In 2006, Moran Samuel went to bed as a gifted, young, able-bodied athlete – and woke up paralyzed from the chest down. Ten years later, she was holding a bronze medal in the 2016 Rio Paralympics. Jay and Moran discuss her sudden spinal stroke, merging the Olympics and Paralympic Games, and equal opportunities to people with disabilities. Listen now!
Moran Samuel is a paralympic basketball player and world champion rower.
Speaker 1 (00:03):
All Inclusive, a podcast on inclusion, innovation, and social justice with Jay Ruderman.
Jay Ruderman (00:13):
Hi, I’m Jay Ruderman and this is All Inclusive, a podcast focused on inclusion, innovation, and social justice.
Moran Samuel (00:24):
So my first, psychological reaction, mental reaction was, well life is over, everything I was, was related to sports so for me life was over, but soon enough and I’m so lucky that I’ve been an athlete all my life because the tools I was carrying around with me helped a lot when I had to recover when I had to do my first steps.
Jay Ruderman (00:58):
In 2006, Moran Samuel, a gifted young athlete woke up literally into a new reality. During the night she suffered a sudden spinal stroke, which left her paralyzed from the chest down, 10 years later she was holding a bronze medal in a 2016 Rio Paralympics. So I would like to start by focusing our conversation on the benefits and also the challenges that people in sports with disabilities face, before we get to all of that, I want to familiarize our listeners with your own personal story. So can you tell us what your life was like before you suffered a spinal stroke?
Moran Samuel (01:48):
So I grew up as a basketball player. I grew up in a very small town in the north part of Israel and I fell in love in basketball, when I was nine years old. By the age of 16, I already represented Israel in the youth national team. I served the army in a special program for elite athletes, I coached basketball and my life was pretty much all about being the best basketball player could be playing division one league here in Israel, preparing myself to a future of sports. At the time I was 24 years old and at the time I was already a student, so my life was right on track and just one morning, just like that, everything completely changed.
Moran Samuel (02:45):
It was a Thursday, the night before I was coaching at the afternoon, then later that night I played basketball, I think I came home half past 10:00 PM and everything felt normal, I was completely fine. I woke up that Thursday and I was supposed to go to my parents’ house for the weekend and I had a very severe back pain. Something I’ve never felt before, it was really strange, it wasn’t like a muscle strain or I don’t know. It was really unique pain that I’ve never felt before. In a few, I think it was about 20 to half an hour, I started to have some difficulties with breathing and that’s when I realized something bad is happening, but I couldn’t point my finger at something specific because I was walking, I was having my coffee, I was even doing my laundry, but it became worse.
Moran Samuel (03:50):
There was a point where I realized that it’s not going well and I decided to call an ambulance and by the time they arrived, I couldn’t get out of bed by myself. When they were taking me to the hospital on the way to the hospital, I couldn’t move my legs anymore and I realized I’m completely paralyzed. When I’m getting to the hospital, after a few checks, exams, they realize it’s a neurological problem, but they couldn’t get the source of it and I did an MRI and at the time MRIs were not as common as today. Not everybody could actually translate what it says. So it took some time, it took a few hours to find the right doctor to analyze my MRI and to understand that something is blocking the oxygen supply to the central nervous system and that I need a surgery and I’m going into surgery in that afternoon.
Moran Samuel (04:53):
Only when I woke up the next morning, they could explain what it was and they explained that I suffered a really rare condition called spinal stroke. There was a defect in one of the blood vessels and that’s it, it was a ticking bomb in my body and there was no way to discover it. There was no way to prevent it. So you cannot discover it in just a regular normal checks that you do when you go to your doctor or to your sport doctor. It’s really rare.
Jay Ruderman (05:24):
I guess I have two questions. What was your immediate, psychological, emotional reaction to this and after you were in the hospital and recovering, and now living a new life physically, how did you emotionally adapt to that?
Moran Samuel (05:57):
So my first psychological reaction, mental reaction was, well life is over, everything I knew was sports, the way I define myself was through sport, I always say that if you have met me when I was 16 and open up my chest, you wouldn’t find an anatomical heart. My heart was round and orange it had stripe and it was bouncing up and down in my chest. So everything I was, was related to sports or for me life was over, but soon enough and I’m so lucky that I’ve been an athlete all my life because the tools I was carrying around with me helped a lot when I had to recover when I had to do my first steps in order to heal, to overcome. I think that the first mental step was to change the way that I was talking to myself, not saying life is over, but saying life as I knew it might be over, but I’m still here.
Moran Samuel (07:13):
I have something to give and believe me, I didn’t have big dreams then, I didn’t even think about going back to sport or being a Paralympian. I really wanted to do just the little things of life. Just be able to wake up in the morning and be independent and be able to get out of the hospital and do something with my life but no big dreams. I didn’t have any big goals, but I do believe that the small ones are the one that keeps you going and I made small wins each and every day. I can give you a nice example that I like giving from basketball, because this is my world. So if you take a really close, tight basketball game, I mean 68-66, something like that, 25 seconds to the end of the game, and someone is giving you the best pass you can ever get.
Moran Samuel (08:12):
And you get to the ring with a layup that you probably was able to do like 10,000 times in your life and then the ball goes out and there’s maybe another 15 seconds on the clock and you know you’ve missed the most important shot of the game. So what is the next fastest thing you need to do? What would you say Jay? What is the first thing you need to do the fastest thing you need to do after you missed the most important shot of the game and there are only 15 seconds on the shot clock?
Jay Ruderman (08:54):
Try to get the rebound.
Moran Samuel (08:56):
This is the right answer. You need to get the ball back but how do you do it? In order to do it you need to be able to switch. You need to be able mentally to forget it just happened and to put it behind you because it’s not going to help you to do the next best step or the next best action you can do. As a sport person, as an athlete, I’ve mastered that, I switched so fast, I know how to mentally change my reaction to whatever happens to me in the basketball court and when I was lying in bed, I understood that this is exactly what I need to do. I cannot change the fact that I just missed that shot, but the fastest I will be able to overcome, the fastest I will be able to get back on the ground and try to get the ball then maybe I can help the team to win and maybe I will be able to help myself overcome or deal with it the best way I can.
Moran Samuel (10:10):
So I think that I had a lot of support, I have an amazing parents and family, my friends from university were visiting me on a regular basis, they even bought me a laptop so I can be online with them. It’s cool and everything, but there are moments in your life that you need to take the next best step, you need to push yourself forward because if you don’t believe that you own your own strength, it doesn’t matter how much support and help you have from the people around you. It helps and it’s important, but you have to believe that you can do it.
Jay Ruderman (10:50):
So it reminds me and I’ve read quite a bit about professional athletes and how they’re able to not dwell on the past and go forward and there’s a scene in a movie called Fever Pitch, which was done by friends of mine, Peter and Bobby Farrelly, which is about the Boston Red Sox, a baseball team. There’s a scene in it where the team has lost three in a row, in a four playoff series and a bunch of the players are sitting around having a meal and they’re joking and they’re talking and there’s a group of fans sitting by them and they’re drinking their beers and crying and they’re like, how can these players go on and just act like it’s no big deal when they’re almost out and were so devastated.
Jay Ruderman (11:51):
Jimmy Fallon stars in the movie and he’s like, they have it right, they understand life, that things happen, especially in sports and the best athletes I think can compartmentalize and go on to the next thing. I think that it’s one thing to miss a shot or miss a game, or lose a playoff. It’s another thing to, physically lose part of your body that was so much part of your identity, so for that, that’s an extraordinary story. As I understand, you decided to return to sports after your injury. So can you just talk about like, what was involved in that decision to say, I’m going to get back into sports. , I am now paralyzed from the waist down, but I want to be an athlete.
Moran Samuel (12:47):
So actually I couldn’t go back to sport right ahead. I felt that if I cannot play as I played before, I don’t want to play at all. It was that ball in my chest that just all the air went out and I never thought anything can make me feel like I felt being an asset. So I went back to school, I finished my bachelor in physical therapy and I did a master in child development and I started working with infant and children with disabilities and I said, this is the best way I can take something really bad that happened to me, but do something good with it. I wanted to keep the chapter of being an athlete somewhere in my past but I guess that it was meant to be.
Moran Samuel (13:48):
After three years of trying to avoid anything related to sport or to basketball, I was getting a phone call that they are rebuilding their women national team in wheelchair basketball in Israel. We didn’t have a team since the nineties, it was 2009 and I felt like faith is calling me. I don’t know how to explain, I was wearing the Israeli flag on my uniform since I was 16 and suddenly the team is calling me again, even though it’s in wheelchair basketball. There’s a saying in basketball that you always miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, so I had to take that shot.
Moran Samuel (14:37):
It was the day of my birthday, where I decided to go to the first session and it was a Saturday night, I was driving two hours from my house at the north, in Haifa [foreign language 00:14:52], in the center of Israel and when I got to the basketball court, I just fell in love again. It was like watching a Hollywood movie in slow motion reaction and then music in the background, really emotional and everything I knew was there. It was the ball in the basket and the court and the friends that I met there and just being able not to feel my disability. I realized in time that, that’s my way to take the dis out of disability by playing sport and it was amazing.
Jay Ruderman (15:47):
So how long did it take you to learn to be a wheelchair basketball player? I mean, you obviously were a top flight basketball player, but to sit in a wheelchair and to play in a wheelchair, how long did it take you to become a top athlete as a wheelchair basketball player?
Moran Samuel (16:08):
Actually, I did it quite fast, like you said, I came with the skills I just needed to adopt and by the first year of playing wheelchair basketball, I was already invited to join the men team of [inaudible 00:16:27] , which played the first league in Israel. By my second year, I was already in the open five of my team. I represented Israel in two European championship, both of them I was chosen to be one of the all-star players of the tournament, even though we finished last as a team. So in the beginning, it was really hard and the ball was going everywhere. It was really hard to shoot from the outside because you are sitting and suddenly you need to use only your upper body and you sit so low. So it took a while but I did it fast because I came with the background and when you meet former basketball players that go into wheelchair basketball, usually they adapt really fast.
Jay Ruderman (17:21):
So let me ask you, you got into rowing and maybe you can talk a little bit about how you transitioned, not completely transitioned, because you’re still a basketball player, but how you went from basketball to rowing?
Moran Samuel (17:34):
Going back to basketball was a big thing for me, but it also made me think that I want to get to the Paralympic games. I started dreaming big dreams about sports again, as I did when I was a young athletes, dreaming about the WNBA or representing Israel in the Olympic games. So suddenly I can feel that that the dream is still there, but my team wasn’t good enough, the Israeli national team wasn’t good enough, we were the last in Europe. So thinking about paralympic games was an impossible dream, let’s say, but thinking about individual sport was actually the route to try and get to the paralympic games and the paralympic committee in Israel, they recommended rowing or power rowing based on my athletic abilities, my height and they offered rowing and even though I’ve never rode in my life, I didn’t even like any water sport before. I had a dream and I decided that I will at least try.
Moran Samuel (18:53):
It was very hard because I’m coming from a team sport, where everybody are dependent on everybody else. Actually I fell in love in that feeling that everything I do comes back to me, all the effort that I give goes in the boat and I’m not depending on anyone else to succeed or not. That was a new feeling but a good feeling and then I think it was after three or four months in the boat. When we were recording my times and we saw that I can be maybe six in the world after three months only and we knew it’s the right place for me. I represented Israel in the 2012 Paralympic games in London and rowing is an amazing sport, have you ever rode? I mean maybe in school, have you ever rode?
Jay Ruderman (19:50):
I’ve never rode athletically. I I’ve rode in a kayak, but I can’t compare it to your success.
Moran Samuel (20:00):
No but I mean, it’s that the connection with the water, the outdoor sport, the wind, there are really moments where you are some kind of meditation inside the sport and it’s amazing. It was for me like running again and it was the first time I was doing a sport that is out of the wheelchair, that was very special. Suddenly I can get out of my wheelchair and in getting the boats and it’s freedom, it’s really freedom.
Jay Ruderman (20:38):
You’ve had many successes. I mean, in London you mentioned in 2012, finishing fifth in the Paralympic games by 2015, you had won a world championship and in 2016 in the Rio Paralympics, you won the bronze medal. There’s an article that I pulled up from USA today, that’s written by someone who I know his name is Charles Katherine, I don’t know if you’ve seen this article. The title of the piece in USA today is why separate Paralympics should end and be unified with the Olympic games should begin? So you’re a rower, you’re not using a wheelchair, you’re in a boat, what do you think? Should you compete against Olympians as a rower?
Moran Samuel (21:35):
I can’t, it’s an unfair fight because even though I’m out of my wheelchair and in a boat and specifically in rowing, the whole movement comes and starts from the strength of the legs, you are pushing really hard with the legs, and then you’re adding the upper body. So actually in my category, it will never be a fair play. It’s like in judo or in boxing where you have weight categories, so putting me competing against a one of the top rowers in the world, able body rowers is like boxing, I don’t know, 50 kilograms against 100 kilograms or something like that.
Moran Samuel (22:26):
It’s just an unfair fight but I think that there are many reasons to join Olympic and Paralympic games, we’re talking about inclusion so it will be amazing that let’s say it will be an alternating race. So you will have the women single in the able-bodied category, and then the women single in the pair category and you have the men single, and you will alternate the competition. I think that will expose the Paralympic sport to so many audience and it will really put on the same level with the same Olympic and Paralympic games.
Jay Ruderman (23:16):
That’s an important idea because I remember in the last Olympics, the amount of money and attention and media that’s focused on the Olympics far outweighs the Paralympics and I know our foundation was very involved with group of young activists to approach the US Olympic committee and talk about the disparity in payment for metals that Olympians were getting as opposed to Paralympians and the victory was that the US Olympic committee decided to have metal pay parody for both the Paralympians and Olympians, which was a huge step. I think that that being on the same stage would do a lot to move towards inclusion.
Moran Samuel (24:10):
Yes, it will and there are many excuses why not to do it and I’ve been on many discussions of why is not the right idea. I think there are even Paralympians that think that we need to have our separate games because we need different conditions and we need accessibility and so on and so forth. I say, okay but this is the world, the world needs to be accessible, I don’t like to talk about equality. I like to talk about equal opportunities because of course, if there are stairs, you will be able to go up the stairs and I will not be able to go up the stairs. We don’t need equality, we don’t need exactly the same conditions, we need the same opportunities. We need the same doors to be open for everybody and if the same doors are open for everybody, then the best people who are… if it’s in jobs or in school or in entertainment, or you’re doing an amazing job in Hollywood, so if the door is open, then everybody can just get inside and try.
Moran Samuel (25:31):
I think that’s the only way. If we push ourselves forward, if we speak out, if we reach out, we don’t sit on the side and say, oh but we don’t get this and we don’t get that and no one sees us. No, I don’t care about that, I care about actions, I care about coming forward and speaking out and showing that we care, showing that we want, sometimes no one asked you.
Jay Ruderman (26:02):
So let me ask you about being a competitive athlete, as opposed to just being an athlete for fun which most of us are, what are the benefits of being a competitive athlete, both just as a human being and as a person with disabilities?
Moran Samuel (26:26):
So as a human being, I think first of all, the mental strength, not just a physical strength, the mental strength you get from being an athlete, your ability to manage your time, your ability to focus. When they try to help people and deal with anxiety and depression and difficulties in your everyday life, they try to teach you how to focus, how to be in the moment, not thinking about the past, not thinking about the future and this is something professional athletes must know how to do. For people with disabilities I think that there are two main things that sport gives you, first of all as I said, it takes the dis of disability just makes you feel able.
Moran Samuel (27:22):
It makes you feel that you can, especially when it happens to you in the middle of your life there is a big list of what I could do in the past, but will never be able to do again and in order to feel better about the past, feel better about what you cannot do anymore, or even just throw away this list. You need to build a new list of what I can do and focus on that and sport gives you the feeling that you can makes you meet with other people with disabilities, that sport gives their life new meaning and it’s amazing. The second thing is just, I think making you feel like you’re like everybody else.
Jay Ruderman (28:27):
What tips would you give to young people with disabilities who are looking to go a route like you went through, what’s your advice?
Moran Samuel (28:39):
So first of all, find a sport that you love, that you’re connected to because it’s really hard, there are so many hours to put in, so you need to love it and if you’re doing a sport that you don’t feel passionate about, you will not be able to get to the highest level. So you have to be passionate about it and it’s true even if you don’t want to be an athlete, if you want to be a singer or if you want to be an engineer or if you want to be an astronaut, you need to be passionate about your dreams and it needs to come from you. Sometimes our parents can push us, sometimes our teachers can push us or coaches around us say, oh you need to do this or that, but you need to look in the mirror and say, I do what I love and that’s why I do it.
Moran Samuel (29:32):
So that’s the first thing that I think is very important. Then you need to understand that most journeys in life, especially for our professional athletes, it’s not a 100 meter sprint. Sometimes it’s a marathon, sometimes it’s climbing the Everest, sometimes it’s a long journey and every step you take takes you forward. You might fall, but you need to learn how to get back on the court as fast as you can. I always say that if you look at an obstacle as an obstacle, it will knock you down, if you look at an obstacle as a challenge, you will do your best to overcome. You will do your maximum and it’s up to us. Challenges are there, things go wrong, but if we are creative, if you’re flexible, if we know how to react, then we can always turn those obstacles into challenges.
Jay Ruderman (30:36):
What do you feel are the unique challenges facing people with disabilities, both in sports and just in general physical activity, moving throughout society and how can we do a better job as a society to integrate people with disabilities in every aspect of life?
Moran Samuel (30:55):
I think that, that’s the first problem around the world is access to sport activities for children with disabilities. Let’s say that in the same house, there are two brothers, they are even twins and one was born with a disability and the other was born without and they get to the age where they want to play sport. The opportunities for one are much higher than the opportunities to the other and that’s a problem as I see it. I think that especially in young age, it should be integrated, there are so many sports that it doesn’t matter, specifically individual sport, like swimming, like tennis, like rowing, shouldn’t be a problem to have in one team children with and without disabilities, you just need to adapt the training, that’s it but everybody can use the same facilities, the same community center, it’s not happening enough.
Moran Samuel (32:03):
There are still barriers that I don’t understand, coaches that are afraid of having children with disabilities in their team, even though it’s not a competitive team yet, stuff like that. We need to educate our sport teacher, how do you call it, physical education teacher?
Jay Ruderman (32:25):
Moran Samuel (32:26):
Yeah we need to educate them better about disabilities, about opportunities and how to adapt their sport and lessons to everybody. Today we seen schools in Israel that children with disabilities, when there is the physical education period in the day, they sit in class doing something else, that’s wrong. I think it starts in schools education and opportunities around your neighborhood for you to play sport and that’s a challenge for children with disabilities.
Jay Ruderman (33:11):
Well Moran it’s been a pleasure speaking to you and I really enjoyed our time together. I want to wish you a lot of success in Italy and then again in Tokyo. I’ll be watching the news and looking forward to your success. So thank you so much and thank you for spending time with us today.
Moran Samuel (33:32):
Thank you, Jay. Thank you for hosting me.
Speaker 1 (33:39):
All Inclusive is a production of the Ruderman family foundation. Our key mission is the full inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of society. You can find All Inclusive on Apple podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, and Stitcher. Have an idea for a podcast? Be sure to tweet @JayRuderman!