It was April 2017 and Sam Willoughby rolled into the No.13 garage at a NASCAR race in Fontana, California.
For better or deep layers of worse, Willoughby had already experienced his share of life-changing days, and this would be another.
There’d been the day he was hoisted onto a BMX aged three, put in a race and told to get pedalling. The day he met his future wife Alise, and the day he first became a BMX world champion. There were the days he won a silver medal at the London Olympics and, four years later, when Willoughby went to Rio as raging favourite but made a rare mistake and finished sixth.
Then came the day, three weeks after the Rio final, when a routine training drill went wrong and the young South Australian injured his spine in an accident, leaving him paralysed. And all of the days for the next six months, where Willoughby was scared, lost and trying to accept a new reality that had stripped away who he was and replaced it with a dark hole.
“Then one day I went to a NASCAR race here in California and, through a friend, I met a guy called ‘Bootie’ Barker,” Willoughby recalls.
Robert ‘Bootie’ Barker is a crew chief for leading NASCAR teams and is one of the most respected men in the sport. He also happens to be wheelchair-bound.
“Straight up Bootie goes: ‘So, how long you been injured for?’,” Willoughby says.
“‘Seven months’. He goes: ‘You look great brother. What are you gonna do now?’.“
Willoughby didn’t know how to answer.
From the earliest days at Happy Valley BMX club in Adelaide’s south, Willoughby had only ever wanted to race bikes.
He would devour BMX magazines from the US and told his mum at the age of eight that he, too, would one day be a pro racer in America.
Willoughby had the talent and when he won a world junior title in 2008 at the age of 16, the dream became a reality. Sharon and Colin Willoughby saved up for Sam to travel to the US for a three-month trip and, as the story always goes, he never came back.
Willoughby was an instant sensation, and after winning another junior world title in 2009 and countless races in the States and around the world, the young Aussie became elite men’s world champion in 2012. He was the best BMX racer on the planet.
BMX had been added to the Olympic program in 2003 and though he was below the age limit to compete in the first races in Beijing in 2008, Sam’s eyes had long been trained on the starting gates of London 2012.
“My goal going in was to win. I had won the world championship a few months prior and was winning quite a bit on the world stage,” Willoughby says.
He finished second and claimed a silver medal.
“There was that instinctive disappointment but then gradual acceptance and pride,” he said. “Seeing mum and dad in the stand, and standing on the podium and looking into the stands and understanding what that moment means. It is so much bigger than just yourself.”
Still, gold was on offer again at Rio in 2016 and Willoughby re-adjusted his sights. Four more years of relentless success on US and world stages followed – Willoughby is Australia’s ‘winningest’ BMX rider of all time – and soon enough Rio came around. By virtue of his vastly elevated post-London profile, this time all of Australia was watching.
“I definitely felt the expectation of everyone but it was no more than my own; my eyes were firmly set on winning a gold to cap off my career,” Willoughby said. “I was in a really good space and training well and in good form. I had learned lessons from London and had lots of success in the four years since.
“And I rode a lot better in Rio than I did in London. But I made a mistake at the wrong time.”
Willoughby won every race until the final, when he uncharacteristically got caught mid-pack. BMX racing is short and unforgiving and the favourite finished sixth.
The fact his then-girlfriend Alise Post, racing for Team USA, won a silver medal eased Willoughby’s disappointment. But not enough.
Willoughby’s plan after Rio was to repair an injured ACL that he’d carried for six months but that sixth placed burned intensely, so he put off surgery to keep racing.
“My mind went into overdrive and my competitive side took over,” Willoughby said.
I was intent on winning the next race and making up for Rio. The next weekend my accident happened.
“I felt the best way to make up for Rio was to win the next race. So I was back on the starting line two weeks after the Rio Olympics.”
When the same mistake happened in Kentucky, Willoughby kept going.
“I had this bury my head in the sand mentality. I was intent on winning the next race and making up for Rio. The next weekend my accident happened.”
Willoughby had ridden the dirt tracks at Chula Vista hundreds of times but on the afternoon of September 10, as he warmed up riding through the bumpy rhythm section on his back wheel, he misjudged the balance and the bike flipped out from under him. Willoughby landed upside down, on the point of his helmet and despite – or because of – an absence of pain, he immediately knew he was seriously hurt. This wasn’t good.
“It was a freak accident and moreso what led to it was the headspace I was in, to be honest,” he says. “It wasn’t anything to do with the track or the danger of the sport. I remember right away on the track knowing it wasn’t a normal injury. I knew.”
The accident left Willoughby without feeling from the chest down. He’d fractured his C4, C5 and C6 vertebrae and was airlifted to hospital for surgery to ease the pressure on his spinal cord.
Willoughby and his family were told he would be a quadriplegic
. He would have the independence of a two-year-old, doctors warned.
Alise was immediately by Willoughby’s bedside but he tried to push her away. He didn’t want two lives to be ruined.
“I said to her I didn’t want her to marry me. I didn’t want her to marry a cripple,” Willoughby said.
“I referred to myself at that point like a vegetable and I was scared, and didn’t really know how I was going to look after myself, let alone drag someone else through it. But Alise never wavered. She grabbed my hand and said she wasn’t going anywhere.”
Willoughby had first crushed on Alise from half a world away after seeing her in one of those BMX magazines back in the day, when an ironically-nicknamed ‘the Beast’ (she was a 35 kilogram gymnast) had become a junior star in the States.
A few MySpace messages and a teen romance at the 2008 world titles later, Willoughby’s trip to the US saw him move to Alise’s home town soon after, and they’d barely been separated since. BMX’s power couple got engaged at the end of 2015 and had planned to wed in early 2017.
“I knew from the word go that I was going to have to be the rock, and I knew he would be how he was, that he would feel like a burden,” Alise says.
“I knew that he didn’t want to feel dependent on someone and I knew he would push me away. But I also knew it wouldn’t be what he really meant. It was obviously hard and shocking and all those things, but immediately all the focus shifts to ‘how do we move forward?‘.
“We were a bit naive and it probably played in our favour. We rode the rollercoaster of emotions together and slowly, eventually we came out the other side.”
For all the multitudes of awful that the accident dumped on their lives, Willoughby says it also highlighted something incredible. Alise.
“She never left my side. I fought it for many months but that was the strongest moment … now, when I look back, in understanding what true love is,” he said.
After surgery to replace one vertebra with a wire cage and fuse two others, and with lots of intensive rehab, Willoughby’s situation improved a little. Hard work, an athlete’s mindset and a devoted support network helped Willoughby regain use of his upper body. And using braces and a frame, he would later make good on his vow to walk down the aisle at the rescheduled wedding in January 2018.
“The best day of our lives,” says Alise.
But the prospect of riding again was gone. And with it, his purpose in life.
“A lot of people sent encouraging messages ‘you’ll get back on the bike champ’ and things like that, but for me it was never about that,” Willoughby said. “It was about getting comfortable being myself. Being Sam again, and being happy with myself, that was the big challenge.“
Which brings us back to that NASCAR semi-trailer, with ‘Bootie’ Barker interrogating Willoughby and his sibling Matt.
What now brother?
Willoughby remembers Matt answering for him, filling the silence with Sam’s goal of walking at the wedding.
“Bootie was like ‘cool man … then what?’,” he says, adopting Barker’s Virginian drawl.
“My brother asked Bootie when he stopped doing rehab after his accident.
“He goes: ‘Rehab? I didn’t do no rehab. They said I could try and put my shoes on and I did that in four weeks. I got the hell out of there and did my engineering degree and here I am brother. You gotta get on with it’.”
From the background, Alise shouts: “He is smiling telling you this.”
Here’s the deal: me and Sam, we are the same as you. We are just going to have to drag ourselves around a bit more.
Willoughby continues: “He looked at my brother and said: “Here’s the deal: me and Sam, we are the same as you. We are just going to have to drag ourselves around a bit more. And those are the words that I have lived by from that day. He lived in a normal house, drove a normal car, got married, worked full-time as a NASCAR engineer.
“It opened my eyes. By the end of the day I didn’t even see the wheelchair. I just saw a capable guy, getting on with life. It was just a real life example of the possibilities of what I could do with my life. I could have independence again.
“He was such a motivating person for me to speak to, because we hit it off right away. We had the same competitive mentality, both love sport, love the gym and for the want of a better term, have a bit of a f*** you mentality.
“From that day forward, that was a massive turning point for me.”
Alise describes it as the sun coming back out. Willoughby walked at the wedding as promised but otherwise stopped equating being upright with living a happy life.
A big part of their new normal was getting Alise back on her bike and back into racing, albeit with a new team dynamic. Instead of being her training partner, Willoughby became her coach in an official capacity.
Given all that happened, did he worry about her safety?
“My biggest safety concern was if she was out there doing it and not in a good place,” he said.
”It became clear to me, in the context of me and my injury, that it is so important to have goals in life and have something you are going after and I didn’t want Alise to just delay and be in no-man’s land. I definitely didn’t want her focus to be me and my recovery.“
Willoughby poured all he’d learned into coaching and with it came great success.
Alise won her first world championship title four months later in 2017 and then, carrying her new married name, won a second time in 2019.
“I would be lying if I gave him shit right now. He’s a very good coach,” Alise laughs.
“We had done things together for so long, side by side, so he’s not like a drill sergeant making me do things. We enjoy the same things about the sport and he kinda fills in the gaps where I am a bit lost at times. I execute well on his plan of what he wants to do and am open to try all his crazy new innovative ideas.
“I have been able to achieve my most successful years with Sam in this coaching role. It hasn’t just happened.“
Willoughby loves pumping iron in the gym, travels on his own and did a successful speaking tour of Australia pre-pandemic, telling his story to packed theatres and groups including the Adelaide Crows.
But BMX is still his love. You can almost hear Willoughby’s mind whirring when discussing the potential for Alise to improve further, physically and tactically. It’s still early days in the science of preparing BMX athletes, he reckons.
And it’s not just Alise in Team Willoughby. Australian BMX riders Anthony Dean and Lauren Reynolds also train under their former teammate at Chula Vista – yes, the same track – and all three won selection to compete in Tokyo.
Reynolds, who missed selection to race in Rio and was advised to forget Tokyo, said her dream of being an Olympian is due to Willoughby.
“Sam Willoughby, my coach, not a chance I’d be here today without you,” Reynolds said on selection day.
“Your patience and time and knowledge is something I’ll never forget. I am in the best shape I’ve ever been thanks to you.“
On the eve of the Olympics, Willoughby jokes he is like a father watching his kids go off to school, even though at 29 he’s the youngest of the four great mates.
Sam will this month travel with Alise and Team USA to Tokyo, where with the name Willoughby on her back ‘the Beast’ will try to finally add a gold to go with the two silvers at home.
But if she doesn’t, well, apply Bootie 101: you gotta get on with it.
“The gold medal, obviously both of us are super competitive and want to push the absolute envelope and see where we can go together. That’s the fun part of this journey, of us chasing the gold medal and us going one better,” Alise says.
“But our life doesn’t depend on it. It doesn’t define us and won’t define us.
“You throw everything out there and that way you don’t hold any regrets.
“We sure do love trying to go fast but you know, the sun will come up tomorrow.
“After everything we have been through, we are already winning.”
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