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From a young age, Sam’s parents Marilyn and Tony noticed that he was incredibly alert and hyper-focused. Sam would always do repetitive tasks, a characteristic of autism. He would make long lines of Thomas the Train, and if they fell over he would start again. But, no matter what, he would always finish the task.
“As parents we tried to capture that repetitive behavior and make something positive out of it,” Tony says.
When Sam turned 22, his parents got him involved in sports for socialization and soon realized he was athletically gifted. Sam’s ability to repeat a task and master it eventually helped him develop as an athlete. He started with 5k and 10k run events in London, as well as duathlons. It wasn’t long before he finished his first half marathon and marathon. Now, as a full-time triathlete at the age 29, Sam trains 25 hours a week. He even trains on his birthday and Boxing Day.
“What Sam does, I couldn’t do it,” Tony says. “He is relentless, determined and absolutely fearless.”
Sam’s partnerships with HOKA, Cervelo and Ironman have landed him on the Island of Kona with a wildcard slot for his first World Championships. With this race, he will make history once again – this time, becoming the first known triathlete with autism to compete in the Ironman World Championship race. Kona will be his second Ironman this year, his first being in Frankfurt where he finished in 12 hours and 29 minutes.
“Finishing Kona will make me proud,” Sam says. “And then I will start working towards my next race in Lanzarote in March 2023.”
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To some, autism appears as a disability, but Sam and his family, call it his “superpower.” In a sport that takes a lot of hours of repetition, Sam thrives. “He is just so focused and he’s found something in life that he likes and loves doing it,” Tony says. “It has given him confidence and given him self-esteem. A lot of it he can do on his own.”
Tony, Sam’s father, has given up his full-time job to be his manager and coach. He said he has never missed a training session and calls him the “perfect athlete.”
“Just in relation to understanding Sam’s world, you and I might be thinking that 4 hours on the turbo trainer is a long session, but that doesn’t enter his mind at all,” Tony says.
Since one of the main challenges with autism is the verbal component, their ability to communicate frequently has made it a great set-up for Sam’s success. They can talk and problem solve at any time of the day. “I know him as my son for 29 years which is a massive advantage with communicating with him,” Tony says.
With a lack of diversity, there is opportunity for Sam in the sport of triathlon. With Jamaican roots, the Holness family hopes that Sam will be able to represent their country on the World stage at the Pan American Games next year.
Additionally, they plan to travel to Rwanda for the 70.3 next year, where there is a large cycling community, but triathlon is not well known.
“Sam’s a late athlete probably because of autism, but he has a platform that could help grow the sport, which we think is really important,” Tony says.
The Holness family is loving Kona, a place that reminds them of Jamaica. They have been staying in Hawaii in advance to help Sam adapt and prepare for the demands of the World Championships next weekend.
“Every moment is one to be proud of,” Tony says. “Watching him mature into the athlete he is today and seeing the potential he has for the future. I am so proud of the lives he has motivated by his endeavors.”