SAMANTHA Kinghorn is naturally reluctant to speak about the accident that changed her life dramatically, but ask her about “Mollie” and it is difficult to imagine a more enthusiastic and exuberant teenager.
Now 16, Kinghorn has become one of Scotland’s fastest-rising stars of disabled sport. She has posted Paralympic qualifying times, but her emergence in wheelchair racing has come just too late to compete this year. She will be in London next week, however, cheering on new friends who are racing, dreaming of Glasgow 2014 and Rio in four years’ time.
Kinghorn met British Paralympic legend Baroness Tanni Grey Thompson in Jedburgh last October at the Scottish 10K Wheelchair Race, and, in the months since, has found Mollie – her racing wheelchair, complete with bright pink spokes, and it is easy to see why they have become close as Mollie propels her passenger to an exciting future that was incomprehensible a year ago.
Kinghorn suffered a serious spinal injury when clearing snow outside her house in the Berwickshire village of Gordon on 2 December, 2010, and spent the next five months on her back in Glasgow’s Spinal Injuries Unit. The teenager left hospital on 2 May, 2011, nervous about her new life until she saw a bright, shining light emerging in the tunnel – sport.
She explains: “In the first weeks after the accident I had no idea what the future held. Sport was not in the thinking. When I first had the accident, I thought I’d be on my back forever. I remember my mum coming into the hospital and saying: ‘I’m sorry you’ve broken your back.’ And I said: ‘It’s fine. I know I’m never going to walk again.’
“My mum said: ‘How do you know?’ I just said: ‘I know.’ And every time someone spoke to me, and the doctor tried to explain stuff to me, I just said: ‘It’s fine, it’s fine, it’s all fine.’ That was my way of coping. But I didn’t actually listen to a lot of it and didn’t realise that I would be in a wheelchair; I thought I’d be in a bed forever. So, to then get into a wheelchair was amazing. I know it sounds strange, but I was so happy.
“Then to find I could actually compete in sport in my wheelchair has just been incredible. Sport has helped me hugely, helped me to accept it really.
“At school I feel like an outsider. It’s difficult for people. But I’m the only one [in a wheelchair]; everyone can walk and I can’t so you don’t feel the same as everyone else, whereas when you get involved in sport everyone is in the same position, and some people are worse off than you even, which makes you realise you’re lucky.
“Now I train every night and the Saturdays off have gone because I’ve found more and more competitions. And Mollie is there with me all the time. I don’t know why I named her ‘Mollie’ – she just seems like a Mollie to me. She looks nice, but has a fierce bit in her.”
Baroness Grey Thompson and her husband Ian have remained in regular contact, calling to see how she is and offering support. She has been supported by Borders coach Jed Renilson and her training taken on by Janice Eaglesham and Ian Mirfin, the founders of the Red Star Athletics Club in Glasgow, and Scottish wheelchair racer Ross Low. The Borderer is drawing inspiration from them all.
Her first race was the London Mini Marathon in April, where she hoped just to finish and actually came second. That suddenly alerted coaches and fellow racers across the UK to her potential and she has claimed 14 gold medals at various events from Stoke Mandeville to Scotstoun, and Birmingham to Grangemouth, since then, setting new 100m and 200m Scottish records on the way.
Her times are inside Paralympic qualifying standard, but coaches were keen not to push her too far too quickly so did not seek a late entry to London. She and her parents, Elaine and Neil, have also been happy simply finding a way to blend training and competition with the demands of school, and are now considering the logistics of proposed world championship events next year in Switzerland and France. This weekend, Kinghorn will take part in the Great Scottish 3k Run in Glasgow on Saturday and the 10k on Sunday before heading to London to watch the Paralympics.
Coach Mirfin said: “Samantha has been exceptional. She has picked up the technical side of wheelchair racing surprisingly quickly and is very quick. There will be 1,500m races for men and women in the Commonwealth Games in 2014 and on her first go at that distance recently in Coventry she came six seconds under the qualifying mark.
“She has work to do to move into medal contention, but with a good first winter’s training we may look at the World Junior and World Senior Championships next year. She is a real talent, but we have to take it step by step.”
Kinghorn added: “I can’t believe it’s only a year or so since I came out of hospital and now I’m thinking about the Paralympics. I don’t think I ever thought about disabled sport at all before the accident, but now I am so excited to see the Paralympics here in Britain, even though I’m not yet competing in it. I’m definitely going. Rio 2016 would be a nice 20th birthday present and then there’s the 24th and then 28th… I’m going to them all!”
Kinghorn has joined the Scottish Borders Disability Sport committee, a branch of Scottish Disability Sport, and she and Mollie are now as popular visitors to Borders schools as Scotland rugby players. Tall and blonde, with sparkling eyes and a radiant smile, she likes the idea of becoming an inspirational speaker, and of opening minds of children, in particular, to disability and opportunities in sport.
“Life is a lot different now,” she adds, “but I feel that it has more meaning than it used to. Before, I’d wake up, go to school, come home, hang out with friends and that was it, but now I’m training every night, travelling all over, taking part in competitions and meeting loads of people, and I actually think I’ve got more of a chance in life now than many people around me.
“I also like the fact that I can help children understand that rather than look at somebody and think: ‘Oh, they’ve got a disability’, and judge them.
“It’s about the person and not the wheelchair. As for how far I can go… who knows? Mollie will probably decide, but we’re pretty determined.”