Pedaling For Gold

By Beacon Staff

Sam Kavanagh spent 10 consecutive days at home in Bozeman last week, his longest span since April. As an elite Paralympic cyclist, the Coram native has spent much of the year training and competing across the U.S. and Europe. The layover’s timing was fortunate, as Kavanagh was able to celebrate his nine-year wedding anniversary with his wife on July 14.

While he enjoyed the respite, which included spending precious time with his daughter Amelia, 1, his racing calendar dictated a precise end date. Kavanagh is scheduled to compete at the 2010 U.S. Paralympics Track Cycling Championships July 24-25 in Colorado Springs before traveling to Baie-Comeau, Quebec for the 2010 UCI Para-cycling World Championships in August.

“It’s a lot of travel,” he said of his lifestyle. “It takes an amazing wife.”

As a boy growing up in Coram, seven miles south of the west entrance to Glacier National Park, cycling was Kavanagh’s first form of transportation. Upon receiving his driver’s license, the first thing Kavanagh did was borrow the family car and drive to a bike shop where he purchased a new mountain bike.

“My father wouldn’t let me buy the bike before I got my license because he thought I would want to use the money toward a car,” he said, laughing at the memory.

In his sophomore year at Montana State University, Kavanagh found a competitive outlet for his hobby within the school’s cycling club. He married classmate Sara Rogers his junior year, graduated a year later from MSU with a civil engineering degree and settled in Bozeman, where he took advantage of the area’s numerous outdoor activities. He had no way of foreseeing the wrench life would soon throw in his tracks.

On New Year’s Day 2005, Kavanagh and four friends were backcountry skiing in the Centennial Mountains when an avalanche was triggered. One friend perished in the icy assault, while Kavanagh’s left leg was severely injured. After two days spent waiting for rescue, in a mountainside yurt, he was airlifted to Bozeman Deaconess hospital. On Jan. 13th, doctors were forced to amputate his leg below the knee.

A difficult period passed for Kavanagh. Yet after receiving a prosthetic leg in April, and with his wife’s encouragement, Kavanagh slowly began cycling again. He says he learned to look at what happened to him as being a “life-changing but not life-limiting” event.

A year after his amputation, he competed in the U.S. Paralympics National Championships, where his inner athletic spark returned.

“I’m a competitive person,” Kavanagh said. “Competition is the opportunity to measure oneself and bring out your best as an athlete.”

He paused a minute before adding, “I’d be lying to say that I’m not an adrenaline junkie.”

A year and a half ago, with his star rising in the sport, Kavanagh quit his civil engineering job and committed his life to training.

“It’s a full-time job,” he said. “I dedicate my work time to getting faster on my bike.”

Kavanagh trains with an ultimate goal in mind: competing in the 2012 Paralympics in London. Kavanagh missed qualifying for the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing by a haunting margin of two seconds.

“Every day I’m making a step forward to get there,” he said.

Kavanagh says he spends around 25 hours a week on the bike, but around 40 hours altogether are dedicated to training. During his rides he focuses more on the intensity rather than the overall mileage.

In order to fuel his training, Kavanagh must consume around 6,000 calories a day when in the heart of the season.

“To eat that much, you pretty much have to eat every time food crosses your path,” he said. “That being said, I make smart choices and stay away from the Doritos and whole pizzas.”

His progress is overseen by Craig Griffin, head coach of the U.S. Paralympic team. As Griffin lives in Colorado Springs, the two stay in contact via e-mail and cell phone and both use a computer program to measure Kavanagh’s outputs.

“It’s quite scientific,” Kavanagh said. “Sometimes we joke and say our coaches are wearing lab coats as they look at the information.”

Kavanagh adheres to a strictly regimented training because he knows the competition is fierce.

“The division I compete in is the fastest it’s ever been,” he said, noting that some Paralympic racers have contracts with teams that are primarily stabled by able-bodied racers. Yet Kavanagh comes off fresh from a number of recent victories, including two gold medals in June; one for the 55-kilometer road race and another for the 20k criterium at the Paralympic Road National Cycling Championships in Bend, Ore.

While Kavanagh serves as a role model to many, he says he has scores of his own, including, previous Paralympics athletes such as Ron Williams, a cyclist who medaled at the 2004 Paralympic Games.

“He was the first person to contact me, push me and mentor me,” he said.

But Kavanagh says he wouldn’t be anywhere near where he is today without the support of his wife.

“Without her love and encouragement through those dark and depressing times after the amputation, I don’t know where I’d be,” he said.

Kavanagh’s progress can be followed on his blog, www.nolimbitations.com.