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Sam Holness - Triathlete - Autism

Updated: May 16

I'm sat here writing this article with a huge smile on my face, because that’s the effect Sam has on me – and I’d be very surprised if he doesn’t have the same effect on you too.

Sam Holness is a person who defies expectations, and that’s why I’m so thrilled to write about him this early on in the blog.

Sam is a triathlete first and foremost, and he also has autism. I interviewed Sam and his father last week when we met at a café in Richmond Park, which being only five minutes from his house is Sam’s stomping ground and where he does most of his training. We spoke for hours, and it was hard to end the conversation because it felt like there was still so much more to be said. Sam was shy to start with but opened up after a while – especially when he realised I had been rower. Sam likes to train on the ergo, and if you know anything about rowing, you’ll be impressed when I tell you a 20k ergo is standard for him! He also LOVES swimming, and had a great time showing me the moody video of him lining of for the swim section of the Kona Ironman World Championships…

… yep, this October (2022) Sam became the first athlete who is openly autistic to compete at the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii! He completed the race in 13hours and 5 minutes, which was not only a Guinness World Record, but proved that people with autism, intellectual disability or neurodivergence CAN compete in mainstream sport (against their neurotypical counterparts).

It’s true that the preconceptions surrounding conditions like autism aren’t baseless. Sam does struggle with various issues associated with his condition. He and his father Tony have worked hard to understand and overcome some of Sam’s attention issues, and his biggest barrier to overcome right now is being able to control the GI symptoms associated with his IBS (a common problem for people with autism) But this doesn’t seem like a permanent barrier at all – and Sam, with the help of Tony, I’m sure will find a solution in time, because for them nothing will get in the way of Sam achieving his dreams. For me this is a high-performance mindset.

What is important to remember is that like other autistic people, Sam is living in a world that is not built with him in mind, so when I talk about finding solutions, it’s because he needs to find ways to bridge the gap between his world and the one he lives in, and not because he himself is a problem to be solved. But the duo of Sam and Tony provide an inspirational example of how this can be achieved. The result is that with the unrelenting help of his father Tony and his mother Marylin, Sam can thrive instead of simply existing.

From my perspective Sam’s success comes down to understanding, communication and adaptation. Sam is very fortunate to have parents who are not only prepared to think outside the box but will do anything it takes to support their son to achieve his full potential. For me, I have observed the parents of many autistic children wrap them up in cotton wool, or claim, “they don’t like…” and “they can’t…” But firstly, have these observations been influenced by societies negative preconceptions about what it is to be different? And secondly, have they been founded on a child’s reaction to an environment that is not suited to them – but that could actually be adapted? I would argue that in the case of sport, it is often not the activity that the child dislikes, but the environment they have to do it in.

Sam is the perfect example of this. He didn’t discover sport until he went to university (yes – he went to university and achieved a 2:1), and now he can spend four hours straight through on the turbo trainer (indoor bike), happily laughing along to a film whilst simultaneously putting his legs and lungs through hell in his self-named ‘pain cave’! Yet at school, Sam might not have liked to play football, and who’s to say he wouldn’t have been put off sport if that was the only experience he had. As a cyclist, he might not like to cycle in a bunch with other riders – but fortunately there’s no drafting in triathlon or ironman, so that’s not a problem either! He might get bored if he didn’t have films to watch when training, but there’s a solution to that too. I guess the point I’m trying to make is that sport or any other activity shouldn’t be ruled out for any autistic or neurodivergent person until they’ve been allowed to participate in their own time and in their own way. It seems a desperate shame that so many people with neurodivergence (especially autism) miss out on the benefits of physical activity because the environment is not neuroinclusive. Sadly, this is not only the case in sport, with just 21.7% of people with autism in employment.

Sam is an example of how with the right support and adaptations, a person with autism can achieve not just great things ‘for an autistic person’ [said in a patronising tone], but great things for any person! For this reason, Sam’s father Tony has a particular way of viewing his son’s condition; he prefers to see Sam and people like Sam as ‘People of Determination’ due to the extraordinary feats that they deliver in the face of adversity, their innate ability to focus, and determination to never quit. Tony felt it was important for me to keep Sam real, and for that reason, I should reiterate that he does have social interaction and communication challenges as a result of his autism, but in my eyes, in his parent’s eyes, and in the eyes of his keen supporters among the triathlon community, this just makes his achievement all the more inspiring.

People of Determination: I like the idea of reframing disability in this way because even with that change of phrase, it feels like a lot of the negative preconceptions are lifted. This reframing feels akin to the neurodiversity movement, which in my view allows people to rid themselves of the archaic stereotypes previously associated with their specific diagnoses or conditions, and instead adopt a term that suggests difference and maybe even exceptional ability, rather than dis-ability.

It is for this reason that I’m writing this blog: I want to give neurodivergent people, and in particular neurodivergent athletes a chance to re-write the narrative that had previously been written for them.

And so, I’d like to leave you with some questions…

If someone needs adaptations to their environment to enable them, and these adaptations are made, are they still disabled? If adaptations are not made, are we (those surrounding them) actually dis-abling them? Therefore, for some people, is disability a temporary status that we can all help to change?

🙏 Please follow Sam on Instagram @samholnesstri or on Zwift (he’s a level 54!! That’s over 39,000km of cycling alone!)

👉 Or find his father Tony Holness on LinkedIn

👉 Also, I encourage you to take a look at some of Sam’s videos below – they are truly inspirational – he is inspirational – and so are his parents.

👀 If you keep your eyes peeled, you might even see Sam’s ‘finishing move’, which is one of the best things I’ve seen in a long time, and I’m sure I’ll talk about it more in future articles!

➡️ Humans of HOKA: Sam Holness – The Trailblazer:

➡️ Hoka One One – Sam Holness, Triathlete with Autism:

➡️ Super Sam Holness: The First Openly Autistic Ironman Triathlete:

➡️Overcoming Adversity with Sport: Tony Holness: TEDxSwansae:

📢 Finally, I should give Sam’s sponsors Hoka, Cervelo, Mancave, Stages Cycling, and SunGod Sunglasses a mention, because they’ve looked past the negative stereotypes and preconceptions and seen Sam for who he is – a dedicated, talented, incredible athlete.

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