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Some may call Sam Holness’ goal overly ambitious: to become the first autistic pro triathlete. After all, there are a lot of goals and steps along that way that might be considered overly ambitious themselves—for instance, finally getting his first sub-5 hour 70.3 at the World Championships this weekend, one hour faster than the average 70.3 finish time. But if he wants to achieve his big goal, then the 28-year-old will have to be more than average. He’ll eventually need to notch a 70.3 close to four hours or faster.
Earlier this year we wrote an in-depth piece about Holness, who considers his autism his “super power,” so we wanted to check in with the aspiring pro ahead of his first world championship race.
Holness, who has already arrived in Utah from London, is one of few international participants at this year’s World Championship, which saw its competitor list slashed due to ongoing COVID-19 travel restrictions. He earned a race slot and help with all the customs paperwork from his sponsor Hoka. According to Tony Holness, Sam’s dad and coach, Sam will be the first openly autistic person to race in any triathlon world championship.
Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a neurological condition that affects one’s coordination and ability to communicate, socialize, and learn new things, with varying severity. Sam was diagnosed at age 4, although it didn’t stop his parents from encouraging him to try new things: first swimming, then biking and eventually running. Initially, Tony said, Sam ran like Daffy Duck. He did his first triathlon in 2016 and became hooked. Routines can be comforting for someone with autism, and Sam latched onto the triathlon training plans laid out by his dad. All the workouts bestowed another benefit—they also helped relieve Sam’s anxiety. Steadily, his desire to achieve mastery turned from video games to triathlon.
Up until this summer, Sam had just one 70.3 under his belt. In July he added two more. First, the Outlaw 70.3 in England, which he finished in 5:22, despite wrenching stomach pain due to gastrointestinal (GI) issues, one of autism’s common symptoms. Two weeks later, he completed Staffordshire 70.3, one of the UK’s largest, on the hottest day of the year. Heat compounded stomach pain, but Sam never considered quitting. Tony called it “good training for Utah,” where temperatures will undoubtedly be high.
Sam knows he can do better and points to his training times as proof, like the 1:18 half-marathon he ran on his treadmill. “I smashed my PB by nine minutes!” he said. A couple of weeks later, Tony tested him again. When Sam finished a hard, 65-mile bike ride, completing the day’s scheduled workout, Tony surprised him with a half-marathon run. “I wanted to stress him to see if he would get the tummy problems, because it always happens after the bike,” Tony said. Sam ran the 13.1 miles in 1:22 with zero stomach issues. “If we get the nutrition right,” said Tony, “he’ll go under five hours.”
Figuring out Sam’s race nutrition was the reason why, in August, he was invited to the Porsche Human Performance Lab near London, where the staff administered a battery of physiological tests just like they do for their racecar drivers. The results boosted Sam’s confidence and reassured Tony that all the training is on track. Compared to a similar test several years earlier, Sam’s VO2 max had jumped by 30%, and his body fat dropped from 17% to 9%. More importantly, it showed that during intense periods of exertion, he needs a lot more sodium—instead of 250mg on race day, they’ll up it to 1,000mg.
But Utah poses more challenges than nutrition. Just getting there was hard. COVID-19 restrictions make travel from the U.K. to the U.S. impossible without an exemption letter, which is only available to certain travelers—for instance, athletes who are considered professional. Although Sam doesn’t have an elite license, his status as a Hoka global ambassador made him eligible according to the approving bodies: first the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and then the Department of Homeland Security. Although family members aren’t normally allowed to join (much like at the Tokyo Olympics), Tony was approved because he is Sam’s coach, and Sam’s mom, Marilyn, was approved because of her crucial role in helping Sam manage his autism.
Sam never knew about all the travel requirements, which Tony took care of, nor did he know about how his mom nearly didn’t get approved to go. Traveling creates lots of stress for Sam, especially this trip, which will be his first race in U.S. and his longest stint away from home, as well as require the longest flight he’s ever taken (11 hours). He hopes the changes he made to his diet will help him avoid any GI flare-ups.
For someone with autism, disruptions to routine and new environments can cause anxiety. Sam claims he’s not nervous, just excited to race and get a medal. He packed some favorite things to help him stay relaxed, like his Nintendo Switch and a DVD of one of his favorite movies, The Great Escape. And if his anxiety still ramps up, he knows a swim-bike-run will help.