A mere four months after a motorcycle accident left him a paraplegic, Sam Tait was pursuing skiing lessons in the new reality of his body. From an early age, skiing was almost omnipresent in Sam’s life. His parents owned Corroboree Ski Lodge in Perisher Valley and his family would spend their holidays chasing snow rather than sun. For Sam, the sport represented a way to experience other countries and cultures away from home and, perhaps subconsciously, that escape from the realities of his injuries was also afforded when Sam first pursued sit-skiing after his accident.
“For holidays, me and my family used to go on trips anywhere we could ski; so New Zealand, the States or Canada,” he says. “I think skiing was a way to get out of Australia, go overseas and see different parts of the world for us as a family. I loved it – there’s something different about being on snow, it’s like you’re in a different world, a different universe. There’s powder days where you get covered in snow and drenched in wet and you don’t really care how wet you are, you just want to keep skiing and keep trying to find untracked powder. Going on family trips, everyone is in a good headspace, having a good time and you just want to keep skiing and don’t want to leave the place ever.”
For Sam, skiing wasn’t the only sport he played as a kid. From football to tennis and soccer, he tried it. “But from a very young age, I always loved to be on the slopes,” he admits.
The significance of Sam’s entrance into sit-skiing just four months after his accident is considerable. Breaking his T11 vertebrae, just above his lumbar spine, Sam was airlifted to Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney from the accident site in Wollongong. For three days, he was unconscious and, upon waking, he had no recollection of the accident. For the three months following in 2013, Sam spent his time in intensive rehabilitation.
It was in the rehabilitation hospital that Sam realised he was able to try sit-skiing. You can be sure he quickly made that first lesson happen, and hasn’t looked back. “I was down in Thredbo with my family, I had my first ski lesson and I had no idea what to expect. I loved the look of it but getting into it, I didn’t even know what it involved with my body and movement-wise. I got in the rig, the sit-ski, had my first run down the slope Friday Flats, which I think is the flattest run in Australia you can ski down,” he says with a laugh. “And then fell over multiple times. But I got back up, found love for it and the adrenaline of racing down a ski hill. It felt like I was free and I didn’t feel like I had a disability at the time – and I still don’t when I’m skiing.
“For me it’s a way of being free in life, letting go of all that frustration and anger that came with my accident, not knowing how to move on or what to do with my life. Sit-skiing gave me a way to forget about my injury, a passion to 100% commit towards and push with everything I have to be the best in the world.”
Sam’s resilience and strength has catapulted him to Paralympic status in just five years. “Before my accident, I was just content with a normal job, doing sport on a Saturday as a way to keep fit or keep active. Once I found sit-skiing, I just trained and set a goal to compete at a winter Paralympics. Then it just skyrocketed in the first couple of years. Now I’ve competed at one Paralympics and now I’m aiming for number two.”
Just how much training is required of Sam is immense. With five to six days a week in the gym, sometimes twice a day, consisting of cardio and strength training, Sam also, of course, trains on-snow. Days on the slopes generally start between 5-6:30am in order to make it to the first lifts at 7:30am. From there, it could be four hours training in the morning, time at the gym in the afternoon, recovery, sleep and repeat – for six to seven months of the year.
“Motivation I find a lot from my family, friends and my strength and conditioning coach, Kelly Beahan. She puts in a lot more effort than what I could ever ask for, for a coach. We talk every single day and every day is tailored around how I’m feeling, how sore I am or what my on-snow training looks like. Waking up everyday, I’m thinking about crossing the finish line in first place and the feeling when I have that gold medal around my neck. For me, I don’t want to let my on-snow coach Ryan Pearl, Kelly, my strength and conditioning coach, my family and friends down. I just push as hard as I can so they can be proud of me and that I can hopefully come home with an Olympic medal.
“Both my coaches are behind me in every single movement and thing I do for skiing.
They’re on the snow; Ryan is always there next to me telling me ‘You’ve got this, you’re here, you’re competing with the best in the world, just trust yourself, you can ski here and I know you will one day be on top of the podium.’ And Kel; every day she’s messaging me seeing how I’m going, seeing how my mind is and then always working together with off-hill recovery and strength in the gym. She’s put in more than I could ever ask of a coach or even a family member and she has committed to being with me until Beijing and then hopefully years after that, whichever way I choose to go. I cannot thank Kel enough for being with me, for being my coach and friend throughout this journey towards podium.”
Looking forward, Sam is strongly focussed on immediate upcoming qualifying competitions for the 2022 Winter Paralympics in Beijing. After fundraising enough money to purchase a new sit-ski with the Australian Sports Foundation, Sam is ready to steam ahead full-time with his on and off-snow training ahead of the World Championships in 2021 while busily organising funds to fuel his journey.
“The Australian Sports Foundation has been great for me. I’ve been able to fundraise money for a brand new sit-ski, which has improved my skiing from the second I first skied in it – I could see huge improvements and different ways it moved. The Sports Foundation has also helped me to get overseas, compete in events so I’m able to qualify and keep up my world ranking moving into the world championships.
I wouldn’t be where I am at the moment without fundraising and having the connection with the Australian Sports Foundation
“There’s not really any money in elite sport, in that you can’t live a life travelling the world, competing and racing – it’s not a viable job. It’s fun, it keeps you fit and it’s a job in a way but in para-sports you don’t get paid anything like able- bodied athletes, or anything at all really. We get funding for coaches, training space and accommodation, from Snow Australia for me, but every athlete I know will work and train during the Australian winter to be able to fund and support ourselves when we’re overseas competing for two or three months a year, to be able to fund the international season which we have to go to, to race and to compete at benchmark events.
“I wouldn’t be where I am at the moment without fundraising and having the connection with the Australian Sports Foundation. It costs about $20-30,000 a year, for six months. So I’ve got to find that every year,” he laughs. “For me, 2020 is a year to focus on full-time training on-snow, off-snow and getting ready for the World Championships in 2021 and moving towards the Winter Paralympic Games in 2022. After that, it’s pushing to look towards Italy in 2026, so I’ve got a long six to eight years ahead of me of skiing and training. I’ll definitely be pushing myself 100% towards the podium, being the best in the world and hopefully I’ll bring home a medal for everyone back in Australia.”
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