Samantha ‘Sammi’ Kinghorn is one of the UK's leading wheelchair racers and Harper Macleod’s Athlete Ambassador. Despite still being a teenager (for a few more weeks at least!) this year saw her make her mark on a global stage, a fantastic season culminating in a bronze medal in the T53 200m at the World Championships in Doha, where she also made the finals in the 100m, 400m and 800m.
After a year like that, you’d think she’d be entitled to take a long winter break. However, with the Rio 2016 Paralympics looming in September it will be no more than a couple of weeks of taking it easy before the preparation starts again in earnest.
We caught up with Sammi as she and her mum Elaine put up the Kinghorn family Christmas tree to look back at an incredible 12 months in which she gave her family and all her supporters, HM included, some incredible memories.
What are you getting for Christmas?
I’ve got no idea! We’ve got about 12 people coming over to our house for Christmas - I’m sure I’ll get some surprises and I’m very excited!
Thinking back to the start of 2015, did you dare to dream it would go so well?
My targets were pretty straightforward at the start of the year – to be selected for the World Championships and achieve personal bests (PBs) in all of my distances. Even when I was selected I wasn’t thinking about getting a medal. I was just happy to be going and wanted to make some finals and, to be honest, even when I had come through my heat and a medal looked possible I still didn’t think about it.
You have your big dreams about winning medals at World Championships and Paralympics but I didn’t think about it that much because I don’t think I believed it was going to happen.
You’re in the stadium in Qatar, ready to go out for the 200m final. How does that feel?
I remember being a year out and thinking I still had so much time but it didn’t seem long before I was actually there. The selection was only four weeks before the event so I was on the plane before I had time to reflect. I was in Doha with two weeks before my first race and it went so fast.
When I made the final I was so happy – I’d achieved what I wanted to achieve. But then you’ve still got to go out there and race again and try to place well. I was trying not to think about where I was, but that’s difficult when you’re lining up next to world champions and Paralympic champions and you’re the youngest on that start line by quite a few years. It’s scary knowing that they’ve got all the experience and years of training. But I knew that I was as well prepared as I could be.
When I was on the start line it was really difficult for me to compare myself with them, because I saw them as so much better. But I was there, I was on that line the same as they were and I had every right to be. It’s tough to big yourself up if you feel you’re not as good as them but I now know that I can be.
If I get to Rio that will be my first ever Paralympics and I’m sure I’ll be nervous. But I’ll hopefully be able to use the experience of Doha.
We’re beginning to see who your main rivals are going to be over the next few years. How do you see that shaping up?
You’ve seen these athletes on the telly, you see them getting world records. They’re absolute machines and you think no-one can do that. I think especially the 800m final, when we all crossed the line so close together, made me feel much better. I’m actually there with them and competing - I’m not being left behind.
Angie Ballard (Australia), Chelsea McClammer (USA) and Madison de Rozario (Australia) are the big names who’ll be fighting for the medals and they’re all really nice girls. We all speak in the call room before races and it’s good, though obviously we’re rivals once we’re on the start line and everyone wants to beat each other. Nobody is friends once the gun goes.
And what about your Team GB buddies?
I spent a lot of time with Hannah Cockcroft, my roommate at the World Championships, and it’s reassuring to see that even she gets nervous – she’s a world record holder and has won I don’t know how many gold medals. (Hannah competes in the T34 category). So it’s good to know that it’s okay for me to be nervous at this level. Hannah was telling me stories about her first World Championships and things like that. It was nice to have someone that has been there and done it and is living their dream. She’s someone I want to follow.
The hardest thing for me at the World Championships was the downtime. If it’s really hot you don’t want to go outside as you don’t want to dehydrate. So you just have to sit in your room a lot and it’s learning how to not let your mind run and think about things too much, but try not to be bored at the same time. Having Hannah around helped a lot.
She also gave me my funniest memory of the year. We’d never shared a room together before but we went into the room in Doha and there was only a double bed set up. We both had the same attitude and just said, “we’ll sleep in it together!”
Me and Hannah also have a good little rivalry going. In the sprints especially we’re very close and we love it. Especially when we’re racing in Britain we’re trying to beat each other and when we cross the line we laugh about it – we want to beat each other but we both want the other to do well. It’s always better when you’re racing competitively. Sometimes you catch them, sometimes they beat you – it keeps you on your toes.
How does it feel to be a become more and more recognised?
The perception of you does change. You have people such as Hannah Cockcroft and Richard Whitehead and they’re just expected to go out and bring that gold medal back and get a world record. That pressure and expectation would be so scary, but at the same time it’s a nice feeling because people believe in you and that you can do it. They expect it, yes, but they also believe that you can do it.
Now I feel like I’m really part of the GB team. You don’t know what’s going to happen, there can be injuries and things like that, but you just want to stay part of that team for as long as possible. As long as I train right and look after my body hopefully I can.
How much better can you become before Rio?
Both Ian and I will try to guess what my PBs will be in the year ahead but you really don’t know where you are until your first big race. I made my targets last year but the margins are getting smaller now. When you first start racing you take great chunks off your PBs – I took off 10 seconds once in my 800m. Now it’s just a couple of tenths here and there and you just want to keep grinding down on them.
The other aspect is that, especially in the longer distances, when you get to the finals it’s not about your time any more. It’s about tactics and how you can play the field. It doesn’t matter if you’re the fastest there it’s about how you race and the conditions can affect things a lot. The wind makes a big difference and some people are better than others at handling it. Someone might have the best PB but you don’t know how they’ll handle the conditions.
I certainly feel a lot better this winter than last. My weights in the gym have gone up, I’m doing longer distances and I’m doing a lot more reps in my sprints. It’s hard to compare but it feels like I’m coping with it a lot better than I was last winter.
I feel like I understand the sport more now. You obviously want to improve your times but you also need to learn about your equipment and what you need to succeed. Being around top wheelchair athletes at the World Championships and picking up tips from them helps you learn about these things too.
I understand a lot more about the way I’m training and why I’m doing things. Before, Ian (Mirfin, her coach) would give me sessions and I just did them. But now I understand a lot more about why I’m doing these sessions and what they’re going to improve on next year.
What’s been your highlight of the year?
Winning the bronze medal at the World Championships - without a doubt. It wasn’t crossing the line or being presented with the medal, but when I came through and saw my mum and dad. I crossed the line and I was really happy with myself but when I went through and saw my Dad crying! That was the best bit. (The medal is currently just sitting on top of Sammi’s cupboard! It’s been shown around so much it never gets the chance to stay in its cabinet.)
Sammi shows her bronze medal to HM Chief Executive Martin Darroch
I also loved going to speak at a lot of schools. You get the best questions from the pupils, they just ask things very honestly. If they wonder about something they just ask and in some ways it would be great if that that’s how everyone was. If you’ve got a question you ask rather than try to work it out yourself and maybe get it wrong. I’ve had questions like ‘do you sleep in your chair?’ It’s because they’re curious and they’ve maybe never met anyone in a wheelchair and it’s a question I might have had myself.
When Rio comes around I hope everyone in the country can pick up the whole Paralympic spirit again that we had in London. Kids love it – they really enjoy watching Paralympics sports. Hopefully it will buzz it up again.
You can find out more about Harper Macleod and Sammi here.
You can see the short film we made with Sammi as she trained around her Borders home here.