his crash.
Schmidt found him at IMS that day — and he walked up behind him. Baughman turned around “and he just started bawling. He just lost it,” Schmidt said.
The two hugged.
The exoskeleton now is version 1.0, Schmidt said, the goal to get him upright and walking. The way the unit works, it requires his body to shift weight to the left and right to move his legs. Schmidt can’t do that shift.
Arrow is working on version 2.0 that will use voice command to allow Schmidt to initiate the steps and not require the body shift.
“The big hurdle of step 3 would be hands-off,” he said. “Me doing it myself.”
A final moment of awe for Schmidt came the day after the Indy 500. He was at a friend’s house for a barbecue. The friend had taped the race and Schmidt was watching it when, after the checkered flag, an Arrow commercial came on.
Schmidt had no idea it was coming.
Footage of his crash in Florida, Schmidt in the hospital, the Corvette going 100 miles an hour and then Schmidt standing up from his wheelchair, walking toward the car and driving away.
Before his eyes, the past 21 years of his life played out. A life he never imagined he would have.
“The sky’s the limit,” he said.
Boehrer feels the exact same way.
“Our family motto is ‘It is not if, but when he will walk again,'” she said. “And this is just the beginning.”
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: IndyCar: Paralyzed Sam Schmidt walks, dances with daughter at wedding