On the first day of 2005, Sam Kavanagh and three friends were on day two of a planned four day back country skiing trip in Montana’s Centennial Mountain Range.
At that moment Sam wasn’t a Paralympic medalist, or a father. He wasn’t an elite cyclist, having given up the dream of being a serious competitor to become a ‘weekend warrior’ post-college. All of these things would come later.
On that day, he was just a 20-something on a boy’s weekend in search of some outdoor adventure. By day’s end he would be caught in an avalanche, fighting for his life with a compound fracture in his left leg.
Because of poor weather, it took two days before Sam could be airlifted to the hospital by military chopper. “I was pretty much ready to give up on my life. The only thing that kept me going was thinking, I have to get home to my wife, Sara,” said Sam.
During that time Sam’s friends would do their best to stabilize his condition, but by the time he arrived in the hospital he would require three days in the ICU. After being re-admitted to the ER for complications from his injury, Sam would have his left leg amputated below the knee on January 13.
Active by nature, Sam had spent most of his life on the go, and the first two months as an amputee were rough on him.
“I went through that depression, thinking that I wasn’t going to be able to participate again, and questioning whether I had made the right decision in amputating.”
Then one afternoon, Sara took Sam’s old bike out of a closet in their bedroom, and put it on a trainer in their living room. “You are going to get on your bike today,” she said.
“I’ll be honest, I fought her. I may have even said a few harsh words. That bike was a reminder of how much I’d lost,” said Sam.
But Sara stood her ground. And Sam got on his bike.
That first day he pedaled for about 30 seconds. A failure in his mind. Sara refused to allow him to feel sorry for himself, asking, “Well how much did you pedal yesterday?”
The rest of 2005, Sam reintroduced himself to sports and activities he’d enjoyed prior to his amputation.
As Sam became more active, he began conversing with Ron Williams, a Paralympic cyclist, who had been an inspiration for him during his time in the hospital.
Ron encouraged Sam to apply for an opportunity to attend a Paralympic cycling development camp in June of 2006. He stood out at the camp and was invited to attend Nationals. There, on his first attempt at a Velodrome, on a borrowed bike, Sam placed fourth, and he caught the attention of the U.S. Paralympic coaches.
“It sparked that competitive fire in me,” he said. “I didn’t want to just be good. I wanted to excel.”
It was after World’s that year that Sam had to make a decision he’d made once before. Throughout college Sam had raced competitively and after graduation he had to make a decision. Would he try to race at an elite-level and possibly aim for a podium some day, or would he become a weekend warrior? Post-college Sam had decided to give up elite-level cycling thinking that he physically didn’t have what it would take. But this time was different.
“I’d stared at death,” he said. “I didn’t want to contemplate regrets this time around.”
So Sam and Sara, committed to his dream of reaching a Paralympic podium. While working a 60-70 hour work week as an engineer, Sam trained as much as he could, but after missing making the team for Beijing by less than one second, the couple regrouped and made a decision to make cycling a full time job.
As always, Sara was there encouraging him.
“All I did on the bike is that I pedaled. The sacrifice to race at this level goes farther than you on the bike. I probably would have given up on myself a long time ago, if it weren’t for Sara,” said Sam.
While training full time, Sam still found time to enjoy the sport he had always loved.
“It is punching a clock, but I would find time to just ride for the love of riding. To feel the wind in my hair, and feel how empowering it was to be moving.”
While the hardware was something he will never forget, the real accomplishment for Sam was learning that he’d surpassed a goal he’d given up many years ago when he stopped racing competitively after college.
“It was learning that when I had two legs I had convinced myself that I wasn’t capable of competing at this level, but I was surpassing all of those goals.”
He encourages other races and adaptive athletes to test themselves in the same way.
“Sports empower us on so many levels. There’s that sense of accomplishment there, especially when the general public, or even ourselves, say we’re incapable,” said Sam. “The day I got back on my bike, I felt whole again.”