‘Smell the roses a bit more.’ Sam Willoughby – Olympic athletes interviewed Episode 16

Silver Medalist 2012 and Olympian 2016 Sam Willoughby reveals how he went from his worst moment of making a mistake in the Olympic final 2016 to an even worse moment of having an accident which was diagnosed of him forever being paralyzed.

Sam outlines how he approached his BMX career and life, as well as

Christian: Today I’m joined by Sam Willoughby. Sam is a BMX Supercross Rider, silver medalist at the London Olympics 2012 and nominated by Mariana Pajon, who was previously here on an interview with me. Sam was Junior World Champion 2008 and 2009, and Senior World Champion 2012 and 2014.

After the Rio Olympics 2016 Sam suffered a severe injury, which we will talk about later. Having talked to my guys [BMX riders and competitors of Sam], your positive outlook on things has made you gain even more respect than before.

Welcome Sam.

Sam: Thanks for the invite and for being here.

Sam’s darkest moment

Christian:  What was your darkest moment Sam?

Sam: My darkest moment was probably flying in a helicopter from the BMX track in Chula Vista on September 10th, 2016. I had a cervical spinal cord injury, I broke my neck and I was considered a quadriplegic, paralyzed basically from the neck down.

At that point when I was being wheeled out of the helicopter with no one around, my good friend couldn’t come in the helicopter because he wasn’t family, that was my darkest moment. Alise [Alise Post Willoughby – his wife] was away at the time, my parents were in Australia, and that was just a lonely, scary dark moment.

Being wheeled out of the helicopter with no one around was just a lonely, scary dark moment.

Christian: To date, how have you recovered from that moment?

Sam: Just a lot of great people in my corner. Spinal cord injury comes with a lot of negativity in the medical field in that no one really understands the spinal cord and how it recovers and how it rebuilds. They’re starting to understand it a little bit more, but basically, the first thing that the doctor said to my mom and my dad and Alise when they got there was, “What you see is what you’re going to get; that’s Sam for the rest of his life.”

And I think that they shielded me from a lot of that, so I didn’t hear a lot of that. And they were just so positive and upbeat and just helped me push forward and it was just, “What’s the next step to try to make Sam better?” And that’s what we did and continue to do to this day with my loved ones around me.

The doctors said, “What you see is what you’re going to get; that’s Sam for the rest of his life.”

Christian: The importance of a great support team.

Sam: Yes. It’s everything.

Sam’s Rio 2016 Olympics

Christian: Looking back at the Olympic Games 2016 in Rio, it should have been your day and then in the final something happened. For those who don’t know, in BMX Supercross you have three quarterfinals and three semifinals, so in case something happens if you are one of the better riders like Sam, you always manage to come through. But in the final, you only have one shot.

Sam: And prior to the injury that was my darkest moment. I won everything all weekend and I was in the best form of my life, and it was all coming together. And I got a good start in the final and just made a mistake on the first jump and that was that I came up a little bit short.

And BMX is a very cutthroat sport – one little mistake, a little stumble and it’s very hard to recover. You never throw things away I don’t believe because it’s not yours till it’s yours, but that was the one that got away for sure.

You never throw things away I don’t believe because it’s not yours till it’s yours, but that was the one that got away for sure. 

Christian: What does that mean you never throw things away?

Sam: Well, I guess I can’t say I threw the Olympic Games away because I didn’t have a gold medal there. Yes, I was the fastest guy all day, but you had to win that race to win the medal. It’s one of those things that you know you don’t have it till you have it.

I can’t say I threw the Olympic Games away because I didn’t have a gold medal there. I was the fastest guy all day, but I had to win the last race to win the medal. You don’t have it till you have it.

Christian: Looking at that tournament, I could see you were dominating.

Sam: And for what I’m doing now coaching, it’s a great experience to have under my belt. And the preparation, the lead-up, I did a lot of it by myself, and I’m proud of that and I’m proud of the physical shape I went in with. Yes, I stumbled at the last hurdle, but I still learned a lot, and I wouldn’t do one thing differently if I could go there again, I would just pick up my back wheel on the first jump.

I stumbled at the last hurdle, but I wouldn’t do one thing differently if I could go there again.

Sam’s best moment

Christian: What was your best moment?

Sam: Getting married to Alise on New Year’s Eve of 2017. 12 months prior I was at the low of all lows, laying in a hospital bed motionless in fear of being a vegetable the rest of my life and fear of having everything that I loved and cherished in my life being taken away. And she stood by my side from day one and said, “Nothing is going to change, you’re still Sam.” And I vowed to her that I would walk down the aisle, and we did it together, and that’s the best day of my life.

12 months prior I was at the low of all lows, laying in a hospital bed motionless in fear of being a vegetable the rest of my life and fear of having everything that I loved and cherished in my life being taken away. And she stood by my side from day one.

Sam’s advice to a younger Sam Willoughby

Christian: If you could travel back in time 10 or 15 years, what advice would you give your younger self?

Sam: Probably smell the roses a little more, just lap things up a little more and enjoy the moment a little more. I was very driven as a youngster and probably I didn’t stop and appreciate the ride I was on and appreciate the success I was having. It was kind of just one thing to the next, to the next, to the next. So, I probably would have just taken a backseat sometimes and smelled the roses a little bit.

Smell the roses a little more. I was very driven as a youngster, and I didn’t appreciate the ride I was on. It was kind of just one thing to the next, to the next, to the next.

Sam’s success habits

Christian: What are the habits that make you a successful person?

Sam: I think from day one I’ve had an obsession in an understanding of the process of things, and I get as much satisfaction out of achieving a goal through a process as I do achieving an outcome.

I was very internally driven, and still am today, whether it was a sprint time, or a gate start time, a full lap time, something in the gym. I think I got that from my mom a lot. She is a very step-by-step person and not too anxious or anything and appreciating every little journey along the way. And I think I got really good at that as I got older and understood what it took to win, understood how it worked.

I never looked too far ahead, as far as training was concerned, I was always sort of pretty in the moment and took one step to the next.

From day one I’ve had an obsession with an understanding of the process of things, I was very internally driven.

Christian: Listening to the guys that I’m training, it seems that you have the ability to accelerate out of the third straight when it comes on to the corner. Is that something that is natural talent? Or is it something you trained for? They really say you do that exceptionally well; no one else can do that.

Sam: I would say it’s the same thing as what I was just saying – I put a lot of emphasis on breaking the track down step by step. And I was very analytical of everything I did in training, and everything was timed and documented and looked at, and I tried to make gains where I see faults, and that was one of them. I was bad at cornering for many years and that was something that I worked on.

And I think for BMXers it’s an old school mentality that the race is won at the first corner, or the race is won at the bottom of the hill. And it is a big part of it, but it is a meathead old school mentality.

I was very analytical of everything I did in training, and everything was timed and documented and looked at, and I tried to make gains where I saw faults.

And for me it was you raced to the finish line, and it’s just as hard to accelerate a rolling bike with good power as is a standing start. I have a little bit of track cycling background, I did a little bit of training there when I was younger, so I understood always wearing bigger gears and that kind of thing, I understood that as the lap went on if I can get strong enough to start this thing, they’re not going to catch me. I put emphasis on the whole race, so I wasn’t too narrow-minded or obsessed with any part of it.

BMX Supercross vs Aussie rules football, which one is harder

Christian: I read you did Aussie Rules Football when you were younger. Which sport is harder – Aussie Rules Football which is considered to be very, very hard, or BMX which is also very hard?

Sam: Physically Aussie Rules Football, mentally BMX, I think. BMX is very individual and very cutthroat like I said earlier. In football, those guys are probably some of the fittest athletes in the world and the strongest in the amount of distance they cover in a game and the amount of hits they’re getting constantly, they’re phenomenal athletes. I definitely think physically that’s the hardest sport.

BMX is very individual and very cutthroat, football, those guys are probably some of the fittest athletes in the world.

Christian: And what makes BMX harder mentally?

Sam: Just the fact that it’s won or lost between 2 and 30 seconds, and you don’t get any second chances. Football is played over two hours, and you lose the ball, you get the ball back, you lose it again, you get it back, you have another go, you get a break to talk about it, and all that kind of stuff.

Whereas with BMX it’s like at the Olympics you can do everything right for three-quarters of the day and show up in the last 30 seconds, make one little mistake and your day is over. Whereas football generally one little mistake is made, and the game is on 22 players’ shoulders; in BMX, the game is on your shoulders.

It’s like at the Olympics, you can do everything right for three-quarters of the day and show up in the last 30 seconds, make one little mistake and your day is over.

Sam’s morning routine

Christian: Do you have a morning routine? How do you get ready for the day?

Sam: Yes. I get up generally around 6:00/6:30 most days. I go down, and I’m obsessed with coffee, so I make coffee in the machine and generally mess a few up and get really angry and then try to make a perfect one. And then I’ll have breakfast, I’ve always loved breakfast, so I eat a big breakfast.

I’m obsessed with coffee, so I make coffee in the machine and generally mess a few up and get really angry and then try to make a perfect one.

And now since my injury, I have a standing frame, so I stand for an hour every morning to stretch my hips out. It’s good for bone density and that kind of thing, so I just stand and watch the news or talk to Alise. And then I’m generally starting my therapy around 9:00 and sometimes later. Either at 9:00 I start therapy, or I go to training with Alise and the guys.

Christian: One thing that you, Jelle and I have in common is a passion for coffee.

How to prepare for important moments

Christian: How do you prepare yourself for important moments in the competition, or in general?

Sam: I just starts with processes. I break down what I feel it takes for me to be successful physically, mentally, technically, tactically, and I put a lot of thought into those things and I try to tick them off. And I go down to pretty minute details.

I break down what I feel it takes for me to be successful physically, mentally, technically, tactically, and I put a lot of thought into those things.

At the Olympic Games, I was listening to podcasts on the bus to the race just to make it feel normal, and it was about calming the mood and being mellow and keeping that same routine that I did every day when I train for the track. For me I didn’t need to pump up, I was always ready to go.

I didn’t need to pump up, I was always ready to go.

For me, it was more about staying in the moment. So, there were races where I had a podcast on at times, just to switch my mind off. And I found little cues along the way through my career and triggers that I found worked for me to switch my mind off, whether it was looking off into the distance, putting a podcast on. A big one for me was I’m getting off of my bike, losing body contact with my bike when I was getting antsy or something before a race, just put my bike over on the wall and sit on a bench. And then just that disconnect and reset of grabbing the bike again, that reset, that’s perfect.

For me it was more about staying in the moment, just to switch my mind off.

Christian: What podcasts are you listening to?

Sam: Many. Joe Rogan, I’m a big NASCAR fan, so I listen to NASCAR radio, but not at the race. And then Howard Stern on SiriusXM, I was listening to that at the Olympics actually.

How to overcome setbacks

Christian: How do you overcome setbacks if things don’t go your way?

Sam: I think it’s the same, once you understand the process. You probably hear me say this word a lot, ‘process’. But when a situation arises you figure out the details and the required process to rectify that situation.

Figure out the details and the required process to rectify the situation.

So, with my injury the first step was being able to feed myself, as crazy as it sounds. And that meant getting more grip strength, more dexterity. I remember the doctor in the hospital was like, “Can you do this? Can you touch your thumb to your little finger?” And it took me weeks to be able to do that, months, and this hand took months just doing the steps.

And I think that the thing that I just love about breaking down things like that is it keeps you constantly achieving. And we all love to win, so it’s like if I can hit a process every day and I’m winning all the time and that’s building confidence, that’s momentum, and momentum is a pretty hard thing to stop.

I just love about breaking down things like that is it keeps you constantly achieving.

Christian: The example you just gave about touching your fingers and that it took you months to, I can imagine that it’s frustrating not being able to do a fairly simple task. How did you stay focused and positive? 

Sam: It was tough. That’s my situation. A spinal cord injury is tough for anyone. I went from trying to win the Olympic Games to three weeks later trying to brush my teeth, trying to touch my thumbs on my little finger. And I think I am lucky. And in a crazy way, I enjoy trying to fix things, and I enjoy trying to achieve the steps along the way.

I went from trying to win the Olympic Games to three weeks later trying to brush my teeth.

I never got caught up in all this negativity, “This sucks. I don’t deserve this. I was trying to win the Olympics three weeks ago and now I’m trying to brush my teeth.” I never got caught up in that. It was just taking the next step, doing the next thing, and just ticking the boxes as we went.

I never got caught up in negativity, it was just taking the next step, doing the next thing, and just ticking the boxes as we went.

And a big part of that is the people I had around me, Alise and my mom and my dad and my brother, and those people, they shielded me from negativity and they were there to encourage me when I had those little wins, and I’m fortunate to have that. I think without that it would have been impossible.

Sam’s role model

Christian: Who is your role model, and why? 

Sam: It has changed a lot over the years. I would say Alise has become a big role model for me, just the way she stuck by me and just the way she goes about her day to day training and the mature head she has on her shoulder when she competes, just an amazing person I’m very lucky to be married to.

But I would say in my sporting career, it’s a tough one. I was a big Chris Hoy fan, I’ve seen similarities in how Chris approached his sport and how I did, so I would say Chris was a big hero of mine.

The best advice he has received

Christian: What’s the best advice you’ve received, and who gave it to you?

Sam: I would say Wade told me back in the day there is more than one way to skin a cat, and I think he got that from Grant White, I would say that’s a pretty good one.

There is more than one way to skin a cat.

And probably one of my favorite ones was Sean Dewhite when I was training with him, I got to the training late one day and I wanted to get on the gate with some other guys to train with, but I went there late, and they had already done gates. And he told me, if you go to the bar late you better get drunk quick.

A typical training day in the life of a BMX Supercross rider

Christian: How does a typical training day look for you?

Sam: For me, or for the athletes that I work with?

Christian: When you were competing. And if you can outline, how it changes now as a coach.

Sam: Every day was different, but generally a typical day would be we would do something on the bike first, always, whether that be sprints, gates, some sort of track efforts. And then we would generally finish the day with some form of strength work, although it would mean sprinting. Generally, we sprint and do the gym, so they’re together. So, that would be a typical day, specific stuff first. And then strengthening and conditioning I would say second in the day. But typically, 9:00 to 12:00 in the morning is a pretty big session, and then we generally go again between sort of 3:00 and 6:00, 3:00 and 7:00, depending on what it is.

Specific stuff first, and then strengthening & conditioning second in the day.

Sam’s interview nomination

Christian: Do you want to nominate someone to be interviewed?

Sam: I don’t know his name, but I think you should interview the Russian coach, the BMX Russian coach. I’m impressed with what he has done with his group of riders. They had three girls in the finals yesterday [BMX World Cup Papendal 2018], and from where they were years ago to now, that’s pretty cool.

Where can you find Sam Willoughby

Sam: People can find me at the Chula Vista Training Center. I’m on Twitter, SW91, so they can find me there. My Instagram got hacked, so I’m not on that anymore, and Facebook as well. If you want to email me, sam_willoughby@hotmail.com.

Instagram

Twitter

Christian: What about the Coffee Willoughby?

Sam: We haven’t really done the show this year. I was doing it with my friend Tyler and he has got a lot of other jobs, and then I have a lot of responsibilities now with the coaching and my own therapy and that kind of stuff, so it just got hard to fit it all in. We might do it again at some point.

Christian: Thanks for your time. Thanks for the open words, it was really cool.

Sam: Thank you.

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