A 19-year-old, bulletproof Sam Bailey was having the time of his life in the Australian outback, when in an instant his world was turned upside down.
Sam is recognised around Australia as having an amazing personal story to tell.
He has succeeded as a pilot, farmer, husband and best-selling author – all from a wheelchair.
His life’s journey has taught him the importance of family and appreciating everything in life.
“Challenges, change, resilience, community, and appreciation are all words I know a little bit about,” the keynote speaker told Gardner Foundation’s Dairy Leaders Luncheon in March.
“You can’t buy resilience and you won’t find it in a cornflakes’ packet or under your pillow, you have to learn it and I did at a very young age.”
Born and raised on a family farm at Croppa Creek in northern NSW, all Sam wanted to be growing up was a farmer just like his dad.
He spoke about his idyllic childhood living on the land.
“Right from day one, the bush was in my blood, the dirt was under my fingernails,” Sam said.
Following high school, Sam landed a job on Avon Downs cattle station on the Barkly Tablelands in the Northern Territory.
He had fallen hopelessly in love with the outback.
“It is where I learned the true meaning of the word ‘wow’,” Sam said.
“Three days before I had left 4500-acres and 50-odd cows and calves and arrived at a bit over a million acres where there was 35,000 head of cattle.
“It was like another world and I was having an absolute ball.”
Life changed forever
One Sunday afternoon in 1987, Sam was given a seemingly insurmountable challenge.
He climbed into the back seat of a car with three other people bound for the Camooweal pub.
They never arrived.
The vehicle blew a tyre, rolling several times, and threw Sam clear of the car in the process.
He woke up laying on the side of the road and he knew instantly that something was seriously wrong.
“I discovered that your life can change in a split second,” he said.
“I was completely paralysed and had no sensation in the lower part of my body.
“My first words to a couple who had pulled up and were kneeling down beside me were, ‘geez, I hope I don’t spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair’.”
Sam had completely severed his spinal cord at the base of his neck, leaving him a quadriplegic.
He was to spend five months in the spinal unit at Princess Alexandra Hospital in Brisbane.
“What I now know is, unfortunately, tragedy, bad luck, mishap – call it what you like – is a part of life,” he said.
“At some stage, every one of us will be confronted with it.
“The hardest thing to do after any tragedy is to stand back up and pick up what pieces are left and soldier on because this wonderful thing called life doesn’t stop.”
When Sam finally arrived home at Croppa Creek, reminders of his old life were everywhere.
“I remember wheeling into my old bedroom for the first time and there in front of me was my saddle hanging up on a rack, surfboard and waterski in one corner, and a cricket bat over in the other,” he said.
“I wheeled over to where my footy boots were and I put them on my lap for the first time and I felt the horrible realisation that I would never play another game of rugby.”
Now no longer the six-foot-tall, fiercely independent Sam, he had to learn to live his life from a wheelchair.
He decided a spinal injury was not going to get in the way of what he had always wanted and dreamt of.
“With a Sydney Harbour full of determination, I rolled my sleeves up and set about rebuilding a badly broken life,” he said.
His father arrived home one day with a four-wheel quad bike and it opened a door for him.
The quad gave him his legs on the farm.
He gained yet more freedom with the purchase of a modified car, he converted several pieces of machinery on the farm, devised a hoist to get him into the tractor cabin so he could take part in the cropping, and he learned how to fly an ultralight aircraft, which he referred to as conquering “his own personal Mount Kosciusko”.
“It became a very powerful symbol for me because it was something I could do that lots of other people couldn’t,” he said.
“It proved to me that anything is possible if you put your mind to it.”
The next chapter
Together with his wife Jenny, Sam operates a 1250-hectare mixed farming enterprise at Croppa Creek.
And for 20 years, the couple has been speaking publically to adults and school students all over Australia.
However, public speaking wasn’t something they planned.
Following an appearance on ABC’s Australian Story, the couple received such an overwhelming response from viewers, that it made Sam realise he had an important story to tell, and hopefully give hope to someone who needed it.
“As you know, there’s only one thing worse than dying, and that’s public speaking,” Sam joked.
“One moment we can be in a capital city talking to the top end of town, the next minute we are out in the middle of nowhere talking to a handful of people.
“We get to travel this incredible country and meet some amazing people – we give a bit but we certainly get a lot back.
“It really is an incredible life we lead – it’s an amazing life.”
They were urged to write a book and so Head Over Heels – A story of tragedy, triumph and romance in the Australian bush was born.
“One of the greatest things to come out of the book is the enormous impact it is now having on kids,” Sam said.
“Kids from seven years of age are reading it and loving it.
“That is something we hadn’t given any thought to when we wrote it.”
The couple’s second book is now in the pipeline: You don’t need wings to fly.
So, what’s next?
Sam aims to be the first quadriplegic in the world to fly a helicopter.
“I cannot put into words the feeling of leaving the earth and looking back down on an empty wheelchair,” he said.
His first stop: Croppa Creek Primary School.
“I have also been invited by Sydney’s Waverly City Council to fly into Bondi Beach,” he said.
“It is the first civilian helicopter ever allowed to land on the beach.
“If I can pull that off, it will be a great day.”
‘I’m a very lucky bloke’
Sam discovered an inner strength he says he would most likely never found if he hadn’t jumped in that car bound for Camooweal.
When faced with a choice to swim or sink, Sam said he couldn’t see any life at the bottom of the ocean, so he decided to swim.
“I’ve learned many things throughout my life, some the easy way, some the hard way,” he said.
“Two of the biggest things I learned at the age of 19 while lying in the spinal unit with a broken neck, was first: the incredible importance of family – Mum and Dad dropped everything and were beside my bed, my brother and sister did the same.
“The second is appreciating everything I have.
“There would be hardly a day go by where I don’t take the time to think about everything I have.”
Sam admitted he often wondered how life would have panned out if he had arrived at the pub that Sunday afternoon.
“I’ll never know, maybe I would have gone through life not realising I had an inner strength to not only pull myself through my own bit of bad luck but then to go out and help others through theirs,” he said.
“So, I think that accident really needed to happen.
“I had a great life up until the age of 19, but I’ve got an absolute bloody ripper now and I wouldn’t trade places with anyone.”
– By Hayley Warden