Interview: Sammi Kinghorn on her Rio Paralympics dream

Scots wheelchair racer in record-breaking form and still has time for some lambing ahead of an expected trip to Rio

Sammi Kinghorn in her Borders home. Picture: Jon Savage
Sammi Kinghorn in her Borders home. Picture: Jon Savage

Horrible – winces Sammi Kinghorn when asked how training is going as the Scottish wheelchair racer strives to be selected for the Great Britain Paralympics team. However, it’s said with the kind of wry smile you’d get from a teenager who claims they hate school but secretly rather like it. And it’s not long before the truth is out. “I really love it and that’s probably why I’ve done so well. I enjoy training. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love it.”

It’s that kind of brimming positivity which has propelled Kinghorn, now 20, from the depths of a tragic accident in December 2010 when she was crushed by a beam on a forklift being driven by her father while helping clear snow on the family farm in Berwickshire which left her paralysed from the waist down, to become Europe’s fastest ever woman over four distances and on the brink of starring on the world stage in Rio later this summer.

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She all but sealed her place on the plane to Brazil with a sensational performance in the IPC Grand Prix in Nottwil, Switzerland at the end of May when she set new European records in the T53 100m (16.62 sec), 200m (29.48), 400m (55.47) and 800m (1:53.40). The middle two of those were held for over a decade by none other than Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson – Britain’s original Paralympic superstar – and Kinghorn subsequently lowered the 800m record to 1:52.62 at a recent event in Indianapolis.

It all suggests an athlete in brilliant form and, speaking at her home near the village of Gordon, Kinghorn admits: “I have to try not to think about it too much as I get a bit overexcited. But I’m pretty happy about it. I knew I was going fast, though maybe not as fast as turned out. I think the 200 is the most special as I felt that would be the hardest one to get. The 200 and the 400 had been the ones that had stood the longest and were held by Tanni, and I look up to her so much. It was nice to see her tweet her congratulations to me. You want the sport to move on and I’ll want people to take my records to show that it’s progressing in the right direction.”

Kinghorn loves the 200 metres, but it is not on the Rio schedule, so it will be the other three that she hopes to compete in come September. “I’m a little bit disappointed that the 200 isn’t in the Paralympics but I think it’s going to be back in London for the World Championships in 2017,” she said. “But yeah a bit gutted I won’t get a chance to do it in Rio.” The GB team will be announced on 25 July and if, as expected, Kinghorn is selected it will mark the culmination of her dream when she first took up the sport soon after her dreadful injury when she was 14. After first getting a taste while still in the spinal injuries unit at Glasgow’s Southern General – her physiotherapist took her to an event at Stoke Mandeville in 2011 – she embarked on competitive racing a year later just as the unforgettable buzz of the Olympics and that truly watershed Paralympic Games was about to sweep the country. Kinghorn’s positive acceptance of her disability is as remarkable as it is inspirational and right from the start she was aiming for the stars. “It will be incredible to make Rio,” she said. “I’ll be nervous the night before the team is announced but I’m as calm as I can be. I’ve done all I can by getting PBs in all my events, got European titles and ranked pretty high – No 2 in the world for my 400 and No 3 for my 100, I think No 6 for the 800 – so I’d be quite upset if I don’t get picked.

“I remember the first time I met my coach and he asked me about my goals and straight away I said ‘I want to go to Rio’. He was like ‘well I don’t think that’s going to happen but let’s see what happens and I’m sure you’ll be really good’.

“It was just literally before London and that was amazing. I was watching it on TV but I remember getting goose bumps and thinking I just really want some of that… all the people cheering, wearing your country’s vest with pride.”

Those Paralympics four years ago catapulted many of its British heroes to a kind of profile almost unheard of previously and a character as vivacious as Kinghorn seems bound for a lot of attention as the competition approaches. It is certainly not something she will shy away from.

“I do think that could be me. It’s definitely something I’d embrace,” she said. “My dad always tells me that when I was young I would always say ‘I’m going to be famous’ and he would tell me to calm down and remember I was from the Borders. But I said I was going to be famous and go to Rio so....”

One of those 2012 stars is double gold medal winner “Hurricane” Hannah Cockroft, who also specialises in sprint distances but in the T34 classification, and Kinghorn has forged a close bond with the 23-year-old Yorkshirewoman.

“Hannah was up a couple of weeks ago to stay with me for a week and do some training. We enjoyed it. She’s normally my room mate. It’s been great to see that she gets nervous too, then I don’t worry so much about the nerves I get, you realise it’s totally normal if someone like her gets like that too. I used to try and block the nerves out but she’s shown me that they can be important for getting the adrenaline going. She’s a brilliant starter too, she just flies out, so she is able to help me with that.”

Starts are the aspect of racing which are most likely to get the nerves jangling for Kinghorn and she explained: “I do worry a bit about them in the shorter distance because I’m usually one of the heaviest on the starting line. A lot of the girls I race against have suffered different injuries or were born disabled so they can be shortened slightly, whereas I’m 5ft 9in and fully grown, so it can be a bit harder to push off at the start.

“I’m racing against some girls who are just 30kg so they are just gone and I’m chasing. I’ve improved my start a lot but I do get on edge about it. You can muck up the 100 a lot easier.”

Kinghorn enjoyed the experience of competing at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games two years ago – placing fifth over the less favoured 1,500m – and enjoyed the multi-sports scale of the event which will be replicated in Rio. “I really enjoyed that at the Commonwealth Games. You quickly realise that you don’t know anything about any other sport apart from athletics. I remember some of us we were watching the wrestling and looking at each other and saying ‘do you have any idea what’s going on here’ but loving it and supporting your team-mates and we’ll be the same with Team GB in Rio of course.”

Kinghorn is a former pupil of Earlston High School near Melrose, which has produced many a top rugby player, and admitted she flirted with the idea of living up to her Borders roots and taking up the wheelchair equivalent – aka the notoriously physical “Murderball”.

“I tried it but normally for the rugby it has to be your hands that are affected so, if I was going to go down the team sports road, it would have had to have been basketball for me. But in the end I fancied the faster sport.”

She was part of a group of GB athletes who travelled to Belo Horizonte in March to have a look at what will be the team’s pre-Rio holding camp and Kinghorn insisted she had no fears about the zika virus which has led to some withdrawals and a general sense of uneasiness.

“I think it’s just about being sensible, bringing all the insect repellent and the stuff to wash your clothes with,” she said. “But you would be doing that anyway because you don’t want to be getting insect bites any time and look after yourself. When we were there the people weren’t that bothered about it.”

Mum Elaine, dad Neil, boyfriend Connor Spence, best friend Caris Page, and the wife of her coach Ian Mirfin have all booked their tickets in the hope of forming the core of the Team Sammi cheer squad. “They’ve already told me they’ll be going for a holiday anyway even if I’m not selected,” she chuckled.

But for now, it is that “horrible” training (which she actually loves) which is filling her time.

“I’ve got back into a really hard block – what I’d normally do for winter training to try and peak again for Rio. A lot of long sessions, a lot of endurance. I’m training twice a day every day except Saturday and the gym three times a week. I go to Heriot-Watt in Edinburgh for my gym but the Borders has got everything I need really, out around the quiet roads and I use the track at Tweedbank near Galashiels.”

Kinghorn is grateful for the support she receives from the Scottish Institute of Sport and UK lottery funding but relies on support from a number of sponsors to keep her dreams on track. One of these is watchmaker Christopher Ward and Kinghorn is part of their Challenger Programme.

“I actually got a nice shiny watch from them this morning and I get funding I need for travel and equipment,” she said. “It is very expensive, I wouldn’t like to see how much the chairs cost, they are specially tailored to your own body shape so it’s a very technical, individual process.”

Kinghorn is a girl with broad horizons, when she was younger she aspired to be a globe-trotting zoologist, but the Borders countryside is where her heart lies and her favourite escape remains getting out and helping with the farmwork.

“I still managed to get a little bit of lambing in, not as much as I would like as I was out in Brazil in March when the season starts. But I did get to lamb a sheep and as long as I get to do that every year I’m happy. It’s where I’m from, and it’s a nice way to relax to go out on the farm with my dad and switch off from the pressures.”

Another great pleasure is visiting schools and telling kids her incredible story.

“Away from the sport that is probably the thing I enjoy the most,” she said. “When I was younger I didn’t know anything about disability or disability sport. They usually don’t either but by the end they think it’s really cool and they ask great questions. Sometimes adults can be a bit wary of what they say but the kids don’t care. I remember one little boy asked me how I get my chair into bed to sleep. I’ve also been asked if I have blood in my legs, they thought they might be hollow or wooden, and also if I have any friends, which I found funny.

“My interests are pretty much the same as everyone else, hang out with friends and go out for dinner. I maybe don’t party as much as most 20-year-olds. But my friends are really good, they understand what I do and if I have sleepovers or anything like that they know it will be bed at 9pm and up early so I can train.”

Kinghorn may be the reigning Queen of Europe but knows that Rio will bring the added challenge of a crack Chinese contingent, Americans and the brilliant Australian Angie Ballard. Making all three finals is her stated aim but, with the kind of forward thinking drive which has produced her thrilling triumph over adversity, she already has one eye on Tokyo 2020.

“I just want to enjoy Rio as much as possible and learn from the experience so I can use that for the next one. Then I’ll be looking for more than just making the finals.”