When it comes to remarkable women, Sam Bloom would be right at the top. Her story is extraordinary, and in many ways, it is only just beginning...
The former nurse lives on Sydney’s Northern Beaches with her three boys – Rueben, Noah and Oli– and her husband, Cameron. Six years ago, Sam was living her dream life, raising her boys and spending her time running, swimming, bike riding and surfing every chance she had – but everything changed in 2013 on a family holiday in Thailand.
Sam fell through a rotten balcony railing and crashed six metres onto the concrete below. Her injuries left her paralysed from the chest down.
The early days after her accident were understandably the darkest of Sam’s life until a baby bird named Penguin arrived. Sam said, “Penguin was the guardian angel that saved my life. I found that helping someone else feel better was the best way to help myself feel better.”
Sam took up competitive paracanoeing, eventually placing 13th in the world and winning two Australian titles, before representing Australia at the 2015 World Titles in Italy.
Meanwhile, Cameron had documented the family’s experience through thousands of images and videos, which led to a book, Penguin Bloom, written in collaboration with New York Times-bestselling Australian author Bradley Trevor Greive. Now an international bestseller, Penguin Bloom is being adapted into a feature film produced by Naomi Watts, who is also set to play the role of Sam.
At the time of publishing this article, Sam won Gold for Australia in the World Adaptive Surfing Championship in California in the Women’s Division, which is quite a remarkable achievement for Sam’s first year in the sport, but as we’ve come to realise about Sam – completely unsurprising. We had the delight of speaking to Sam about her story so far, and what’s ahead for this inspiring woman.
Take us back to your childhood. Where did you grow up? What was it like and how did you spend your time?
I grew up in Bilgola Beach on the Northern Beaches in Sydney, and I had a pretty idyllic childhood. We lived just few minutes away from the beach, so it was a very active, outdoorsy childhood.
And how would you describe yourself in three words?
I am patient. I am determined. And I am quiet.
Can you tell me how you met your husband, Cameron, and what made you fall in love with him?
My Mum and Dad used to own a cake shop in Newport right near the beach, and I used to work there, just to get some money before going travelling. Cameron would come in to the cake shop and there was just something about him. He was a little bit different from the guys I’d grown up with, and he just seemed like a really nice guy.
We then bumped into each other at a pub and I asked him to a party. The rest is history!
Did you always want to be a mother? And what do you remember about those early days with a newborn?
I always wanted to have kids, but I wasn’t desperate to have children. I knew I wanted to travel first! As for the newborn phase, I remember being unbelievably tired. For months and months and months, my son would wake up every two hours to feed. My son was born in February, and I remember for my birthday in August, my husband asked, “What do you want for your birthday?” and all I said was, “I want to actually get a good night’s sleep!”
Do you ever think about the day of your accident and if so, how does that make you feel?
I do think about it. I think about it a lot. I don’t remember the accident, but I think a lot about what went wrong and why. It can make me angry and I tend to blame myself. I often find myself thinking, “Why did you go up on that railing and lean on it?” I’d do anything to go back in time.
How have you dealt with those feelings of anger?
These days, if I’m having a tough day or I’m angry, I meet up with my friend who’s a personal trainer and we do boxing. I really take my anger out, punching! I’ve always found I feel better after moving, like paddling or surfing. I get out on the lake or into the surf and then come back to reality feeling a bit better.
You've said in the past that visualisation has helped you. Can you tell us more about that?
Visualisation has helped me through some really difficult times. When I was in the hospital for example, the sounds would keep me awake, but strangely, it sometimes sounded like the wind. So I would just lay there, just shut my eyes and pretend that I was up in North India, with no one around, in a really beautiful landscape. It was my way of escaping.
How have you worked towards becoming more independent?
Yes definitely, but it’s taken time, courage and practice. Things like getting into the car, pulling out the wheelchair, and so on. When I’m home, it’s easy as the boys and Cam can help me. It’s different when I’m out alone, though. It’s taken a long time and a lot of practice but I’ve realised I can do more than I thought and I’ve managed to regain a lot of independence.
What are you most proud of?
I’m most proud of Cam and my boys. How they’ve dealt with the accident and the way it has changed me and all of our lives. They’ve been an incredible support.
Looking back on this past year, 2018, what have you learned?
Really, if you find something that you love, you should just pursue it. You never know what you’ll get out of it. For example, it took me 5 years to get back out surfing, and it took a lot of time for me to stop saying, “I’m not doing that.” and to find the courage to get back on my board. I’m so stoked that I did end up surfing again, it’s certainly not the same but I love being back out in the ocean.
What do you do to escape?
When I need to escape, it’s usually just finding ways to spend time on my own, which is something I miss. I’ll go for a drive to a national park and sit or read a book. I also like watching movies. It takes me out of my own world and into the life of someone else.
You've said that your boys are more compassionate since your accident. How do you think the accident has had a positive impact on your family?
It’s definitely made them more compassionate, and more empathetic as well. While it’s been super hard for them, it’s made us all realise that we really don’t know what’s around the corner. We’re more conscious now to just try and enjoy our lives and make the most of everything while we can because you just don’t know what life will bring.
What have you learned about friendship since your accident, and how have your network supported you?
After the accident, I really didn’t want to see friends because I was so embarrassed. Here I was in a wheelchair when I used to be so active and independent. So, I definitely pushed people away. One of my closest friends who I grew up with has been amazing. She flew to Thailand to be with me after the accident, dropping everything and leaving behind her young family to support me through the hardest time of my life. To this day, I can call her and she’ll be with me in a heartbeat. I suppose she’s taught me that friendship is not conditional and that it’s okay to let people be there for you.
What’s ahead for you for December? You’re representing Australian in the Adaptive Surf competition. How does that feel?
Yes! It’s pretty cool. I really can’t wait. I also see it as something that both Cam and I are doing together, because he’s there in the water with me, pushing me into the waves. It’s so much fun. I’d really love to do well for my boys.
Editor’s note: she won gold!
Can you tell us what it's like to be paralyzed? Most assume you're not in pain, but that's not the case. Can you tell us more about that?
Yes. It’s neuropathic pain, so it makes your nerve system kind of crazy, constantly. It’s like your feet are on fire, or like you’re sitting in iced cold water. It does weigh me down some days. It feels really cruel. I lost complete control of my body, lost my independence, but am still in a lot of pain.
But, I really can’t change it. So I try to keep distracted and busy, which eases the pain a little.
You have a film going into production next year. What has that process been like and what was it like to meet Naomi Watts (and to have her play you)?
The process has been really interesting and we have some incredible creative partners that we get to work with. We met Naomi when she was in town a few weeks ago and it was great. She’s really nice, very normal and down-to-earth, it just felt like spending time with someone we’d known for a long time.
I’m looking forward to it all happening. I’ll need to show Naomi what it’s like to be in a wheelchair, how it is to get dressed … All the basic stuff you just take for granted.
I’m sure it’s going to be weird and confronting to watch it, though. As long as they make it real and honest, then I’ll be happy.
Can you tell us about Penguin, who lived with your family for two years? And what your memories are of that time?
We found Penguin three months after I got out of rehab, as a new baby magpie. She was like my little companion. At that time, I wasn’t driving, I couldn’t do anything on my own and I was home alone quite a lot. So, Penguin was my cute little, quirky friend. We spent a lot of time together.
She really brought laughter into our family, and took some of the attention off me, which was nice.
Your book, Penguin Bloom, is magical. How do you hope it will make people feel?
I receive messages from people all over the world, saying thank you. Whatever is going on in their lives – the might not be injured or in pain – but it’s helped them feel less alone. The thing is, you don’t have to be in a wheelchair to have adversity. Everyone has a story. So I think people have been able to get something out of the book to help them through that, which is lovely.
Can you tell us about your next book?
The next book I’m co-writing with the same author who wrote Penguin with Cam. This book will be from my perspective though and I’ll be sharing my take on facing and overcoming adversity. It’s really a work in progress at the moment, but I hope it’s a way to continue helping others to face their own challenges.
Finish this sentence. I am most grateful for …
A loving, supportive family, and the support I’ve received from so many people. Whether it’s friends or sponsors in the work I’m doing, there are so many amazing people out there.