Autism is my superpower | An interview with triathlete Sam Holness

Sam Holness is a sport scientist and a talented age-group triathlete with elite aspirations. He also happens to be autistic. On a mission to show the world that autism can be a superpower, we spoke with Sam to learn more about his triathlon story, why everyone stands to gain from the sport and how he is keeping up his training in these uncertain times.

How did you get started in triathlon?

My first triathlon was in 2016 at Dorney Lake. I didn’t do any sport until I was about fourteen. Being autistic can make participating in sport difficult. Individual sports like triathlon are better suited for people with autism because team sports require good communication skills.

Believe it or not, my first sport was ice hockey. It was incredibly challenging. I found learning to skate difficult but persisted until I eventually got it. The next sport was Judo, where I got to the level of brown belt. Judo allowed me to manage my dislike of being touched and of touching other people – another symptom of autism. The rewards of getting the next belt kept me focused. I joined a running club at eighteen and started running parkrun and 10km races. Next up was the London Duathlon. After I had completed this, and because I always liked swimming, my parents encouraged me to try my first sprint triathlon. I became hooked and the rest is history.

What do you wish you had known when you were first starting out in the sport?

I wish I had known how sport could help to develop my confidence and how enjoyable it is. I now know that autism, or other disabilities, should not be a barrier to participating in sport and I want to make sure other potential athletes know this.

Training 6 days a week, how do you stay motivated?

Staying motivated is easy for me. I love the structure and repetitive nature of training. Honestly, it is ideal for people with autism who are often good at undertaking repetitive tasks. Training keeps me focused and gives me purpose. My dad coaches me and sets out my training plan. It includes 2-3 sessions per day of either running, swimming, cycling, or strength and conditioning. In addition, I do one hour of yoga every day, with the help of my mum.

Sport has given me direction, allowed me to travel and make new friends. It has also provided me with an opportunity to advocate for other athletes with autism and athletes from BAME communities. I have gained some recognition for my efforts which keeps me motivated. I have spoken with British Triathlon about my ambitions  and to help make the sport more inclusive. I am also part of Hoka’s #Timetofly campaign.

With a BSc Degree in Sports Science, are there any standout lessons from your studies that have helped propel you forward as an athlete?

My dissertation challenged teachers and coaches to develop strategies to work effectively with   autistic young people to help them develop mastery of skills to become proficient in their chosen sport alongside encouraging participation. I adopt these learnings in my everyday training.

Though things are changing slowly, triathlon doesn’t yet represent the diversity of our population. What would you like to see happen to accelerate the accessibility of our sport?

The message isn’t for just the triathlon community but for all athletic institutions, clubs and national associations. Triathlon lacks diversity, whether neurodiversity, ethnic minorities and female athletes. We need to do more to improve accessibility and inclusion. There needs to be more representation in magazines and across social media, with images of BAME triathletes for example. It also requires encouraging children at an early age to become triathletes. The biggest change I would like is for the International Triathlon Union to change its classification system to allow Triathletes with autism and an IQ>75 to participate in Paratriathlon.

As a pioneering advocate for athletes with autism, could you share some of the challenges you face in triathlon? Are there ways in which autism is of benefit to your training?

There are lots of challenges facing people with autism in sport. The key ones are fine motor skills, social and communication skills, and the way we interpret the world. On the positive side, my autism allows me to undertake repetitive tasks, focus for long periods and carry out detailed instructions. It doesn’t matter if it’s raining, windy or snowing, I am always ready to train or race. These are some of the strengths that make me a good athlete.

Coaching an athlete with autism can be more challenging because each person with autism has a distinct set of strengths and challenges. But I think this might be the same for neurotypical athletes. After all, all athletes have different physiologies, characters, nutritional requirements and require different coaching styles.

Though now a little up in the air, what are your 2020 event plans? How are you keeping up your training in these rather extraordinary times?

I had planned to do three half-ironman races, two half-marathons, three Olympic triathlons and a Duathlon in 2020 but the virus has destroyed my plans. There is no need to stop training though. The only reason I stop training is because of injury or during recovery. The weather has started to get brighter and working out during these uncertain times will help with your physical and mental well-being.

It has been difficult with the gym and swimming pool closed. Initially, I did some open water swimming. The water temperature was only 6 degrees and so I could only swim for 10-15 minutes. In terms of dry land exercises, I have started to do two things. I use a resistance band and a Swiss Ball for swim strength and technique, and I have been replicating my swim sessions on a rowing machine to keep up fitness. I use a turbo trainer for cycling and run in the park for 1-2 hours. Otherwise, I recommend taking up yoga and resistance training using your bodyweight.

To keep up with Sam’s training and news, follow him on Insta and check out his blog. If you would like to learn more about autism, visit the National Autistic Society website. They also have specific advice and training courses for sports professionals.