Meet Sam Holness (aka “Super Sam”), a triathlete with autism, and his father/coach Tony. Sam will make history this month as the first openly autistic athlete to compete at the Mainova IRONMAN Frankfurt European Championships. And he’ll do it again at the Supersapiens IRONMAN World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, later this fall. It’s fair to say that this dynamic father/son duo is taking the triathlon world by storm, but the impact they are having on neurodivergent individuals, and everyone else they meet, reaches far beyond the podium.
“Anything is Possible.” That’s the tagline that captures the essence of IRONMAN Triathlons, and it’s the bold statement that Sam Holness lives out every day. Sam was diagnosed with autism at the age of four and was nonverbal until age six. Today, at twenty nine, Sam is a Stages-sponsored athlete who competes in some of the world’s most physically demanding and mentally taxing races. The story of his journey is rich and inspiring and is told most powerfully by his father, Tony Holness.
Stages: Tony, you serve the dual role of father & professional triathlete coach. What has this journey with Sam been like for you?
Holness: I define it as the best job ever. I also tell people that I'm blessed. Sam’s twenty nine and I’ve had the privilege of working with him as a coach, father, adult, and friend as well, so that’s the sort of relationship we have.
On race day, the coach in me wants him to perform well and podium, but the dad in me says, just come home safe. It’s that mixture. It’s been a long journey. Sam started training and competing in triathlons when he was twenty three, and many of his competitors started the sport when they were seven, so watching him close that gap has been profound. He learned to ride a bike when he was fourteen, as well. I tried to get him to ride a bike when he was five. He didn’t quite get it, and I thought I was a bad coach. Then one morning he got up, got on the bike, and rode up and down the road.
Our eyes were opened once Sam learned to cycle, and we learned that he has to do things in his time and his way. There are some things you can’t do faster than they need to be. They need to happen when they happen. Our job, as parents, is to foster and create an environment around him where he can learn to succeed. And here we are today.
Stages: When did you realize that sports and physical fitness were a great outlet for Sam?
Holness: Sam started swimming at the age of three. He was a water baby, and to this day, he has no fear of water. His love of swimming encouraged us to allow Sam to try anything he was interested in doing. He’s played ice hockey, archery, and even judo. Judo was a bit of a crazy one because when Sam was growing up, he didn’t like anyone touching him and physical contact was difficult. It took him a few weeks to get onto the mats at the dojo, but he loved advancing in rank (belt) as he mastered his judo skills so he kept coming back. His sensei eventually named him “Super Sam” because he became fearless and would fight anybody. He currently holds a brown belt in judo and will pursue his black belt this winter.
As Sam was getting into his teenage years, we discovered that the life expectancy for people with autism is about fifty four years in the UK. And as parents, we feel like we have the responsibility to give our child the best chance at a long and healthy life, and that was another main driver behind our decision to have Sam engage more seriously in sports.
Sam also has a degree in Sports Science. Despite what everyone told us when he was young, he graduated one grade below first-class honors. He did really well at University and that further fueled his passion for sports. He started to apply all the things he learned about physiology, nutrition, and the psychological aspects of sports on the course. He just took to it and absolutely loves it.
Through sports, we learned that Sam can learn complex skills and problem solve, but he does it differently. Sports are ideal for people that have autism because they require repetition. You’ve got to do the same thing over and over again and master it. If you think about most people who are autistic, that’s what they like to do. They like the structure, repetition, and anything that has a process to it. If you repeat the process and master it, you’ll get an outcome.
Stages: How do you help Sam navigate the anxiety and challenges that certain aspects of triathlon racing present?
Holness: It’s about process, structure, and reward. We create a process for each activity (swimming, cycling, and running) and he works on it until he masters it. Then we create a process for the transitions between each leg and he works on that until he masters it. So, he masters the swim then masters the transition to cycling and moves through the race that way. Sam wants to do the triathlon more than any fears that he may be feeling and that’s what drives him. He wants to do well and does not want to DNF (did not finish), he’ll do anything not to DNF. He absolutely loves the feeling of finishing and the adulation and the medals.
Stages: What role do metrics, numbers, and data collection play in Sam’s training and your coaching strategy?
Holness: As with most professional athletes, training data and metrics are important. But for Sam, they are essential. Rate of perceived exertion and other physical markers that neurotypical athletes rely on can go unnoticed by Sam, and he is very driven to finish what he’s doing, so metrics help him to gauge his efforts with precision. He races and trains with FORM swim goggles to show stroke rate, pace, heart rate, calories burned and distance on the swim, pace to keep his run dialed in, and (watts) to drive his cycling.
His goals are to:
- Swim 3.8 km in 60 minutes
- Continue to Increase his functional threshold power (FTP). It's at 320 now
- Run a sub 3 hr marathon
Stages: What motivates Sam to race in triathlons?
Holness: Motivation is an interesting concept because, as neurotypical adults, we see motivation very differently than Sam. We see motivation as having something extra or external we have that gives us a reason for doing something. Sam doesn’t need external motivators like many of us do. He does what he enjoys and loves the repetition and process of it. Sam doesn’t need a lot of reasons to do what he does, he just does what he does.
Sam says that “autism is his superpower,” and it’s the thing that’s driving him and keeping him focused and resilient, and determined. I use those words because if you had to define a great leader in business or politics you’d use those same words.
Those are all the things that define Sam.
Sam is committed, focused, resilient and determined, and Sam has taught me humility and what unconditional love means.
Stages: What are your goals for Sam?
Holness: As a coach, I have big dreams for Sam. He’s already a professional athlete, but to be a professional triathlete you need an elite triathlon license, also known as a “pro card”, so we’re going to go for the card. I want to see him podium at the World Championships, and I want to see him go to the Olympics, however, we have some barriers there to overcome to get him there. He doesn’t qualify for the Paralympics because they only have categories for physical disabilities. To go to the Special Olympics you have to have an IQ lower than 75, which excludes Sam as well. So Sam has been competing against neurotypical athletes for 4 years now and will need to continue to rise to the challenge.
The 2024 Olympics are just two years away so we are working strategically to find a way for Sam to be the first openly autistic triathlete to compete there. We want to inspire others and there’s a whole host of people we hope to motivate. Only 1% of African Americans do triathlons, so inspiring people who look like Sam and are like Sam is another coaching goal of mine.
Stages: If you had one piece of advice to give to parents with neurodiverse children, what would it be?
Holness: Find the gift that your child has and nurture it. Find the environment that they can be successful in, or create one, so they can reach the top of their ability. Because everybody can do something different.
Stages: What do you want people to know about this journey with Sam or about being a father & coach of an elite athlete?
People sometimes think that because you have a child with a disability that it’s hard on your life. But I don’t call anyone with autism people with a disability, I call them people of determination. I use that phrase because there are not many neurotypical people that can do what Sam does and he has autism as well.
Want to learn more about Sam?