Samantha ‘Sammi’ Kinghorn, Scotland’s leading wheelchair racer, has once again agreed to be Harper Macleod's Athlete Ambassador for the next year. Sammi recently returned from the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. Harper Macleod has been part of Team Kinghorn since 2013, when Sammi was a 17-year-old hoping to appear at the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games and with big dreams for the future. Since then it has been incredible to see what she has achieved – a Commonwealth Games appearance, triple European champion, World Championships bronze medallist and now a Paralympian. We caught up with Sammi post Rio to hear her thoughts on an amazing experience, and her goals for the year ahead as she continues to pursue her dreams.
Nerves. For a lawyer they might crop up during a particularly tricky case, for others a time when you have to speak in public, or even just go to the dentist!
For Sammi Kinghorn, things tend to come to a head when she takes her place on the track. Mind you, that's understandable when you're a 20-year-old under the global, live-TV spotlight of your first ever Paralympic performance.
Sammi managed a kiss and a wave to the camera as it panned along the competitors on the start line, but inside she was simply trying to stay focussed.
She recalls her emotions as she prepared for the start of the T53 100m heat, her first of six races in Rio.
"It was really scary actually, especially my first couple of races. It was a lot bigger than anything I’ve ever been to and I just really wanted to do well and reach my finals. I think I put more pressure on myself and was a bit more nervous than I probably should have been. "My dream has always been to go to the Paralympics and I was actually there and it kind of hit me. I was like “oh my goodness, I actually made it.” It was definitely a surreal feeling but something I’m going to have to get used to I guess. Since I've come back I've watched my races back and it’s still weird to watch yourself on the telly – though I didn’t look as nervous as I felt so that was good!"
Reflecting on Rio
A few weeks later, Sammi is now back home and busy making plans for the next 12 months, which will feature both the London 2017 World Championships and hopefully a first marathon in Chicago in October. While she's looking forward, she's still taking the time to learn the lessons of Rio.
She said: "I’m over the moon with how I performed. I was the youngest and least experienced on the start line and I made all my finals. I was most worried about the 800m and I probably did the best in that race. I was a lot more relaxed for my 800m heat than I had been. We didn’t really think I would make the final going into it and we decided to just go out and push like it was my last race. I did it and Ian (Mirfin, her coach) said, “and then just do it again tonight!”. "I was so surprised by the time I did. I didn’t think I was going that fast. After it Ian was like “How did you do that?” I didn’t feel like I was going any faster than I’ve done in any other 800m. I think I just had that fight in me that I wanted to qualify for the final."
"I know the things I need to work on. My starts can get better and I need to better my top end speed as well and hold my own in the draft. It’s quite scary when you’re going round at 19mph and the girls are very close to you and you’re trying to manoeuvre your way around them. In my 800m final, for example, I missed the draft on the top bend just as we went into the last lap. I missed it by just a little and that’s all it takes to lose the whole bunch. But these are things I can work on, which is great."
Fifth in the 100m and 6th in the 800m, she was also 6th in the 400m final before being disqualified for reasons still unknown, not that she let that take away from her performance. She explained: "I'm still not entirely sure what happened with my disqualification in the 400m final but to be honest I wasn't upset about it. I got to run my race and enjoy it at the time. If it had come to a medal that would have been different, but no doubt we’d have appealed it if that had been the case."
A family affair
One thing that kept her smiling was the fact that her family and boyfriend were among the spectators in the Maracana Stadium – and had a great Rio experience of their own.
Sammi said: "I was actually a bit worried about them - my mum and dad aren’t the best at finding their way on public transport! They had obviously been a bit wary with some of the media reports but they had no problems and said that the people we lovely. They went to Copacabana beach, up to Christ the Redeemer and I managed to get out with them to go up Sugarloaf Mountain. It was pretty cool. "After all my races I went up to see them. Every time I went out into the stadium my dad would whistle so I always knew where they were!"
Beyond the racing, Rio proved to be another learning experience off the track too and Sammi now feels right at home as a mainstay in Team GB family. She roomed with fellow wheelchair racers Hannah Cockcroft, Jade Jones and Carly Tait, with Scottish sprinter Maria Lyle also joining them later in the event, and they had a ball in the Team GB tower within the athletes village.
She said: "I knew everyone pretty much because I’ve been on the team for a couple of years now but we normally only see each other a couple of times a year for team meetings so staying together was different. It was my first proper experience like this and though I had kind of known what the athletes’ village would feel like, as I’d been at the Commonwealth Games one in Glasgow, it was just amazing. We had a whole block to ourselves which was all decorated for Team GB and we had our own swimming pool.
"I got to hang around with people I wouldn’t normally get to hang around with. There was a big food hall and you knew you’d always find someone there if you went down – it was good fun. "Beforehand I was a little bit worried that everyone would be feeling the pressure, especially the real elite athletes in the team, but they were all so relaxed which taught me a thing or two. From watching everyone else and watching them competing and being so relaxed. Everyone’s different, though I always seem to do better the more nervous I am – it might be a good thing. I now feel more ready for Tokyo in four years time."
For those who have only a passing knowledge of para sport and the range of events and categories, it's also fascinating to hear that the event was something of an eye opener for Sammi too.
She explained: "It may sound strange coming from a Paralympian but it also really opened my eyes a bit to the world of disability. What people can achieve is incredibly impressive. I’m used to seeing wheelchair athletes, but there were so many people affected to different degrees by their disability. One night I saw a guy eating his dinner with a knife and fork held in his feet. We were going around trying to work out what sport people were doing. Before my accident if I had seen a lot of the athletes I wouldn’t have thought they would have been able to do things for themselves but you see what everyone is achieving and it’s phenomenal."
Looking to London
For now though, she has a 21st birthday party to look forward to in January, though the hard work has already begun, with the World ParaAthletics Championships taking place at the London Stadium, venue of the 2012 Paralympics, in early July 2017.
She said: "At first, with all the hype of Rio and everything it was kind of hard to come down and get back to normal, but it was worth it. I'm back in training, transitioning into my full winter training, as I just didn’t think there was any point in taking time off just now. All my friends are back at university so I’d just be sitting about in the house on my own, though I am going to take some time off over Christmas and for my birthday.
"I’m really lucky that I’m going to have two home Games in my career already. Not many people get that experience. I can still remember the screams from Glasgow and I’m sure we’ll get the same in London. I’ll have four events, with the 200m coming back in. That’s really exciting too and I hope I’ll get even closer to the medals."
Find out more
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.