Montana State University

Spring 2011

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Mountains and Minds

In 2005 Sam Kavanagh lost a leg in a Montana avalanche. He didn't lose his competitive spirit.

No limbitations April 25, 2011 by Evelyn Boswell • Published 04/25/11

In 2005 Sam Kavanagh lost a leg in a Montana avalanche. He didn't lose his competitive spirit.
Sam Kavanagh--one of the competitive Kavanaghs of Coram, Mont.--was three years old when he got his first bicycle. So eager to ride, but too small for the Peugeot his grandfather sent him, he pushed the bike up and down the hill in front of his house for a year.

"Cycling was kind of the first sport I ever fell in love with," Kavanagh said. "It was my first taste of freedom."

As Kavanagh grew older and his bikes got bigger, he pedaled through the Flathead National Forest, which surrounds the Kavanagh home west of Glacier National Park. He rode over roots and animal trails before mountain biking became popular. One time, he came face to face with a bear. Sam's dad, Bill, still remembers when Sam was about 15, and he and a friend were racing through the forest on Hard Money Trail. Kavanagh suddenly flew over the handlebars and landed on his feet with his bear spray in his hand. Fortunately, the big black bear in his path was so startled that it ran away.

Kavanagh continued to bicycle through high school and then into Montana State University where he also skied, hunted, hiked and rode horses while earning his bachelor's degree in civil engineering.

"I loved MSU," he said, adding that it was a great fit for him. After graduating from MSU in 2002, Kavanagh worked as a civil engineer for the Montana Department of Transportation and then Morrison-Maierle, Inc.

It was his love of an active, outdoor life that placed Kavanagh in Montana's Centennial Mountains instead of in front of a television set on Jan. 1, 2005. He and four friends--all of them experienced back-country skiers--had decided to hold a mini-reunion before one of them, Blake Morstad, became a new father. They planned to celebrate the first few days of the New Year by camping by night and skiing by day.

But sudden tragedy changed that plan.

"I remember hearing the word 'Avalanche' yelled above me," Kavanagh recalled. "The rest of it was a sea of reaction. I remember it being dark and violent and fast."

Morstad, an MSU graduate who had studied avalanche dynamics with MSU civil engineering professor and snow scientist Ed Adams, died that day. Kavanagh's left leg was so mangled and the location so remote that he spent two days in the mountains before a rescue team could reach him. When he finally made it to Bozeman Deaconess Hospital, it was too late for repairs. Doctors amputated Kavanagh's left leg below the knee.

Kavanagh said he tried to approach each day of his recovery with a renewed spirit, telling himself to expect some days to be harder than others. But he faced recurring depression as he recovered from his injuries and amputation. Occasionally, he could only rage about the pain and the effort it took to adjust to life with an artificial leg.

It was his wife, Sara, who encouraged him to return to the bike, Kavanagh said. They had met while attending Columbia Falls High School, and she knew how much cycling meant to him. So Kavanagh climbed back on the bike within a year of his accident and within two days of receiving his first artificial leg.

Even though his doctor busted him when he saw him cycling on the street, returning to the bike felt normal, Kavanagh said. It made him feel more whole than he'd felt in a long time. It gave him a way to move around town instead of relying on Sara to drive him in the car. It made him feel as free as a kid holding his hand out the car window and letting it swoop in the wind.

"It was freedom," Kavanagh recalled. "It was independence. It was pretty momentous."

Determined to live life without "limbitations," Kavanagh continued cycling around Bozeman and Gallatin County. He then attended a 2006 development camp for Paralympic athletes where his abilities caught the attention of Paralympic coaches. They invited him to compete in the nationals that year, and he quickly moved up the ladder of Paralympic cycling.

"This was typical of Sam," said Craig Griffin of Colorado Springs, Colo., performance director for U.S. Paralympics Cycling, and Kavanagh's coach since 2006.

"He drew on his previous cycling experience," Griffin said. "It was a matter of making those adaptations to his bike without his lower leg. His muscle memory came back, and that basic skill and fitness came back pretty quick."

Kavanagh is now a world-class cyclist who won three national championships in 2010 alone. He belongs to the national Paralympics cycling team, which means he is in a core group of athletes who represent the United States internationally. Kavanagh is training now for elite races in the United States and Europe, in addition to the London 2012 Paralympic games and the Rio 2016 Paralympic games.

Competing against top-level athletes--including those without disabilities--has him cycling 2 to 2 1/2 hours a day, usually twice a day around Gallatin County, when weather allows it, Kavanagh said. To train in facilities like those in which he'll face during international competitions, Kavanagh travels to Colorado Springs, San Diego and Los Angeles a few times a year. There, he rides in velodromes, the shrunk-down tracks with steeps banks that are made for high-intensity, typically short races.

"Before the accident, I didn't train at the same commitment or desire as now," Kavanagh said. "A lot of it is that I want to be fast on the bike. I'm also driven to not let amputation slow me down. It gives me fuel for the fire."

Griffin said Kavanagh is becoming more powerful all the time and has a good chance at climbing world champion podiums in the next two years before the London 2012 Paralympics. Paralympic athletes are placed in one of five categories based on their disability. Kavanagh said he competes in the least disabled class, but he is one of the most disabled within that class.

"He's probably sitting in one of the hardest classes in paracycling, but he's very determined, very motivated and a great athlete," Griffin said.

At the same time, Kavanagh is devoted to his wife, toddler Amelia, parents, sister and friends. Sara took a sabbatical from her job as a second grade school teacher so she could accompany Sam to some of his races during the 2010-11 school year. Besides her support, Kavanagh said he looks to Sara to offset his competitiveness and provide balance to their daughter. A cheerful person, Sara is just happy to see people active and enjoying themselves, he said.

As much as he loves cycling, Kavanagh said he plans to reevaluate his commitment to the sport after the London games. It's possible he will resume his career as a civil engineer.

"I realize how much this taxes my family and friends," he said of cycling. "That's very important to me--making sure I don't jeopardize relationships."

Kavanagh is also passionate about encouraging others to live their lives fully. A motivational speaker in addition to being a cyclist and family man, he has addressed more than 200 audiences since his accident. He describes the New Year's Day avalanche in hopes that scientists and skiers will learn from his experience. He urges his listeners to live full lives and tell their own stories. He emphasizes the fact that people can handicap themselves without ever losing a limb, breaking a back or being confined to a wheelchair.

"It's more a state of mind," Kavanagh said. "If you look into a mirror and say, 'I can't. I'm not capable of (it),' if you give up on a dream or don't take on a challenge, you are far more handicapped than if you need a wheelchair to go from point A to point B."