The risk of injury is something all athletes must accept as part of their careers, especially those who partake in extreme sports such as BMX. Broken legs. Concussion. Scrapes and bruises. But there are some injuries that are beyond imagining. The kind that doesn’t just end a career but completely changes a person’s way of life.
In 2016, Australian BMX racer, world champion and multi-Olympian Sam Willoughby experienced that kind of injury. Just four weeks after the Rio Olympics, during a routine warm-up in his adopted home of San Diego, he sustained a neck injury that left him with tetraplegia — paralysis that affects both arms and both legs.
“I remember to the point of being upside down in the air and I’ve been in that position 100 times in my life, like it’s not the first time I’ve slipped off the back of my bike … and I remember thinking ‘I’m going to land on my back and get really winded’,” Sam tells Hugh in this episode of The Imperfects.
“When I hit the ground and I somewhat came to, I realised that I wasn’t winded. You naturally do the whole body scan and I realised I couldn’t feel my legs.”
Air-lifted to the nearest emergency hospital, Sam says his mind wasn’t on whether he’d be able to race BMX again — it was on his parents and brother back home in Australia, who were about to get the worst phone call of their lives, and on his fiancé, Alise. Herself a successful BMX racer, he knew their life together would never be the same again.
“About an hour after I’d woken up, Alise arrived,” Sam says. “She put a hand on mine, and I remember saying to her, ‘You’re not marrying me; you’re not wearing a vegetable’.
“I regret saying that now but at the time, that was just how I felt. I didn’t know what to expect for the rest of my life, it just seemed all doom and gloom at that point … I was just scared and scared for her.”
But Alise refused to go anywhere. For the next eight months, she, Sam’s parents, and his brother worked tirelessly to help Sam attend appointments, do his rehabilitation and adjust to his new life in a wheelchair.
“I felt like I was just this object, that it was everyone’s job to keep me moving and I hated that,” Sam says. “I’ve always been a very independent person … I quickly became pretty depressed.”
Then one day, his brother suggested they travel to a NASCAR event two hours away. Initially reluctant to be seen in public, Sam eventually agreed. It was here that he was introduced to a man named Bootie Barker, the crew chief of 23XI Racing who also happens to use a wheelchair.
“This guy comes rolling out and he’s just this bubbly, outgoing guy and he had the same injury as me 30 years ago and he’s an engineer and he’s running this multimillion-dollar race,” says Sam.
“Suddenly, it just opened my eyes. Here he was … travelling around the country 36 weekends a year, doing it himself, no helpers, driving this big truck. He’s married, he lives independently … I was just mind blown.”
For the first time since the accident, Sam had hope and a goal for the future: he was going to learn to live independently.
“The first time I dressed myself, it took 35 minutes and I had to get straight back into bed because I was exhausted,” laughs Sam. “But it got better and better and better. Eventually, I was able to get myself to where I’m at now, which is living a fully independent life. I look at myself in the mirror and I’m proud and I’m happy and love what I do.”
Through it all, his family and Alise stuck by his side. And then on New Year’s Eve 2017, he married the love of his life and was able to achieve a personal goal he’d set for himself not long after the accident.
“With the help of some braces that helped me lock my knees out, I was able to get strong enough that I could hold myself up and stand and walk Alise down the aisle,” Sam says. “It was the best day of my life, still to this day.”
Sam’s top tips for resilience: Practicing Gratitude
Sam says practicing gratitude has helped him tremendously in working through any feelings of frustration that occasionally crop up for him in his new life.
“I think I just get satisfaction out of little wins every day,” he says. “For 25 years, doing up my shoe was something I didn’t even think about and then I lost that. So when I learned to do it again, it was like ‘wow! That’s incredible!’ It was like I just won the world title again.
“I’m just grateful to be able to come down and make a coffee and go outside and have my wife by my side and our little dog. I’m just a lot more content than ever to be honest and it’s horrible that I had to lose all of that to realise that, but I think we all have the ability to just appreciate the simple things.
“Normal will always be changing but there are a few constants that you’ll always be able to be appreciative of and enjoy.”