Words by Owen Ringwall. Photos and Video courtesy Rapha and Jeremy Thornburg.
Sam Taxwood is no stranger to injury, and he has the scars to prove it.
At 27 years old, the snowboarder from Utah has had a career marked with more ups and downs than most—impressive accomplishments matched by a laundry list of hospital visits.
But while injuries have been consistent for the burgeoning rider, how he’s recovered and dealt with them hasn’t. After his first ACL reconstruction Sam picked up cycling. At first it was to expedite his recovery, but a means to an end became more. Not only did cycling help physically, but it provided therapeutic relief and soon became a passion. Last winter, while sidelined from snowboarding for the season, Sam began receiving support from Rapha Sportswear.
With crossover athletes on the rise—and discussions around mental health rightfully making their way to center stage—I called Sam to chat about cycling, injury-related depression, and how he is actively ensuring a longer snowboarding career.
Let’s dive right into this, what put you out of commission last season?
I fell skating a handrail in September. I had no business skating a handrail either, but I guess I was feeling inspired. I tore my meniscus, my MPFL ligament, and part of my MCL. I ended up waiting until January and trying to ride and I just had persistent pain. I got knee surgery on January 15th, and I wasn’t back snowboarding until this spring.
How many knee surgeries did the last one total?
That was my fourth.
Damn. Was this one any different? It couldn’t have been easy getting hurt skateboarding right before the season began.
It sucked, just thinking ‘Fuck, I wasted the whole winter.’ I have learned how to deal with it a lot better now, though. The first time I did the ACL reconstruction was a huge smack in the face. It was the most painful experience of my life. Everything comes full circle at that point. You really have to appreciate what you have. When you are stuck on the couch for six weeks, and then have to spend the next six months relearning how to do everything, it’s a really awakening process.
In the film you mentioned a persistent fear of losing sponsors.
That’s always the first thing that pops into your head. Back to square one. I do have great support from my sponsors, and they have backed me through everything. But it is still hanging over your head a bit. Brands change, decisions are made, and sometimes being out on an injury can play a factor in that.
I imagine there’s also some fear of falling behind your peers.
It is a hard pill to swallow. But it is just the nature of the beast. At the end of the day, it is just more motivation. Being young and being surrounded by so many talented people, all you want to do is push yourself and ride. Sometimes that gets stripped from you for a bit.
Would you say you’ve experienced depression as a result?
Absolutely. The truth is, getting over injuries is not only physical, but also psychological. I’ve learned so much about myself and my feelings over the years and different injuries. It fucks with you not being able to express yourself the way you want to. I feel very small and vulnerable when I am injured.
Some people turn to drinking and other vices. Was that ever a problem for you?
I definitely self-medicated, one-hundred-percent. When you are down, it is easy to turn to poor coping mechanisms and that is something I have dealt with throughout my whole career. In snowboarding you’re surrounded by friends that want to go out for drinks and smoke weed. I try to push that off as long as possible, especially during the healing process, but nobody is perfect—especially not me. I have to learn things the hard way sometimes.
Have you felt support from friends? You’ve mentioned before that your friends hate you when you’re injured.
So every time I have gotten hurt, it is just an immediate huge cut to the ego. The first couple of weeks I am definitely grouchy and irritable. I am the worst when stuck on the couch. But the support from my friends has been unreal. Without a doubt, they have been my number one saving grace when I have been feeling the lowest.
It’s awesome that you are able to talk to them when you are in a slump. Discussions of mental health and depression haven’t always been easy in the action sports space.
I am very lucky for the friends that I have. I am very open about how I am feeling these days. If I am feeling depressed or alone at any moment I definitely look to friends immediately. I owe it all to my homies.
Do you have any advice to give someone who might be struggling from something similar?
I have panic attacks pretty often, but the number one thing that has always helped me—and which often seems like the hardest thing to do at the moment—is just try and relax. Take a step back and accept your feelings. Then just reach out to the best person you think you can talk to. I know that is a huge fear for so many people, but you just have to try and find a community that can be there for you.
It’s often much easier said than done.
One-hundred-percent, and in my own experience, the more you talk about it, the easier it gets. For me, it has been my snowboarding friends, but, skateboarding, cycling… Really, just the outdoor community in general is so accepting. If you’re feeling down, you need to speak up.
Sounds like cycling has also become a sort of therapy for you.
It is just such a great way to burn off steam and a much better coping mechanism than self-medicating. It was after my second surgery and first ACL reconstruction that I first thought about getting into cycling and here I am doing it 10 years later. It’s a great way to push yourself and distract yourself from whatever is going on in your head. If I need a fresh start to my day, I can go out for a ride and when I get home I feel like I can go ahead with my day and do anything. It’s done me so many favors when it comes to my career, and now it’s just another passion.
Aside from being easier on your knees than running, I imagine there are some similarities between flowing through the mountains on a bike and on your snowboard.
Absolutely. Feeling the wind on your face—you can’t beat it. My friend Jerm—who made the video—and I like to get out together and push on some bigger climbs around Utah and test our stamina. It’s like a game you play with yourself. The first time we ever biked up Big Cottonwood Canyon to Brighton Resort, we weren’t even sure if we could do it. Once we did it, it was like, ‘Oh that wasn’t so bad, let’s try Little Cottonwood Canyon.’ Even if I can’t snowboard, it’s nice to be up at those resorts cycling.
When you guys are on these rides, you’re fully kitted out in skintight suits. Are you slugging protein shakes and everything as well?
[Laughs] Honestly, I am more on the dirtbag side of cycling. I try to prepare for stuff as well as possible, but I am still new to this, too. This trip we just did last week, we rode nearly 200 miles in four days and 6,000-foot elevation. I was pretty spanked at the end.
What has it been like working with Rapha?
It is rad to have support from Rapha to make this movie. I honestly never expected to be at a place where I would have a sponsor unrelated to snowboarding. It is super cool to have that crossover. There are a lot of athletes out there these days that are doing multiple things, not just snowboarding or cycling.
Totally. Whether it is snowboarding, skateboarding, or surfing, to ride at the top of your game and progress you need to really treat your body right. It’s awesome you found cycling.
Exactly, and it’s riding a bike. It’s such a commonly shared activity that I think anyone fucks with it. You don’t have to be a full-on Lance Armstrong. When I started I was doing it purely to just get back on my snowboard, but now I will always be riding my bike. It’s addicting.
Any cycling goals on the horizon?
I want to ride down the coast. I also have been thinking about a three-to-four day ride in Idaho. No crazy goals, but more bike camping and skate trips. Check out new zones and find new parks with my bike and skateboard. Eventually, I want to bike across the country and do more long distance trips. But we will see, hopefully hit a couple more trips before the snow starts to fall.