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This is part of our annual Multisport Movers & Shakers awards, highlighting the people you should know about who are helping to shape the sport in the year to come. Read about all of our 2022 Multisport Movers & Shakers.
At St. George this past September, Sam Holness became the first openly autistic triathlete to compete in a world championship—finishing the tough and stormy day in 5:44. But Holness doesn’t plan on stopping there. This year he’ll finally tackle 140.6 at Ironman Frankfurt and hopes to one day compete on the Big Island.
“We have a big year ahead,” said his dad and coach, Tony.
After picking up triathlon just five years ago, St. George was only his fourth 70.3. And it’s a long way from where he started.
Sam didn’t speak until the age of 6 and teachers initially told his parents not to expect much. Autism is a neurological condition that’s accompanied by traits such as strict adherence to routine, repetitive behavior, anxiety, social phobia, difficulty communicating, limited coordination, and weak motor skills—to varying degrees along what’s known as the spectrum, from mild to extremely severe. For Sam, his autism can be moderately severe and presents a variety of challenges when it comes to triathlon: from managing the anxiety and stimuli at a race (transitions can be tough) to communicating about changes or obstacles on course to dealing with GI issues (a common autism symptom and, of course, common to many athletes). But, he also believes what has become his slogan: Autism is his super power.
Where many triathletes struggle with the monotony and grind of daily training, Sam thrives in repetition. If there’s something that will help him improve, he does it—no matter what.
After getting a college degree in sports science, Sam’s dissertation was on coaches expecting more from autistic athletes. He now gives speeches to groups around the world—urging kids to not let their autism limit them and talking to organizations on the benefits of sport—and appeared on Good Morning America and the U.K.’s Sky News.
“The feedback has been amazing,” said Tony, who got certified as a coach when the family couldn’t find a coach familiar with autistic athletes and continues to train his son—and has even been inspired to maybe try a triathlon of his own.
This winter, Sam picked up trail running to improve his strength and technical skills, and will go for a sub-3-hour marathon on the road in April. He’ll start his triathlon season with Lanzarote 70.3 and then get ready for his first iron-distance. Longer races, both Tony and Sam think, should be more beneficial for him, because the stress of a fast transition doesn’t matter as much. Sam’s big goal is still to become the first autistic pro triathlete and to keep spreading his message: Autism doesn’t have to limit your dreams. It can be its own super power.
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