Paralympic athlete from Bozeman will compete in London
Like almost any little boy, Sam Kavanagh aspired to be a firefighter, a football player and, when the Olympics came around, an Olympic skier.
Having grown up in Coram at the edge of Glacier National Park, snow practically coursed through his veins. But it was snow coursing down a mountainside in 2005 that killed his best friend and changed Kavanagh’s life.
Now 33, Kavanagh survived two harrowing days when a massive avalanche in the Centennial Mountains pinned him against a tree, breaking his leg so severely that it was amputated below the knee.
Seven years later, U.S. Paralympic ski teams tried to recruit Kavanagh – still an avid telemark skier -- but he has since set his sights on a summer sport – cycling.
This week, Kavanagh, who recently moved to Colorado from Bozeman, is at the Los Angeles Velodrome, a 250-meter indoor cycling track, preparing to make his bid as a member of the U.S. Para-cycling team.
Speaking by video call from his hotel room Thursday morning, Kavanagh said the training is grueling.
They rode the track so hard that morning, “We were tasting breakfast by the end,” he said. And he was gearing up again for an afternoon road ride.
“To think I volunteered to do this,” he said, grinning.
But it isn’t anything Kavanagh can’t handle. In fact, he relishes the challenge just as he always has, meeting adversity with the grit of a seasoned cowboy.
While living in Bozeman, he’d ride up and down Hyalite Canyon’s 10-mile climb, confounding anyone he lapped on the route.
Kavanagh spends 20 to 25 hours a week in the bike saddle, putting in 300 to 400 miles, more than he puts on his car, he said.
And all that time on the bike is only part of the regimen. The rest is spent preparing for rides and recovering afterwards “so I can do it again the next day.”
The training has paid off, though it hasn’t been without sacrifices.
MAKING THE WORLD STAGE
Since 2006, Kavanagh has raced in national and world championships. He earned the 2008 U.S. championship in the 4-kilometer individual pursuit and a national silver medal in the same event in 2009.
He missed making the 2008 Paralympic team and instead became an alternate. “I just couldn’t stomach missing the Olympics by one second,” he said.
Kavanagh and his wife, Sara, both Montana State University graduates, lived in Bozeman -- a place he says he’ll always call home -- for 14 years.
When the avalanche happened, the Bozeman community rallied around them, both said.
“We were blessed to have so many friends in Bozeman,” Sara said. “We have continually felt their love and support. Through the emotional ups and downs, they were there for us.”
It was a difficult decision to move to Colorado. But Kavanagh’s busy schedule kept him too often away from Sara and their two young children. With a world-class training facility and an international airport, the Denver area better suited their immediate goals.
They moved in the spring to “optimize his training time and time with his family,” Sara said.
Not making the 2008 Paralympic team also brought Kavanagh to the conclusion he couldn’t work 60 to 70 hours a week at his engineering job with Morrison-Maierle while training to make the team.
So he made cycling his career, though that may be a misnomer.
“This is my job,” he said. “But the pay, I wouldn’t say it even exists.”
He’s burned through more savings than he’s made. Like many U.S. Olympians, Kavanagh isn’t sponsored, so he is paying most of the expenses himself.
He makes a living as a motivational speaker, something he never imagined he’d be doing.
When speaking, he tells his story and about how he’s overcome perceived obstacles to become a world champion cyclist and Paralympic athlete.
“The physical handicap I got in 2005 wasn’t my limitation,” he said. “It was my state of mind. What I try to convey is all too often we look into a mirror and analyze our faults. But if we step back and look at our surroundings, those flaws disappear.”
That’s not to say getting there was easy. Kavanagh hit a low point one evening in the hospital shortly after the amputation.
“Waking up in the middle of the night, no one there, the reality is acute,” he said. “It’s hard not to reflect on everything you’ve lost or given up.”
“But what really matters is what’s inside,” he continued. “Who’s sitting behind me and supporting me. For me, when I started recognizing that, I started to call on other strengths. Because looking in the mirror, I saw a guy with no leg; a 25-year-old whose been cut down in his prime. But I still had my wife at my side, my family and my aspirations. When I started to rely on the spirit of my heart, I realized there are no limitations.”
Going to the Paralympics can be more financially daunting than going to the Olympics.
“People don’t understand what Paralympic athletes are trying to attain,” Kavanagh said.
Many people minimize Paralympic athletes, thinking they aren’t of the same caliber as Olympians, but that’s far from reality.
Save for a few large corporations who also sponsor the U.S. Olympic team, most overlook Paralympic athletes. The Hartford Financial Services Group is one of the only companies that solely sponsor the Paralympics, Kavanagh said. But more corporations are beginning to recognize Paralympic athletes.
“We train side-by-side with Olympic athletes,” Kavanagh said. “What it’s taken me to get here … my training is a carbon copy of a professional, two-legged cyclist. I have to be at that 4 or 5 percent body fat and my power numbers are right up there with domestic pros in the states. I have the same expectations of myself and my body, and I have to make the same commitment and sacrifices. If I don’t, I won’t be there.”
Kavanagh has what it takes, said Bozeman Paralympic Nordic skier Beth Livingston, who was his first ski coach after he lost his lower leg.
“He is the definition of commitment, focus and dedication,” she said. “He is incredibly focused and incredibly disciplined. He has a ‘no excuses’ attitude.”
Kavanagh’s unassuming nature is also an asset.
“He’s incredibly humble, teachable and willing to learn,” Livingston said. “That’s how you achieve success, by opening the door to new knowledge and yielding outside support and influence.”
Kavanagh’s modesty is apparent when he was prompted to compare his cycling to any recreational cyclist who aspires to be stronger.
“Anybody who’s ever ridden up a climb and found themselves unclipping to walk up those last 100 meters understands what I go through,” he said. “That’s where I live.”
Livingston, who competed in the Salt Lake City Paralympics in 2002, said going to the games was “pretty earth-shaking.”
She remembers marching into the stadium with a friend and fellow athlete for the opening ceremony.
“I was so disconnected because it was so much bigger than me” with everyone cheering, she said.
That’s a feeling Kavanagh is eagerly anticipating.
“Now I’m going to the biggest race of my life,” he said. “I am honored to represent my country, and I want to be sure when I get to that starting gate that I’m prepared and that I’ve left nothing to chance. I’ll be prepared to have the best ride of my life.”
Kavanagh said he’ll be representing more than the United States when he takes to the saddle in London.
“I’m representing so much more,” he said. “I’m representing Montana; I’m representing my family and the community. I’m representing so many unnamed people that have given their love, their time, their money to get me there.
“When I pull on Team USA’s kit, I’m pulling it on for hundreds of thousands of people, everyone that’s backed me since those lonely moments in 2005.”