When he was 19, Danniels’ life changed forever, while his zest for life and passion for adventure stayed the same.
Danniels grew up in Ontario, but he has since made the wise decision to live in North Vancouver. Like many kids reared in the heartland province, though, he spent countless summers being pulled by a boat through the water while tubing, barefoot waterskiing or wakeboarding.
He played rugby and hockey. He windsurfed and rock climbed. One of his major passions was mountain biking.
“I was never shy to learn something new,” Danniels tells the North Shore News.
When he finished high school, Danniels moved to British Columbia. Everything changed in 2005 following a mountain biking accident near Kamloops that left him with a broken back and more than a hundred broken bones.
One of those broken bones was a spinal cord injury that essentially left Danniels paralyzed from the armpits down.
While that kind of trauma to one’s body and mind would be unimaginable to most, he’s never let it get in the way of pursuing his athletic passions. He’s just carried on, adapting to new circumstances on the fly.
“My goal from the beginning of my accident was to not let it define me as a person,” he says.
Beyond the Break
Danniels’ life story, including his latest endeavour to develop his own adaptive surfboard so he could once again hit the water, is the subject of a new documentary.
“His family was basically all called to the hospital to say goodbye. It was amazing he lived,” explains Missy Mcintosh, the North Vancouver-raised filmmaker behind Beyond the Break: The Sam Danniels Story, showing at the Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival later this month. “Once he was able to lift himself into his wheelchair from the ground, he starting thinking about a career as a skier. He got into skiing really quickly, he trained really hard.”
Mcintosh works for a production company that specializes in making five-minute documentaries with the simple premise of profiling people in the community who love what they do. As soon as she met Danniels, however, she realized his story was anything but simple, and decided she’d need a larger stage to tell his tale.
“I think he’s just this magnetic personality who’s a classic onion guy – you peel back the layers and say, ‘How many layers are there?’” she says. “He’s a super humble guy and will gloss over big details, so I made the decision to interview his mom because I knew she would give me all the details.”
Among Danniels’ many career highlights, he was a member of Team Canada for the 2010 Paralympic Games, and he’s also taken home gold in slalom skiing at the X Games.
Besides paraskiing, Danniels has taken up cycling, snowmobiling and paragliding since his accident – while Mcintosh’s film examines his latest athletic pursuit: surfing.
“I never had an opportunity to learn to surf until I was 30 years old,” quips Danniels. “The biggest thing that kept me out of it really was just access to equipment – I just didn’t know what equipment I’d need or where I’d get the equipment I didn’t even know I needed.”
Mcintosh’s film in large part focuses on that question. Because many existing adaptive surfboards weren’t compatible with Danniels’ level of paralysis, he learns to craft his own over the course of the film, from the initial brick of foam to the final board being made, to when he tries it out in Tofino for the very first time.
“There’s never a one-size-fits-all. Depending on where your paralysis is – where your stability lies – everything has to be custom," says Mcintosh.
Film festival premiere
Production on the film started in October 2019. Following COVID delays, production wrapped up this past October.
Not only was Danniels' surfboard project a success, he’s endeavoured to keep going with it as well. He’s now continuing to build adaptive surfboards for others, according to Mcintosh.
When Danniels first entered the frigid Tofino waters on his adaptive surfboard during filming, there wasn’t a sense of fear coursing through him. He felt more analytical – making sure everything was working just right – than he did emotional, he says, which is typical for someone so accustomed to high-energy outdoor activities. He was more focused on surfing correctly than he was with being scared.
There was one thing about his plunge into the water that did make him pause for a moment, however, notes Danniels.
“Admittingly, the cameras brought on an element of nervousness for sure,” he jokes. But when talking about wanting to continue his athletic pursuits no matter what, he's all business. “I just wanted to continue that for the rest of my life as long as I could. That’s what’s kept me going.”
Beyond the Break: The Sam Danniels Story is showing at the Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival starting Feb. 19. Due to the pandemic, this year’s festival is going digital. Visit the festival’s website for viewing information and tickets.