Sam Long started life as one of three premature triplets who doctors said might always lag behind their peers. Weighing between three and five pounds, Long and his brothers Brian and Justin, were tiny babies who spent their first few weeks in incubators fighting to get out into the real world. Now, as a 6-foot-4-inch professional triathlete with the nickname “Big Unit,” Long seems anything but the runt of the litter—and is most definitely still a fighter, gunning for victories at all of the iconic races around the globe.
Born and raised in Boulder, Colorado, his up-bringing was full of epic outdoor adventures that, quite unintentionally, helped build the huge aerobic engine that now powers him to victory as an endurance racer. The focus was always on having fun and trying as many new sports as possible, although his father Eric—a talented cyclist—helped steer his son toward life on two wheels.
“My dad was always on his bike when I was growing up,” Long says. “I would see him going on these big adventures, and I always wanted in. We would go out on mountain bikes for five, six, seven hours when I was 13.”
And, of course, it didn’t hurt that he was growing up in the endurance sports capital of the world and was surrounded by triathlon’s elite from an early age. He thought nothing of going to the pool with his mom Betty and seeing Ironman champions crushing a 6,000-yard workout.
Long was 17 when he did his first tri, a local Olympic distance race, which he “totally loved.”
He graduated from high school the following summer and tackled his first long distance race at Ironman Boulder. To say it went well is somewhat of an understatement: He clocked a time of 9:27, won his age group by 50 minutes, and was 13th overall, including the pro field.
The seed was planted, the tri bug took hold: Long now wanted to see if he could make it as a pro. But first, there was college, and his competitive streak wasn’t restricted to just sports; he wanted to achieve good grades, too. “I wasn’t training all the time, I worked hard at school,” he says.
His 3.8 GPA from CU Boulder (with a double major in psychology and physiology) corroborates this, and Long is one of those refreshingly smart racers who possesses clear athletic IQ and isn’t afraid to use it on the race course.
As with all athletes who have huge potential, there is still work to be done. He decided to go pro full-time after graduating at the end of 2016, and promptly flew to Noosa, Australia, in January 2017, partly because he’d read it was the “Boulder of Australia” and partly because he “just wanted to get going with life.” It was a bold move that paid dividends: He ended up training with two-time 70.3 world champion Melissa Hauschildt—“she seriously worked me over”—and meeting his girlfriend Amy, a dentist from British Columbia, whom he credits as one of the greatest influences behind his breakthrough this year.
High on love and with some quality training miles banked, he returned to his native Boulder three months later and has since split his time between there (lodging with his parents) and wherever training camps take him (Tucson and British Columbia are two of the most recent). This past winter he teamed up with new coach Ryan Bolton, whom he met through Ironman champion Ben Hoffman. Hoffman saw Long’s raw talent during an infamously hard group ride in Boulder last summer, when the youngster threw down such a mega watt bomb that he dropped countless Ironman superstars, leaving them all wondering who the heck he was. Hoffman then recruited Long to be his training partner in his Kona preparation, giving Long valuable insight into what it takes to be a world-class professional.
“Teaming up with Ben last year and then working with Ryan from last November was the most important change, and this year my results are showing that,” Long says. He won 70.3 Chattanooga in May, then won 70.3 Victoria two weeks later—and placed fifth at Ironman Boulder a week after that, in what was a heavyweight block of racing.
Those results prompted Ironman champions Tim O’Donnell and Matt Hanson to both label him “one to watch,” and Long knows he can no longer sneak onto a start line without a bullseye on his back.
“I am so excited about all the opportunities ahead,” he says. “I want to race all over the world. My goal is to win all the big races, that’s an achievement goal, but I have a lot of process goals along the way that are just as important to me: meet awesome people, travel, inspire other people.”
His passion, energy, and verve are contagious, and he laughs as he says: “Every training session there’s always an opportunity for joking around. I’m a firm believer you can still train hard and have a lot of fun. I see too many pros whose only focus is training and racing.” In a sport that can, at times, lack real personalities, Long isn’t afraid to be disruptive or goofy or honest. He isn’t afraid to have fun, but just because he has a huge grin on his face, it doesn’t mean he isn’t ready to unleash a giant can of whoop ass on his competitors—exactly the thing that could help make him one of the superstars of the next generation.