When Sam Bell was thirteen, he had no idea that an ordinary practice session of cricket would change his life. Sam was in middle school in Sydney, Australia when a teammate tackled him and injured his knee. Sam continued to practice and run, but his knee never seemed to heal.
The doctors were perplexed; they could not figure out the reason his knee would not improve. Three months later, they had a diagnosis: cancer.
After two months of chemotherapy and no improvement, the doctors suggested amputation.
“On the day of the amputation, I was naive at the time, I wasn’t really aware of how bad the cancer was,” Sam recalled. “They told me it was the only option. I was pretty upset.”
Sam spent seven long days in the hospital and then three weeks recuperating before being fitted with a temporary prosthetic attached to the cast. Those three weeks after surgery were tough on him. It was a time of bewilderment–of figuring out a new life and questioning his identity as a person without a limb.
“I was young and I was struggling,” Sam said. “I just had to learn how to deal with it. I was so focused on the physical part of it–how to learn to move again, not the emotional part.”
The prosthetic leg was uncomfortable at first. Sam often pushed his limits, wearing the prosthetic for 12 hours each day, causing his leg to swell. Each time it happened, he would have to rest his leg for a few days before trying again.
Six months later, he was playing sports again. He did not play contact sports–there was some concern that the prosthetic leg would fly off and hit someone–so he turned to the winter sport of target shooting.
After high school, Sam became a jackaroo, the Australian term for cowboy. For fifteen months, he did “yard work,” riding a horse and corralling the 25,000 cattle on a Queensland ranch. He transferred to three different ranches in Minnesota, Wyoming, and Iowa as part of a ranch exchange program.
A year after his leg was amputated, Sam tried water skiing behind his cousin’s boat. As hard as he tried, he just couldn’t get up on a single ski. Ten years later, he tried again with the same results. He decided to ditch the ski, figuring it might be easier to get up on his bare foot. “No one knew what to do,” Same said. “I tried sitting on a wakeboard and getting up from that, but I failed again and again.”
Sam really wanted to learn to water ski, so he persisted and finally became skilled at riding a ski. He still wanted to learn to barefoot. Every Tuesday, he skied with a group of guys and two of them could barefoot. None of them had any real idea how a guy with one foot could learn the sport.
Sam was stubborn. For nine months, he beat himself up on the water riding on his back and enduring crash after crash.
“I’m not sure what kept me going, but once it was in my blood, I just decided I wanted to succeed.”
Then one morning, he stood up. He was finally barefooting!
“I was so excited, I crossed the wake,” Sam recalled.
For ten years, Sam just had fun on the water and enjoyed the sport. Two years ago, at the age of 38, he entered his first barefoot water skiing tournament. There was a dilemma at first–how were the judges going to score him? In the sport of barefooting, you get points for doing a trick on one foot and then on the reverse foot. Sam and the judges came to an agreement on how to score his runs.
“I don’t see myself as disabled and I don’t like being labeled disabled,” Sam said. “What I like about barefooting is that I’m competing fully against my mates. I have to work harder, but I’m not disabled in the barefooting world–I have to follow the same rules.”
In some ways, Sam sees his one foot as an advantage. He has no choice but to learn the harder tricks on one foot while some of his mates are being scored on two feet. This actually gives him higher scores with each run.
Sam is seen as one of the “older” athletes in an extreme sport that is flush with young kids, but he believes that the opportunity to win is equal for everyone. Despite juggling a full-time construction business and being a dad to two young kids, Sam makes the one and half hour drive every chance he can get so he can train on the water.
“Passion is something that draws you, that motivates you, and I suppose in my life at this moment I have two passions: my kids and barefooting. If you want to do something, you have to seize the opportunity to do it,” Sam explained. “The approach might be different for an older athlete–a different path or a different journey–and success might take longer, but a successful outcome is possible if you work hard.”
Oh, and another thing: mindset is extremely important when it comes to affecting outcomes. Sam’s mental toughness comes in part from losing a limb at a young age, but being mentally tough is something we can all learn at any time.
“If your mind is made up, anything is possible,” Sam said. “And if you really want something, get up and get it!”
Check out Sam Bell in a tournament: Sam Bell 2016 Trick Finals
Karen Putz is an author, speaker, and Passion Mentor who helps others unwrap their passions at any age. For fun, she walks on water with the assistance of a rope, boat, and driver. Connect with Karen via Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and her website: Ageless Passions.