One year ago the global surf community lost a very special member, Sam Day. Sam battled with cancer while falling in love with surfing. The stoke he felt riding waves and the support from the surf community had unparalleled value for Sam. He was the inspiration for the Jr. Seau Foundation Adaptive Surfing Program presented by Challenged Athletes Foundation and his legacy lives on each day through adaptive surfers from across the world that are inspired by his stoke, courage, and tenacity.
Lorna Day, Sam's mother, puts it best below by poetically describing Sam's relationship with surfing and the power that surfing has on the human spirit in the article she wrote for Adaptive Surfing Magazine: Vol. 2, "Surfing & the Human Spirit". Please take a few minutes to read Lorna's heartfelt words and help us celebrate Sam...
I remember so clearly, recognizing that my son’s battle with cancer was more than just a risk to his life, it was also a threat to his spirit.
Sam was a spirited kid, to say the least. He thrived on big ideas, competition and adventure. He loved to laugh and his quick wit engaged his teachers even more than his peers. “Spirited” practically defined him, and sometimes it got him into trouble. I liked that about him.
He was nine years old when we found the tumor in his left fibula. Ewing’s sarcoma is a rare and relentless bone cancer. The nine-month chemotherapy protocol was brutal. His only break was for surgery. He wasn’t supposed to lose his leg, but the initial surgery did not go well and we had to decide between radiation or amputation, just below the knee. When Sam finished treatment in May 2011, he was skinny, bald, and missing a leg.
A couple of weeks into that dark and agonizing journey, I remember feeling confident that we would get to keep Sam, but worried we would lose his spirit. So, we began seeking life-giving opportunities to pull that sparkle out of him whenever possible. Our family made a commitment to living well, to the best of our ability. We had two battles on our hands, the fight against the cancer, and the fight to live well.
A year after completing his treatment, Sam relapsed with a tumor in his other foot and the surgeon took his two biggest toes and their corresponding foot bones, leaving him with three little toes and a fragile right foot. He was still getting chemotherapy when he was introduced to surfing.
The Challenged Athletes Foundation invited us to La Jolla for a weekend of sport among other athletes with all kinds of disabilities and surfing was the first clinic of the weekend. Once we arrived, volunteers helped Sam navigate a wetsuit for the first time and introduced him to some other young athletes. He’d never seen so many amputees before. They were kids just like him, but different too. Across the beach we saw kids in bright yellow and green CAF rash guards. Some of them missing one leg, some two, some were impaired from the waist down and some seemed to be disabled all over. My eyes were constantly scanning people to see what was missing. But it didn’t matter what was missing. These kids wanted to go surfing and the energy around this community was contagious.
The kids gathered for a brief introduction on the beach, where they learned some basics as well as the most critical move of a surfer....the shaka. Then they hit the waves with their designated surf coaches. There were legs and wheelchairs left behind along the beach, depending on what was just right for each body. Some parents stood at the edge of the water holding their kids’ leg to make sure it didn’t get sand in the grooves and pockets of the essential equipment. Sam had a plastic leg made especially for the water, so he kept it on under his wetsuit and headed out with his designated surf coach.
He was hooked from the very first wave.
My husband and I watched from the shore while he surfed in on his knees on a large foam longboard yelling “THAT WAS AWESOME!!!” Again and again, he rode the waves until he could do it standing up, always checking to make sure I got it on video. He was so stoked you would never believe just three days prior, he had been hooked up to multiple bags of chemotherapy feeling nauseous, tired and lethargic. Those waves were good medicine.
He came home from San Diego and proclaimed to friends, teachers and family, that surfing was his new favorite sport.
A year later, he went back to San Diego for another chance to surf. He was paired up with Liam Fergusen, who was working with the ISA at the time and volunteering at the CAF kids surf clinic. Meanwhile, cancer had continued its relentless invasion, this time to Sam’s lungs. He was the only bald surfer on the beach. But, despite the intensity of his challenges, something really cool happened to Sam that day.
There is a name for what he experienced. “Flow”.
A behavioral scientist named Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi developed the concept. He had observed at a young age, that people could find happiness through activity, even after the most devastating life circumstances. Flow describes what happens when someone is so blissfully consumed by an activity, they lose track of time and awareness of everything going on around them. They become so immersed in what they are doing, the individual gets lost in pure happiness. It is that moment when everything you are doing comes together so perfectly, you spontaneously think, (or yell) “THIS IS AWESOME!”
Sam found his ultimate source of “flow” when he surfed with Liam that day. I found myself watching him wave after wave after wave, his spirit more alive than I had seen it in many months. When the clinic time ended, Sam had no idea. He just kept surfing until someone told him it was time to come in and I am pretty sure he came out of the water with a new identity. He was no longer just the kid who lost his leg to cancer, he was a surfer.
Of all the kids on the beach that day, Sam was fighting the toughest battle. But somehow, surfing gave him a contagious smile, and the “stoke” became tangible.
Through the years, I have had the privilege of knowing several adaptive surfers. Many of them became injured because they crave the addiction to flow. Their injuries are a result of the pursuit of a deeply satisfying engagement in challenging physical activity. And yet, the spinal cord injury, or amputation, becomes a threat to everything their spirit needed to thrive. If a body does not work properly any more, how can you achieve the pleasure of mastering movement while riding a wave?
The adaptive surfing movement has opened the doors for people who have endured traumatic, life- altering circumstances to find their flow once again. It is an invitation for the human spirit to thrive.
It was not so much the impairment that threatened Sam’s spirit. It was the ongoing battle with the disease and the consuming nature of cancer. He was born with an incredible spirit, but no matter the level of stoke you are born with, the human spirit needs to be nurtured. Achieving a sense of flow through sport can offer a heavy dose of happiness for the grieving human heart.
I lost my remarkable surfer boy on August 27th, 2016. Though the battle had been long, the end came quickly and unexpectedly.
Just six weeks before Sam died, he was surfing. He arrived at the Jr. Seau camp in a bit of pain, his lungs unable to take on the oxygen needed for more aerobic activities, and he was carrying some anger because of the setbacks he was facing with his cancer. I remember handing him off, with humble gratitude, to a community of instructors and peers who exude positivity, compassion and stoke.
He was a bit rusty and timid at first, not the normal “Sam” energy. But the peace of the water out beyond the waves, the positivity of his competent surfer friends, and the sense of mastery he began to grasp once again over the waves of the Del Mar beach brought life back into his spirit.
On the last day of surf camp, the kids had the opportunity to compete. Adaptive surfers Dan and Christiaan sat in beach wheelchairs at the edge of the waves to act as judges while young surfers entered their
first ever surf competition. It was a small event. There were no massive crowds, no impressive sound system with running commentary, no brand name sponsors or massive banners to draw attention to the event. But all Sam needed was an opportunity to compete once again. Having to drop out of sports at the age of nine took a toll on his competitive spirit. So, he lit up at the opportunity.
He took to the waves with methodical determination and I watched his mind and body work in sync with the ocean on a level I had not seen before. He surfed with skill and it showed on his face. He took wave after wave, competing against his good friend and fellow amputee, Kevin, throwing shakas with each ride. I know what stoke looks like because it was written all over Sam’s face. Another transformation had taken place.
When the horn blew, Sam came out of the water, tired from giving it his all but beaming with satisfaction. He said, “Mom, I feel like I surfed perfect!”
After a series of heats, the judges tallied up their scores and announced there was a tie for first place. Sam and his friend Kevin would compete for first with a “surf off.” Both young men were challenged by the final battle for first place and Kevin ended up with the win.
Just weeks before Sam died, he was full of life. To non-surfers, it is hard to imagine why I might suggest the significance of that experience. I had a sick downtrodden son on my hands. He was dying and we didn’t even know it. No matter how strong or how big a person’s spirit is when they are brought into this world, there are times when human spirit needs to be nurtured in heavy doses. We all come alive with different experiences and for some, surfing makes the world go round.
Sam was blessed that week with a rare and remarkable community of surfers, the beauty and healing serenity of the ocean, and the buzz of a healthy competition. He found FLOW by training his battered, weary body to dance with the waves.
In Sam’s words “It’s one of the best things you’ll ever do, it’s one of the best experiences you’ll ever have. When you finally catch that one perfect wave, it just feels so awesome.”
You can learn more about Sam Day and the Jr. Seau Adaptive Surfing Program presented by Challenged Athletes Foundation that he inspired in the following video.