How a baby magpie saved para surfing champion’s life – and inspired the Blues

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Sam Bloom always had a keen sense of adventure, and if she was going to be a traveller she wanted her kids to love travel too. If they wanted to seek out a new hidden gem, she would go with them. If it meant going a little off the beaten track, then she would encourage it.

In a quiet coastal village in Thailand called Ban Krut, one of her three sons spied an observation deck at the hotel they were staying at. She climbed up with husband Cameron, who was fixated with a Buddhist temple in the distance.

Sam leant on the railing, and it collapsed. Unbeknownst to her, it was rotten. She fell six metres below onto the concrete tiles, one of her sons turning around to only see her feet go over the edge. There was no noise, no warning. Her back would be broken, among numerous other injuries.

“It wasn’t the best holiday I had,” says Bloom, now a two-time world para surfing champion who has been called into the State of Origin camps as a motivational speaker for NSW’s men’s and women’s teams.

But despite her life changing instantly, it was then the real challenges begun. After months and months of rehabilitation, Bloom returned home in a deep depression. In her memoir released three years ago, she wrote she contemplated suicide.

“I wasn’t the same mum,” she says. “Before my accident I was super active. I would always be surfing, mountain biking, playing soccer or going to the gym. That was who I was.

Para surfer Sam Bloom watches NSW training at Accor Stadium.Credit: Cameron Bloom

“When I came home I realised I couldn’t do any of that. I’d list all the things I couldn’t do. To be honest, I wasn’t very happy at all. I was just sad and angry. The kids found that pretty hard. I wasn’t the bubbly, energetic mum. But kids are way more accepting and resilient than me.”

Saviour can come in many forms, but for Bloom hers was a rescued baby magpie who had fallen out of a nest. The Blooms took care of the bird, which was saving Sam’s life just as much as she was saving hers. They called the baby magpie Penguin. Sam would talk to the baby magpie, and suddenly the family, and visitors, had a reason to talk about something other than her condition.

“It took the focus off me,” Bloom says. “I hated being the centre of attention. Everyone would be like, ‘oh, how are you feeling?’ But then everyone would then come to see Penguin. I would talk to her all the time. I was with Penguin every day looking after her and she brought happiness to our lives.”

It inspired the book Penguin Bloom, then a movie followed, starring Naomi Watts. Bloom’s story caught the attention of Andrew Johns, who heard the surfer speak at the gym owned by his wife, Kate Kendall. Knowing Brad Fittler and Kylie Hilder are always thinking of new ways to provide perspective to their players, Bloom addressed both the men’s and women’s teams and their families about support mechanisms during camp on the weekend.

Cameron spent years urging Sam to pursue her love of sports after her accident, which first resulted in Sam making the Australian para canoe team, and then returning to the water on a surfboard, a passion since childhood.

“We went out for a swim and a friend of ours had his board and said, ‘c’mon Sam, get on. You used to surf’,” she says. “I was like, ‘nah’. In the end I thought, ‘that’s not surfing because I was just lying down’. I was a bit stubborn. It took five years until I got back on a board again.

“For five years I had Cam pushing me onto the waves and I was in the assisted category [in para surfing championships]. I went to Hawaii last year and they said, ‘you’re looking really strong’, so they reclassified me. Then I had no assistance. They did that to me two days before the competition. I was freaking out thinking, ‘how embarrassing would this be if I can’t catch a wave?’ But I changed my mindset and thought, ‘I have nothing to lose’.”

Sam Bloom speaks to NSW’s women’s State of Origin team.Credit: Cameron Bloom

She was up against a world champion in her new classification.

“But all I’ve ever wanted to do since my accident was surf on my own,” she says. “I just went out there and thought I’d enjoy myself and try my hardest. I was so lucky because I was just in the right spot at the right time – and I won.”

She was also in the right spot on Sunday, with Fittler insisting she be in a team photo before the side headed to Adelaide. Bloom beamed, and even plucked up the courage to cheekily ask Nathan Cleary for his boots.

“I was saying to Cam it was such an honour spending the day with them all,” Bloom says. “They’re the nicest group of people.

“The theme was all about family and support. I’d never met Brad before, but he’s so kind and so incredibly supportive. He loves all the members of the team and they love him.

“I was blown away, to be honest.”

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