KALISPELL — Seven years ago, Sam Kavanagh was lying in a Bozeman hospital bed, coming to terms with the loss of his left leg below the knee and the loss of his friend. A New Year's Day avalanche had taken both of them — his friend instantly and his leg later. The backcountry avalanche nearly took Kavanagh's life too.
At that point, the young man didn't feel like talking about his future. The weight of his immediate past was about all he could bear: nine surgeries, life-threatening infections, an amputation. That's what was on his mind when his friend Jim Nallick slid a photo into his hand of a Paralympics amputee cyclist wearing a USA jersey and a medal around his neck.
"I didn't really think much about it because I was still wrestling with the idea of not having a leg," Kavanagh, a Coram native and Columbia Falls High School graduate, said last week. "It sat on the backburner for a while."
But after growing more comfortable with his new life, and his prosthetic leg, Kavanagh began feeling the cycling itch again. Before the avalanche, he had been a competitive cyclist, as well as an avid skier. He and his friends were backcountry skiing in southwestern Montana's Centennial Mountains when the avalanche struck on Jan. 1, 2005.
With the support of friends and family, Kavanagh got back into cycling. In July 2006, he competed in his first U.S. Paralympic national championships. Then at a world competition in Switzerland, he said, "the fire really caught." His ultimate goal became clear: to represent his country at the Paralympic Games.
After narrowly missing out on the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games, Kavanagh found out in June of this year that he had qualified for the 2012 London Paralympic Games on Aug. 29-Sept. 9. He will participate in five events, including both track and road cycling events.
"It was almost surreal," Kavanagh said of first hearing that he was named to U.S. Paralympic Team. "It was disbelief initially."
But in the days since, particularly now that he's been watching the Olympics, the disbelief has given over to exhilaration.
"The excitement is boiling over," Kavanagh said. "One of the best words is incredibly humbled by the opportunity I've been given - the distinction of being one of so few to be able to represent their country."
The Paralympic Games are the equivalent of the Olympic Games for athletes with physical disabilities. For Kavanagh, they are the pinnacle of his sport, surpassing his many other athletic accomplishments. Among those accomplishments are strong performances at national and world championships, and consistently ranking in para-cycling's top five in the world over the last three years.
Kavanagh, 33, has made major changes in his life to accommodate his cycling passion. He quit his job as an engineer to explore other career options that would allow for more training time. In April, he and his family moved from Bozeman to Castle Rock, Colo., to get closer to more training opportunities.
He has also been traveling to Los Angeles every other week for six days to practice at a "velodrome" that he says is North America's only international-standard 250-meter cycling track.
Kavanagh said his work as a motivational speaker has helped support the pursuit of his dream and his wife and two children. His wife Sara is also a Flathead native and Columbia Falls High School graduate.
"I've taken my life as close as living like a professional athlete as possible," he said. "We've had to make a lot of sacrifices as a family in order to pursue this dream. At the same time, the rewards have been so meaningful."
"My wife is the biggest unsung hero in this all," he added. "She has never withheld any of her support and she has made incredible sacrifices."
Sam Kavanagh with his wife, Sara, and their two children. ' courtesy photo
Last week he was in L.A. for his final preparation camp before returning home and then heading over to London. His disability classification places him among the least disabled, making his field "incredibly competitive."
"Most of them race competitively on able-bodied teams in Europe," he said.
His father, Bill Kavanagh, said 11 family members will be in London to watch Kavanagh compete. Bill and his wife Kristin will be making the trip from Coram, where they have lived in a home they built for more than 30 years.
"We wouldn't miss this for the world," Bill said. "We just couldn't be any prouder."
"He's taken his disability and made it a non-issue," he added. "He's the last one to park in a handicapped spot, he goes deer hunting with me every year and he drags the deer out with me. Actually, he can outdo me there. I'm usually the complainer there."
When Kavanagh looks back at that fateful New Year's Day in 2005, he sees the beginning of a special opportunity. He sees the good that can come out of tragedy if people allow themselves the right outlook.
That avalanche killed his friend, crushed his tibia and fibula and forced him to spend two brutal days in the backcountry losing huge quantities of blood and waiting to be rescued. It led to kidney failure and infection and surgery and, of course, amputation.
But it also opened his eyes. On his blog, "No Limbitations," Kavanagh writes that he is a "firm believer that being handicapped is a state of mind, and that anything is attainable through dedication, will power, and great support."
"Before I was caught in that avalanche," Kavanagh reflected from Los Angeles last week, "I feel and believe in my heart that I was more handicapped then because I was telling myself on a regular basis that there were things I couldn't achieve because I wasn't the right size, I didn't have the right genetics or the right capabilities."
"Then when you lose your leg and you're on death's doorstep, your perspective changes," he continued. "Now I know that what I can or can't do - it's not society or anybody telling me - it's what I really believe and it's the sacrifices and hard work I put in."
Kavanagh's blog sums up the attitude that has carried him from a hospital bed seven years ago to the 2012 London Paralympic Games.
"We all are given hardships in life that challenge us beyond our imagination," his blog says. "I encourage you to join me in facing those challenges with dedication and confidence; you too can live a life without limitations."