At Harper Macleod we're lucky to have double World Champion wheelchair racer Samantha ‘Sammi’ Kinghorn as our Athlete Ambassador. This year, Sammi has literally been all around the world, taking time out after competing for Team Scotland at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games to enjoy the holiday of a lifetime in Australia and New Zealand. We caught up with Sammi as she swapped the Great Ocean Road for the M8 from Livingston to Glasgow, using the journey to keep us up to speed on an incredible few months and what comes next in her incredible journey.
Clockwise from left: Sammi bungee jumping, atop a glacier, and getting ready to chase sharks
Sammi Kinghorn is very happy. Her dream of winning a Commonwealth Games medal for Scotland may have to wait for another day, but during a dream trip over the past two months she ticked a few other things off her bucket list – skydiving, bungee jumping, shark chasing …
Recalling her Oz experience as she made her way home from another engagement as one of Scotland's most recognisable athletes, it's clear the break has done her good.
She said: "The Commonwealth Games already feel like a while ago now, but I've got such great memories. It was a great experience being part of Team Scotland again, being able to meet new people who I don't usually compete with and share time with them. As usual I did everyone's hair. I did all of the 4x400m relay girls, even the reserves just in case! It felt like being part of a proper team and that was nice."
Her Games races delivered two close things with regards to what would have been an unexpected medal. Sammi was 4th in both the 1500m and the marathon (more of that later) but it was what came after that really made for a special trip.
Together with her friend Becca, she spent the best part of two months travelling Australia and New Zealand – the kind of trip that's a rite of passage for many other 22-year-olds. For the first time in a long time Sammi had the magic feeling of having nowhere to go. And it felt good.
She said: "It was just so strange not to have to worry about training for so long. The only time I usually get off is Christmas. Even then, I go home and catch up with everybody and my birthday runs into that as well. It's a busy time. For the first time I can remember I had nowhere that I had to be.
"Becca and I did the whole east coast of Australia, from Brisbane up to Cairns and then back down to Sydney. We got a car there and drove to Adelaide via Melbourne. It was so great to spend time with her. Every single day we laughed hysterically, and I couldn't even tell you one thing we laughed about. It was just so funny!"
Since she took up wheelchair racing as her career five years ago, Sammi has led the life of a full-time, elite athlete – one that is far removed from that of your average person. So being able to spend some time doing something more 'normal' came at just the right time for her.
She explained: "My Dad was saying to me that I seemed a bit different since I've come back and it's hard to explain. It's not that I feel I've missed out on things, having chosen to become a full-time athlete at 16 or 17, but I'm glad I've done this trip. I chose not to go to university, and while I can still go in future it wouldn't exactly the same as going with my peers after finishing school.
"I'm glad that I've done something that's 'normal'. I wasn't wearing kit all the time and nobody knew who I was and what I do. If I wanted a glass of wine I had one, if I wanted an ice cream I had one. It was just really nice to have that bit of time off with no pressure."
"We did the Great Barrier Reef, the Great Ocean Road, did the Grampian mountains, tried to swim with sharks – the sharks swam away from us! In New Zealand we did skydiving at Lake Wanaka and bungee jumping too."
If bungee jumping and skydiving are not what you'd expect a World Champion to be doing, think again.
Sammi said: "They attached the bungee cord around my waist and I just, well, fell! I'd like to say I jumped but I really just dropped over the edge. I'm not scared of heights or anything, but in the skydive you are aware that you are strapped to someone who is a professional and who does this every single day. I didn't feel an ounce of nerves. But in the bungee jump you throw yourself off the edge and that was a bit scarier. When you're falling you think, 'that's me done for'! It felt like I was falling very fast and it's not until you get the bounce up that you think you’re safe.
"The skydiving was amazing. We jumped from 15,000ft and freestyled for about 60 seconds – the temperature was minus 23 when we jumped out. We were parachuting for four minutes, and I got a chance to steer and make us go round in circles. Skydiving was one of the things on my bucket list and I'm so glad I did it. I have enquired in the UK before but in New Zealand they were just so laid back and like, "yeah, let's do it!". It was probably the highlight of my whole trip, though the Great Barrier Reef was awesome too."
Marathons no more
As much as the marathon holiday was awesome, the marathon that preceded it was a little bit tougher. Sammi has no regrets at taking on the long distance challenges in the Gold Coast – competing against athletes in a category with more physical ability and over distances she doesn't favour. However, she won't be doing it again in a hurry.
She said: "I've watched my races back and there was nothing more I could have done, especially in the 1500m - I got pushed around a little but that's always going to be expected when the others know I have a good sprint finish.
"The marathon course was tricky for me due to the number of corners. I have to go a little bit wider than the T54 girls as my body goes with the chair more and I can't quite throw it round. Every time we went round a corner I would have to sprint back to catch them up. We lost Madison de Rozario, the eventual winner, and the other girls didn't want to go with her. I tried to pull out and catch her again but couldn't quite do it. I then ended up having to pull the others for three miles as they played it tactically so I got a bit tired out.
"It was pretty tiring, but I'm pleased with how I've done … and pleased that I've retired from doing marathons! I really want a Commonwealth Games medal so I probably would do it for that reason, but otherwise I've no intention of doing another marathon."
Next stop Dubai - in a while
This year and next are proving to be unusual seasons in terms of Sammi's racing patterns. The Gold Coast Games came early in the year, while her next major event, the 2019 World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai, don't take place until November of next year.
It's an unprecedented 18-month gap between track competitions for Sammi, but she's making the most of it.
She said: "I think Ian (Mirfin, her coach) was a bit surprised at how I'm shaping up after the break. My speeds are good but I know the speed I was hitting before and I want to get back to that quickly. I still want to get better and better and I'll probably do one small track race in September, just as a test to see where I am at.
"I'm training as hard as ever but I definitely feel more laid back at the moment. It's nice to know that I can be a bit more flexible. I've not got a particular date this year that I need to focus on, our even stress about. The World Championships timing makes our preparations for the Tokyo Paralympics in 2020 a little trickier - people usually want to start their winter training in November, not be racing. But it's the same for everyone and you can still plan around it.
Gateshead flashback – 2012 track debut
In the Facebook world, one particular memory was rekindled in Sammi recently when images of her first ever sprint race cropped up online. On the 29th April 2012, coach Ian took her to Gateshead to see how the keen teenager fared against some competition.
The outcome was memorable and set Sammi on a path both Ian and her couldn't have expected before that day. Sammi finished 3rd in the 200m in a photo finish, 2nd in the 100m and 4th in the 400m.
"I can still remember that day," said Sammi. "I was so nervous and it was so cold. It was my first ever track race and I almost won the 200m. I remember Ian being a bit stunned telling my Mum and Dad, 'She's progressing too fast'.
"I don't think he was sure what to do with me and he wanted not to put too much pressure on me as a young athlete. The common understanding in coaching is that it takes 10,000 hours to be good at something but Ian always says I took 10,000 minutes instead.
"It's crazy to see remember that day and for that to be just what I do now, I race round a track. It doesn't feel like I've been doing it for so long, but it's now been a big proportion of my life."
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.