Avalanche survival leads to Paralympic dreams

"I remember waiting for the sled … I thought if I closed my eyes, that would make the pain go away. Matt grabbed me by my shoulders and shook me and said, 'Sam, you're going back to Sara.' So in my mind, if I closed my eyes, that was like me giving up. I wasn't going to give in. … I knew if I did, I'd be dead. I kept thinking about Sara."
-- Sam Kavanagh

Two weeks after the amputation, Sara Kavanagh helped her husband Sam onto his bike. He rode it with one leg.

The ride hasn't stopped yet, and it might not until Sara and Sam Kavanagh reach the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing, where he hopes to compete in cycling's sprint events. The road to China is long, and the Kavanaghs' chances of reaching the end of it aren't certain. This, though, is a guarantee: The next 20 months will be a cruise-control joyride next to the journey that has taken Sam Kavanagh from then -- from that first painful one-legged push of the pedals -- to now.

The story of that most arduous trip begins in the Centennial Mountains near Yellowstone National Park in southwestern Montana, on New Year's Day in 2005, a long way from Sara. Sam and four of his college friends did what mid-20s married guys sometimes do: They took an away-from-the-wives weekend to go camping and skiing. For Kavanagh, the Montana back country was a kind of home. He knew how to handle it. He lived for the outdoors.

But he nearly died in it.

The powder that day was soft and deep, and they'd planned on skiing through areas dense with trees. So they talked about safety routines, and promised to keep an eye on one another. They wore avalanche beacons, just in case.

Chris Maki went first. Kavanagh followed. Then Blake Morstad.

Morstad skied over a dense, wind-packed chunk of snow. He stopped, sensing instability beneath him. He shouted back to Jason Thompson and Matt Schuyler. The slope tilted, and the massive shelf exploded.

Kavanagh heard Thompson yell, "Avalanche!" and saw a huge white cloud shoot from the mass of snow. Kavanagh tried to grab a tree; but when the snow hit him, the impact threw him about 70 yards. He felt a searing pain below his left knee.

He watched as Maki slid down the mountain on top of the avalanche. Kavanagh heard Schuyler and Thompson yell, and he yelled back.

No one heard Morstad.

The avalanche beacons helped them find Morstad's backpack. They dug with their hands. He was buried face down. They tried CPR. No reaction. Morstad's neck was broken.

"We had one guy who was dead and Sam heading in that direction," Schuyler says. "Sam became the priority. We had to attend to Sam. At that point, we had to get Sam out of there."

Kavanagh was awake all night, the pain pulsing from a 16-inch cut down his lower left leg. To stabilize it, they duct-taped his leg to the back of a shovel.

The next morning, Schuyler and Maki hiked out and reached a local search-and-rescue team. By 1 p.m., Kavanagh was in a helicopter.

Fearing the spread of life-threatening infection, doctors amputated his left leg below the knee 11 days later.

Kavanagh says the darkest days, not surprisingly, came during the first few months after the surgery. He'd always prided himself on being independent. Now, preparing morning coffee was a major task. He'd pour himself a cup and try to hop back to the breakfast table on his right leg without spilling it. After several changes of clothes, that stopped.

One day at work, he fell and landed on the stump that remains from his left leg. Bleeding severely, Sam, angry and embarrassed, went home to Sara. He remembers screaming every curse in the book, then calling his mother, crying.

Bad days like that one, though, never stuck with Sam for long.

Sara and Sam have known each other since the seventh grade, when Sara's mother was Sam's teacher. That's long enough for one to know how the other thinks. Sara knew about Sam's cycling, about his passion for mountain biking, about his time with the club cycling team at Montana State. She knew that he was an accomplished rider by the time he graduated.

They married during Sam's junior year. So Sara knew, too, that as Sam grew older, cycling became a lot to manage. She knew that's why he'd backed away from the bike.

And she knew what the bike could do for him after the accident. She knew how to respond to Sam's ready bag of excuses every time she broached the subject of riding again. She kept pestering.

"I think Sammy will even say this: He feels the most normal on his bike," Sara says. "I saw him during that time being down, and it wasn't like him. He had all of these new things to get used to. I could see he wasn't being himself. He needed to get back on his bike, to be the man I fell in love with, the man that I knew who loved life."

Sara, Sam says now, was the heroic one throughout the challenges and obstacles of his rehab. She was his strength, his conviction, his determination.

She was the reason he made it through that night on the mountain.

So Sara prepped the bike, and helped Sam climb back on. But she couldn't keep Sam's fears and anxieties at bay as he looked at the pedals that day two weeks after the amputation. Only months earlier, he'd been able to zip around on the bike at speeds of up to 20 miles per hour. Now, she was asking him to climb up on it as if for the first time, as if he'd never ridden at all.

"I was pretty scared," Sam says. "It was a struggle even getting on the seat. It was a reminder of how far I had to go to get back to my old self, of how much I had lost regarding my physical strength."

That first time, Kavanagh says he couldn't remember how to pedal, something he'd always taken for granted. For those initial few feet, he moved softly, fighting through tears. Those first strides sent pain shooting through his body, as if someone had plugged his left leg into an electrical socket.

He rode for as long as he could bear the pain. It wasn't long.

"Then I'd get back on the bike to go through it all again," Kavanagh says. "Sara would probably say I was a little possessed. Being on the bike despite the pain marked progress and represented not giving up, something I had committed to on the hill when I first saw my mangled leg."

So he clenched his teeth and kept riding. It made him feel competitive again, as he'd been before. Yes, people looked at the one-legged bike rider with curiosity, but Sam didn't care. He was glad to be that guy.

"Riding made Sam feel whole again," Sara says.

"I didn't want my life to be defined as an amputee," Sam says. "I didn't want to be bitter and shriveled up. I'm lucky to be alive, after what I went through. I wanted to go on to accomplish goals."

Last spring, Kavanagh saw a posting on the U.S. Paralympic Web site about a cycling camp at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., and he started thinking about racing again. He contacted Ron Williams, a below-knee amputee who won silver and bronze medals at the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens, Greece. Williams encouraged Sam to apply.

"Once he started riding more, I could start to see that fire for life again, that Sam wanted to do more," Sara says. "He got his spark back. Looking to compete in the Paralympics really put fuel on the fire, and made him even more excited about riding."

There were doubts, plenty of them. But Sam doesn't have a history of placing limitations on himself. As a 4-year-old, his story goes, he pushed a bike his grandparents had given him as a birthday present through the tough wooded terrain surrounding his parent's home because he was too small to ride it. As a 10-year-old, he says he and his sister, Logan, chopped down an evergreen pine with a butter knife and a lawnmower blade. It took them two days.

That perseverance was forged in a family that was by most standards very poor. There was a period in Sam's youth, he says, when the Kavanaghs didn't have a bathroom. A five-gallon bucket in the corner of a room had to do. The family's first home was a stick-frame house. A good wind would rattle it.

Living through poverty taught him how to build small to get to the larger steps. That's what the cycling camp was all about. He just wanted to get noticed. Nothing more.

"I was scared to show up and be embarrassed at how slow I was and to lose my chance at making the team," Kavanagh says. "I was very cautious going into the camp. Despite high expectations, I tried to convince myself this was just an opportunity for me to meet people like me and introduce myself to the coaching staff, let them know I was out there and serious about the Paralympics. I just hoped my efforts would encourage the coaches to give me a chance in the future."

At the camp, Sam raced in a velodrome for the first time. In a solo time trial on a borrowed bike, he clocked 1 minute, 31 seconds over one kilometer. His time was two seconds off the national standard of 1:29.

He rode his cool-down lap with tears streaming down his face.

"I started to cry, too, because it was healing to see him ride and see him do that," Sara says. "I felt it healed Sam's heart, watching that one moment. That was a big moment."

Kavanagh was invited to the U.S. Paralympic Cycling National Championships in July 2006 in Trexlertown, Pa., where he finished fourth in the 1-kilometer race in 1:28 (national-level time) and fifth in the 4-kilometer pursuit in 5:51 (an emerging time). There are three levels of paracycling: elite, national and emerging. Elite- and national-level cyclists merit consideration for the Paralympic team.

Kavanagh's times gained instant attention.

"I'm happy I did it," Sam says. "I got an idea of how fast I had to become to reach their level."

Craig Griffin, head coach of the U.S. Paralympic cycling team and once the coach of the U.S. Olympic team, invited Kavanagh to race with the national team at the Paracycling World Championships in September in Switzerland. Racing on a borrowed bike again, Kavanagh finished ninth in the world, knocking his 1-kilometer time down to 1:16. Sam placed ninth in the 4-kilometer pursuit (5:22), and ranked in the top 10 as a below-knee amputee. (Each disability group falls under a certain category. Kavanagh is a below-the-knee amputee, or LC2 competitor.)

"Sam just happened to come to us in the last minute," says Griffin, a former member of the New Zealand National team who coached a young Lance Armstrong at the Junior World Championships in Moscow in 1989. "Every year, there has been such a high rate of improvement in Paralympic competition. It is very good and very deep. He's on a par with many rare athletes in the world, and for Sam to step in and do it in such a short time is a rarity."

Griffin says Kavanagh has a legitimate chance to medal at the Paralympics in Beijing. Griffin wants him to ride 16-18 hours a week, at least, this year in preparation. He sees the powerfully built, 5-foot-10, 185-pound Kavanagh succeeding in the sprint events in China.

"We knew Sam's story, and can understand why Sam has such a great attitude," Griffin says. "But that attitude is pervasive throughout the team. It gives you a whole new perspective of what people have been through. It's sort of like a rebirth. You realize how precious life is."

Sara didn't go to the World Championships in Switzerland, because it would have been too much of a financial burden. But she was there with him in his heart.

"Just thinking about Sam being there and imagining him ride, I felt like part of me was there," says Sara, a first-grade teacher. "But I will be there in Beijing, definitely. There's nothing that will keep me away. I can see him up on that medal stand, and how satisfying that would be. He wants to be up there holding a baby on the medal stand with him, but I don't know about that yet."

Kavanagh says medaling at Beijing would be a testament to everyone who has helped push him.

"Sara, my parents, anyone close to me could have sat back and wondered why this happened to me," he says. "So it would be a victory for all of them, plus a victory for everyone faced with my situation. It would prove that even in life's bleakest moments, we can still achieve things we once didn't even know existed. … For me, it's always been about faith. Doctors used to question and wonder why I was even alive after the avalanche. I think it was because of my attitude. I keep thinking that there is something bigger out there. That's what enables me to persevere.

"I learned that it's OK to ask people for help. Sheer willpower won't always get me through. I learned that during the bad days, it was OK to still curl up and cry in Sara's arms. I've learned to forget. That's what makes the difference -- the people surrounding you."

Joseph Santoliquito is the Managing Editor of RING Magazine and a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be contacted at JSantoliquito@yahoo.com.