Hip mishap leads Sam to a new life cycle

THE first question Sam McMahon's orthopaedic surgeon asks when she walks through his door is not "how have you been?" Rather, it's "where have you been - and where to next?"

Since suffering a serious injury that led to a full hip replacement at the age of 23, Sam has travelled to far-flung corners of the world including Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and Borneo, hiking through jungles, scaling peaks and hurtling down steep passes on a mountain bike.

Not bad for someone who was told to give up all high-impact sports immediately or risk damaging her new joint and requiring more major surgery.

"I think I would go nuts if I couldn't do anything at all," says the active adventurer who played netball, tennis, touch footy and rugby union in her youth and had been training for a marathon before her running dreams were cruelly cut short.

"My surgeon said I couldn't run any more or I would significantly shorten the life of my hip.

"But he told me I could ride a bike - I was at Moroni's shop in Bendigo two days later and walked out with my first road bike."

Within a year, Sam had completed the gruelling Around the Bay in a Day event, stunning her specialist with the news she had pedalled 220km and felt just fine.

"He was blown away," she says, "but he's great - he really understands that I need to be active, and that's why he signs off on a lot of the stuff I want to do when I travel."

Sam, now 27, is not an elite athlete, but her story is an inspiration to any sportsman or woman who finds themselves facing adversity and wondering if persevering is worth the effort.

She grew up on a Deniliquin rice farm then moved to Bateman's Bay with her parents at 12, when there were no signs of the health woes that would plague her later on.

Things began to go awry when she came to Bendigo in 2008 to study arts at La Trobe.

"In my first year of uni, I was in a pretty bad car accident that I was lucky to walk away from. Well, I didn't walk away, I broke my left tibia and fibula and had a titanium rod and screws in it and was on crutches for three months.

"I got into running when I was coming back from that injury and went to do the Run for the Kids in the April, but I fell and broke my hip doing it - I only got 0.8km in."

Three screws were inserted in Sam's left hip but the blood supply to the bony head of her femur had been interrupted, eventually causing it to disintegrate.

Surgeons gave her a new ceramic hip in the December and she spent two months undergoing intense rehab with mostly elderly patients.

By April - a year after the mishap - she'd been given the green light to start cycling and was following in the footsteps of a much-loved relative, the late Daniel Mertz.

"My uncle was cycling and unfortunately he was hit by a car and killed - he was training for the Port to Port ride at the time of the accident," she says of the 2006 tragedy.

"There has since been a Daniel Mertz Medal introduced into the Port to Port event.

"My uncle and I were incredibly close and he loved and lived life as well. He played polo-cross, went skiing, snowboarding, rode bikes, broke his neck motorbike riding, loved skydiving... out of all my family members I am probably most like him."

If all that wasn't enough, there was still more drama to come for the McMahon family, including parents Don and Gail, brothers Anthony and Josh and younger sister Prue.

Post-operative investigations revealed Sam had low bone density and related coeliac disease, so her sister had blood tests to make sure she didn't suffer similar problems.

Instead, the teenager was found to have acute myeloid leukaemia and became critically ill during her treatment, before finally going into remission three years ago.

"I suppose it was worth breaking my hip to find that out - you have to take all the positives you can out of it," Sam says of her sister's shock diagnosis and eventual recovery.

In 2012, Sam embarked on a holiday to South America that would introduce her to the joys of mountain bike riding and prompt her to add a new set of wheels to her garage on her return.

She went white water rafting in the Amazon jungle, visited the famous ruins of Machu Picchu and "surfed" a sandboard across barren desert dunes in Peru.

But riding at high-speed down Bolivia's infamous Death Road on a hired mountain bike, and tackling MTB trails around the Cotopaxi volcano in Ecuador and the foothills of the Andes in Argentina are among the highlights of the trip.

"I love that I discovered mountain biking while I was travelling in South America," she says, adding that she bought her own model within weeks of arriving back in Australia.

"At one stage, I was basically racing my guide down Death Road and I found the experience quite exhilarating - even when I had a pretty big stack! We were going quite fast and all the other people were looking at us and saying, that Australian girl is 'loco' (crazy)."

In January this year, Sam again headed off for more adventures, this time in Borneo.

While mountain bike opportunities were more limited on the Asian island, she did enjoy some spectacular rides and hikes in the scenic Kinabalu National Park.

"Being above the clouds for sunrise on Mount Kinabalu was amazing, as was reaching the top of the Pinnacles, after flying into Mulu, taking a 45-minute boat ride and then hiking for more than 11km to get to the summit," Sam says.

Before I broke my hip, I was intending to run the Melbourne Marathon and then incorporate other marathons into my travel plans. Now that idea but with bike riding has taken over - Sam McMahon

Back in Bendigo, she is working part time for St Luke's as well as completing a masters in social work to add to her arts degree with majors in sociology, politics and culture.

Not one to sit still for long, she is also planning another epic holiday.

"I plan to move to France next year and take my mountain bike and my road bike with me and spend at least 12 months over there, on a working visa and riding through Europe.

"I have got a few friends who want to come and visit - but I have told them that if they do, their job will be to drive the car while I'm riding.

"I also really want to go and visit Bhutan and Nepal; Africa to climb Mount Kilimanjaro; and do some more mountain biking in South Africa. I have a lot of plans...

"Before I broke my hip, I was intending to run the Melbourne Marathon and then incorporate other marathons into my travel plans. Now that idea but with bike riding has taken over."

Sam says she usually travels alone, but always strikes up friendships with like-minded people she meets along the way.

"A lot of my friends struggle to comprehend the kind of travel I like and getting them on board to come climb up mountains, ride down them and go white water rafting and kayaking in the jungle can be a bit hard," she laughs.

"My grandmother has a heart attack whenever she hears my plans.

"I didn't even tell her I was going to Borneo until the week before I left to save her the stress.

"When I went to South America, she had me kidnapped by drug dealers and shot with poison darts in the Amazon. I just told her the people are a lot more civilised than that!

"Mum just accepts it, and my housemate has a rule that if she doesn't hear from me for five days she will alert the authorities, so I have to stay in touch."

Sam also enjoys getting to know the locals in the areas she visits and says she has found them to be wonderful and hospitable people who are happy to welcome her into their communities.

"I like going to developing countries because their culture is a lot more unique," she explains.

"The main reason I want to go to Bhutan, besides the biking and the landscape, is that they measure their success in terms of their gross domestic happiness.

"I am a very open person and not really interested in materialistic things. Many people around the world are a lot happier than we are and I like to explore why that is and what they appreciate, and to see the different cultures."

Sam says spending time with her sister, who is now 19 and in remission, and other sick youngsters in Westmead Children's Hospital inspired her to care about people around her.

"My dream job would be working with UNICEF in West Africa.

"I'm particularly interested in working with traumatised children and that's what I do here in Bendigo with St Luke's - help and support the kids to overcome their trauma and develop an idea of who they are and who they want to be."

Sam has endured her fair share of trauma in recent years but has managed to retain her sense of humour and her spirit of adventure.

On top of work and study commitments, she finds time to get out on her bike up to six times a week and completes three or four sessions in the gym to maintain her fitness and strength.

"I'm like a walking spare parts store now," she chuckles. "My brothers often joke that if anything ever happens to me, they'll just take me straight to the wreckers.

"But bike riding keeps me sane, so I need it even more when I am working and studying so much. Besides, being on a bike is one of the best ways to really see and actually notice the things around you.

"My friends think I'm crazy, but you have to be a little bit crazy, don't you?

"I've seen time and time again how short life can be and I don't want to miss out on any of it."

Samantha McMahon will take part in the two-day, 200km Ride to Conquer Cancer from Melbourne to the Mornington Peninsula in October and aims to raise $3000 for the cause. To donate, click here.

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