by Sam Danniels as told to Elise Ballard
“Your ability to succeed is a direct reflection of your ability to try.”—Sam Danniels
I grew up with an incredible affinity and love for bicycles. It was my first taste of freedom when I was a little kid. I raced cross-country all through high school. Then I started getting into downhill mountain biking and free-riding—learning how to jump my bike, basically. When I was about eighteen years old, I moved out west from eastern Canada to go to school, but also to pursue a lifestyle—perhaps even a professional career—as a free ride and downhill mountain biker in the summer, and a snowboarder in the winter.
I was one of those teenage guys who is full of piss and vinegar—very rebellious, into punk, hard rock, and those kinds of things. I always had this negative, angry attitude toward life in general. I was just always angry at something. One Sunday afternoon in August on just a beautiful, not-a-cloud-in-the-sky, perfect day, I was ripping a bunch of trails with some of my good riding friends. We’d been biking all morning, and there was this jump on the way home that I’d been eyeing all year, a large road gap. It just occurred to me: “Today is the day to do that jump.” We did the run a couple times and then I set up to do the jump. I ended up going a little too fast on the takeoff, and I overshot the landing.
The drop was probably eighty feet. My head and shoulders were the first to hit the ground. My back came over my body like a ton of bricks, and I dislocated my spine at the T-4 level.
I have not walked since.
I was nineteen years old and had been rendered a paraplegic from the chest down. Thus began a journey that led to massive changes in my life. I’ve often described it as dying and being born again.
Doctors had given me a ten percent chance of surviving. I spent 125 nights in the hospital, and it took them several weeks to stabilize me. After six weeks, I started coming to and realized what had happened to me; no one was in denial about it.
While I was recovering, obviously, I had a lot of time to just lie there and think. I’d met other paraplegics before my injury, and I knew they weren’t doomed to a horrible life—not necessarily. So I almost had this eagerness to go out and see what the world had in store for me.
Right before Christmas that year, I went home of my own accord to my parents’ place. Then I just decided that I wasn’t going to go back to that hospital. It wasn’t an environment that was fostering my growth, my development back into being myself again. They were treating me exactly the same as they would a sixty-year-old man after a stroke, and it disgusted me. I said, “No. That’s not me. My legs don’t work. But I am still me.”
My big realization, which came to me then, was that all of my sports and passions—skiing, cycling, being outside and active—are the ways that I have to find myself as a person. I decided I wasn’t going to let anyone or anything change that, ever. I said, “I am still going to go continue to do the things that I love to do, and I’m going to live my life the way I’ve been planning for all these years.” That was my Christmas present to myself that year.
I was nineteen when I left the hospital, a paraplegic college kid with dreams of spending his life somehow doing the sports he loved. Today, at twenty-three, I am back on the West Coast of Canada, a professional skier who happens to use a wheelchair to get around every day. I am a speed specialist with the Canadian National Para-Alpine ski team. Speed specialists race downhill—which is the fastest event in Alpine ski racing, hitting speeds of up to seventy miles an hour. I am completely independent and need absolutely no help with my day-to-day activities.
In the beginning of my journey, other paraplegics, and the nurses and doctors, told me that readjusting to my life was the hardest thing I would ever do. I think now, “Well, if that was the hardest thing I’m ever going to do, then the rest of life should be a cakewalk!” It gives me confidence. It inspires me to know that wherever I go, whatever comes my way, I’m going to be able to handle it. It’s extremely empowering to know without a doubt that I have the power to get out and make things happen for myself. I believe we all do. You always have the power of looking deep inside yourself and believing that you have the abilities to change your world, and to change yourself into the person who you want to be.
People always talk about your friends and family as support systems, and of course they’re critical, but support also comes from within yourself, from your independence. If you have a goal, a way that you want to see your life pan out, you can’t just sit back and let other people hold you by the hand and push you through it. You need to go out and seek it. Independence is the factor that I think really drives people toward their goals, whatever they may be. People get reliant on others and are afraid that if they fall, they can’t get up alone—to speak in a metaphor, since I’m not just talking about paraplegics. People lose their indepen- dence sometimes by not harnessing that light and energy from within them that can drive them to overcome obstacles in their lives. I think we sometimes lose sight that we can get back to ourselves—not the self that we used to be, but an improved self, an even better self.
Before I broke my back, I never really understood that how you approach and see things is going to be a huge factor in how happy and successful you’re going to be in your endeavors and in life. I realize now that even if life is really hard, it could all be over at any moment. I always ask myself: “Can you take a step back and take a snapshot of your life at any moment? Are you really not enjoying it? If not, then figure out why and how to change things. Don’t get stuck in a routine that makes you unhappy.”
Sam Danniels is a rare breed of athlete. Growing up in Toronto, Sam enjoyed nothing more than learning new sports and mastering old ones. In August 2005, at the age of nineteen, Sam broke his back while mountain biking. Though paralyzed from the chest down, he refused to let his damaged body cripple his lifestyle. Until last year, he was a member of the Canadian National Para-Alpine Development Ski Team, and in 2009 he finished fourth in downhill on his first IPC World Cup and was a recipient of the Canadian Premier’s Athletic Award. In January, he won the Gold Medal in the extremely competitive Mono Skier X Finals of the Aspen Winter X Games. Always striving to raise awareness of the potential of athletes with disabilities, he currently serves as an ambassador for the Rick Hansen Foundation and as a volunteer with the Whistler Adaptive Sports Program, and teaches other people with physical challenges to sit-ski.
Check out Sam’s gold medal win at the 2012 Aspen Winter X Games:
About the Epiphany Series:
This is an excerpt from the COMINGS OF AGE section of my book, Epiphany: True Stories of Sudden Insight to Inspire, Encourage, and Transform, a heartfelt journey full of amazing stories of fascinating people, from world-renowned figures, thought leaders, and performers—such as Maya Angelou, Dr. Oz, Desmond Tutu, Deepak Chopra and Barry Manilow—to former inmates, leading psychologists, teachers, homemakers, and many more. We’ve found these stories contain wisdom and insight that will inspire—or cause you to remember—your own epiphanies so we wanted to share pieces of them every week with you here on Positively Positive. You can also visit my website, EpiphanyChannel.com,