IndyCar team owner Sam Schmidt walks for first time in 21 years, dances with daughter at wedding

INDIANAPOLIS - Savannah Boehrer is standing in her wedding dress and waiting. She's been waiting for 21 years.
"Now for the father-daughter dance," announces the DJ. The song starts playing: "Daddy Dance With Me".
Boehrer has wanted it so badly since she was two years old. But her father Sam Schmidt couldn't dance. He couldn't walk.
On that day in April, however, when the words, "I know what you see when you look at me ... as we walk down the aisle" are heard, she sees something remarkable.
Schmidt goes up to her to dance.
Sam Schmidt dances with his daughter Savannah at their wedding.
Boehrer's hand goes to her mouth. She's starting to cry. Everyone in the lobby starts crying. There is cheering, gasping and amazement.
For the first time since 2000, when Schmidt was paralyzed from the neck down in a crash, he dances with his daughter - with the help of an exoskeleton.
"I've always dreamed that this day would come," said Boehrer. “It was incredible for this one dance to just be his daughter and just to be my father for him. For us to get the papa-daughter dance that every little girl dreams of, hold her hands and just dance. "
"It was the best day in the last 21 years," said Schmidt this week. "No bar."
Same injury as Christopher Reeve
Schmidt tested in Florida in January 2000 and was preparing for the IRL Indy 200 season opener 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 happened.
Schmidt blew his C3 and C4 vertebrae apart and did not breathe for almost four minutes. Since it was an IndyCar test, the safety crew was there, who, as Schmidt claims, have saved his life to this day. The crew pulled him out, reanimated Schmidt, and put him in a helicopter to Orlando.
Sam Schmidt said he was sure he felt his body move in the hospital.
What followed were days and weeks in a hospital, full of disbelief and devastation.
A story about SportsCenter flashed on a hospital TV. "It's a lot worse than we first thought," a spokesman for Schmidt's Treadway Racing team told ESPN. "He has the same injury as Christopher Reeve."
Doctors told his wife, Sheila, to look around nursing homes, that her 35-year-old husband might not live to be 40, that he would stay on a ventilator. If Superman couldn't get out of here, 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 founded the Conquer Paralysis Now Foundation. He learned to live life in a wheelchair.
And Schmidt had a dream in the back of his mind for two decades. Going for a walk at his daughter's wedding.
Missed a lot of moments
The journey goes back to 2013, with Schmidt's dream of driving a car again. He started a project with Arrow Electronics, which, with his team of engineers, converted a Corvette so that Schmidt could only drive with the movement of his head.
Seven months later, in 2014, Schmidt was driving in Indy on Carb Day, doing 107 mph.
"Just kidding, I said, 'You know, if we're successful with this Corvette, when my daughter is ready to get married, you have to create something for me to take her to the altar and be part of the wedding,'" said Schmidt. "And 'ha ha ha, laugh, laugh, laugh.'"
But Schmidt wasn't kidding.
Boehrer, now 23, was two and a half years old when Schmidt was injured. His son Spencer was six months old.
“We just got into life. It was that time in life when I could take her to swimming lessons ... just have fun and then I got into an accident, "he said. "You only really know me in a wheelchair. I just got a lot of full-body hugs and missed those moments."
In 2019, Boehrer was with her current husband Adam Boehrer for about two years.
"Somehow I had the feeling that things were going in that direction and he wanted to ask," said Schmidt. So he went to Arrow. "And I said, 'I don't know how much time we have, but it's not much. We have to get started.'"
Arrow did it with the same passion, strength and ingenuity as with the Corvette, Schmidt said. Four engineers were tasked with designing an exoskeleton that would enable Schmidt to walk.
They took an existing exoskeleton product that had proven itself, then adapted it, added technology, and adapted it to Schmidt's degree of injury, which is much higher than most exoskeletons are designed to handle.
The device runs from the waist down and has motors on the knees and hips to simulate walking.
Walk. Schmidt had to go to the gym. Bone density and atrophy can cause problems after two decades of sitting. He hadn't used any of those muscles. He had to make sure they were strong enough.
He would spend two hours a day doing exercises to lose weight four to five days a week.
"It culminated on April 25th in Laguna, California," he said. "And we shocked a lot of people."
'It was crazy. It was messy '
The wedding took place outside in a 120 year old tree population. Schmidt had hoped to be able to lead Boehrer to the altar, but the ground was impassable, and even moving his wheelchair was difficult.
"And honestly, it should really be about her, not me," he said. "And she was beautiful."
After the wedding, Boehrer waited in this reception hall. The exoskeleton requires a person to balance Schmidt from behind.
"And we got in together and that was the first time she'd even seen me stand and walk," he said. "So to say no eyes were dry in the room was an understatement."
Growing up, said Boehrer, no part of her family life was "normal", at least not in the traditional sense.
Savannah Boehrer (left) watches as her father Sam Schmidt dances with her mother Sheila for the first time in 21 years.
"My brother and I love and cherish all the differences our childhood and adulthood today were, and we wouldn't change our circumstances for anything," she said. "Besides ... being 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 mother came to the next dance with him, the emotion broke through the room," said Boehrer. "It was over 21 years since my mother was allowed to stand and dance with my father. At that moment, even just to dance, she could come back. (It was) the special moment I have ever witnessed."
At the third, fourth, and fifth dances, the rest of the wedding crowd joined them.
"It was crazy. It was chaotic," said Schmidt. "It was better than anyone could ever have planned."
More tears, this time at IMS
Words fail to describe what it is like to leave. What is it like to sit for 21 years and then get up and take steps?
"It's euphoric. I had forgotten what the view was like up there," said Schmidt. "Because I've been sitting here looking at people's waists for 21 years, then I get up and look at their heads."
Schmidt is 6: 1, but he had forgotten what it feels like to be that big.
Weeks after the wedding, Schmidt had another emotional moment on foot. He was at the GMR Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 10th.
Tim Baughman, IndyCar track safety manager, is the man who pulled Schmidt out of his car after his accident in Florida.
Schmidt found him that day at IMS - and he followed him. Baughman turned "and just started howling. He just lost it," said Schmidt.
The two hugged.
Former IndyCar driver and current team owner Sam Schmidt speaks about his recovery at Arrow McLaren SP in Indianapolis on June 17, 2021.
The exoskeleton is now version 1.0, said Schmidt, the goal of which is to let him stand upright and walk. The way the device works requires his body to shift weight left and right in order to move his legs. Schmidt cannot make this shift.
Arrow is working on version 2.0, which will allow Schmidt to use voice commands to initiate the steps without the need to move the body.
"The big hurdle of step 3 would be to put your hands off," he said. "I do it myself."
One last moment of awe for Schmidt came the day after the Indy 500. He was at a friend's barbecue for a barbecue. The friend had recorded the race and Schmidt was watching it when an Arrow commercial ran after the checkered flag.
Schmidt had no idea it was coming.
Footage of his crash in Florida, Schmidt in the hospital, the Corvette at 100 mph, and then Schmidt getting out of his wheelchair, walking towards the car and driving away.
The last 21 years of his life played out before his eyes. A life he could never have imagined.
"The sky is the limit," he said.
Boehrer sees it the same way.
"Our family motto is 'It's not when, it's when it will run again,'" she said. "And that is just the beginning."
Follow IndyStar sports reporter Dana Benbow on Twitter: @DanaBenbow. Contact them by email: dbenbow@indystar.com.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: IndyCar: The paralyzed Sam Schmidt walks, dances with his daughter at the wedding
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Sam Schmidt
American racing driver

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