This may be the most emotional chapter yet in Sam Schmidt's journey.
The former Indy race car driver, who was left paralyzed from the shoulders down after a racing accident in 2000, was able to stand up and take his first steps in more than two decades.
TODAY's Harry Smith was there to witness the moment. To help Schmidt walk again, a team of engineers from Arrow Electronics designed an “exoskeleton” that supports his legs, allowing him to stand and walk forward while a person helps him balance from behind.
“I've almost ran out of words to describe the feeling in this entire process,” Schmidt said. “Epic. Mega. Unbelievable. After 21 years, I didn't remember what the view was like. ... I haven't gotten a full-body hug in 21 years, you know. And we got some of those today.”
Schmidt never lost his passion for racing. He even drove again a few years ago, using a specially designed Corvette that allows him to control the car using only the movements of his head, according to a description of the car from Arrow Electronics.
In 2018, he took Harry for a spin in his high-tech vehicle around Manhattan, and he has since competed in multiple races.
“Everybody thought it was insane. Why would I go back to the sport that put me in a wheelchair?” he said, speaking recently to Harry at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “I've been racing since I was 5 years old. It's all I ever wanted to do, was compete at this place. And that, to me, is what's kept me alive for 21 years.”
There was hardly a dry eye on the race course as Schmidt took his first steps, including from Schmidt himself as he described how he has dreamed of walking ever since his accident.
“In 21 years, I've never had a dream where I was in a wheelchair,” he said. “I'm always walking around with my kids and the race team and everything else.”
It was also an emotional scene for Tim Baughman, one of the crew members who pulled Schmidt from the wreckage all those years ago.
“I've been a paramedic for 38 years,” he said. “We don't see this — I mean, it's just inspirational as hell.”
Schmidt described his new exoskeleton as a “1.0” design and said that engineers are working on even more advanced versions of the device.
“Their goal with it is that I won't need to be balanced and that I will be able to operate it completely, myself, which is a mega-task,” he said.
In the meantime, his current device has already helped him achieve one major dream: dancing at his daughter’s wedding.
“I'm surprised I have any tears left,” Schmidt said. “It's been a wild month, for sure.”