Will Moulton tells the inspiring story of the young wheelchair athlete, Sammi Kinghorn, who is poised to follow the success of her Rio room-mate Hannah Cockroft and capture the nation’s imagination at the World Para Athletics Championships
If Jessica Ennis-Hill and Hannah Cockroft were among the faces of London 2012, then Sammi Kinghorn could well turn out to be one of the faces of London 2017.
Wheelchair racer Kinghorn certainly has the current form to shine at the World ParaAthletics Championships, which return to the home of the 2012 Olympics, starting today.
Despite being just 21, Kinghorn has already won four medals at major meetings – including three European golds – and in a sensational start to this season has already set three European records as well as her first world record in the T53 200 metres. She has a realistic chance of leaving the Olympic Park on July 23 with four golds hanging from her neck.
“It’s strange, especially this year, being at the front – it’s different for me,” the Scot said. “But I love what I do and I want to be the best. I don’t do it so that I’m OK and up there – I want to be the best wheelchair racer in the world.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I’d be compared to anyone like Hannah or Ennis-Hill, especially in a sporting sense. I speak to Hannah and think, ‘Wow, look at all the amazing things she’s achieved’. If I ever win that gold medal it will be incredible and a real honour to be near to them.”
What makes Kinghorn’s story even more remarkable is that, seven years ago, she had never seen anyone in a wheelchair, let alone racing in one. Born able-bodied, Kinghorn enjoyed a childhood on an isolated farm where the thought of a career as a professional athlete could not have been further from her mind.
“I grew up in a really rural place in the Scottish Borders where the closest small village was three miles away and the closest shop half an hour away,” she said. “But I had a great childhood, I loved being outside and on the farm, especially with the sheep as I really enjoyed lambing when I was young; I still do now.
“I did a fair bit of sport: hockey, ballet, gymnastics. It was all at a social level because my friends did it and I just carried along with it. I don’t think I ever thought sport was going to be my career in the future, but I did always really enjoy it.”
Kinghorn relished helping her dad on the farm so much that she would take days off school to help him when she could. The farm would also prove to be the place where her life was turned upside down one snowy day in December 2010, shortly before her 15th birthday. She remembers it vividly.
“My father was driving a forklift and I jumped on to part of it thinking that he had seen me,” she said. “He was clearing snow – it had been snowing really heavily over the week – and I thought he had seen me climb on to the forklift. But he hadn’t and he crushed me underneath the boom.
“The first feeling I had was guilt because I felt that I was going to die and my dad was going to feel like he was the one who killed me. So straight away I felt very guilty. I can still remember my heart thumping out of my chest as I felt my back go. I felt it break and I knew it wasn’t good.
“I watched my dad shovel up some snow and lifted the bucket up and thought, ‘I have to get out now, I need to run away’. I ran for a bit but then slipped and fell. As I lay on the ground I felt my legs spasm, all my muscles were twitching and then everything just tightened up and then let go.
“I knew that was the last time I was going to feel my legs again.”
Kinghorn was taken to the Queen Elizabeth Spinal Injuries Unit in Glasgow, where she would spend the next six months undergoing surgery and an intense rehabilitation programme. But instead of letting the situation get the better of her, she quickly set about planning what she was going to do next, determined to turn the accident into something positive for both herself and her family.
“I knew that I wasn’t going to walk again,” she recalled. “The way I coped with it was to plan my life. ‘I’ll do an online uni course, I’ll invent something’ and so on.
“I think I knew that my mum and dad were very upset, and I knew that if I started crying my mum and dad might never stop. So I had to be the one who was going to have a stiff upper lip and get on with it.”
While undergoing treatment Kinghorn was introduced by her physio to wheelchair sports. Before long, she was representing the hospital in a number of events in the Inter Spinal Unit Games at Stoke Mandeville, the birthplace of the Paralympic Games. It was there that she discovered her love for wheelchair racing, and just one year later she took part in her first major event, finishing second in the 2012 London Mini Marathon.
That was the beginning of a whirlwind journey that has seen her represent Scotland and Great Britain at the Commonwealths, Europeans, Worlds and Paralympics. She has fond memories of each event, including when her father encouraged a crowd of supporters to chant her name in Rio. But it was competing on home soil at Glasgow 2014 that especially stands out.
She said: “It was a real turning point for me because I would never have competed for my country if I was able-bodied. That was the moment where I was like, ‘Wow, I’m actually doing incredible things’. Glasgow is where it all began, that’s where I learnt to be myself again and it was amazing to be there. I don’t think I’ll ever actually be able to put into words what it really felt like. It still makes me smile, the thought of going into the stadium; hearing the roar was absolutely incredible.”
It is a noise that is likely to be replicated in London as the British fans welcome back the heroes of London 2012, as well as a host of exciting young talent inspired during those Games.
Despite not being completely comfortable with the ‘favourite’ tag attached to her, Kinghorn is confident she is capable of winning her first world title. She said: “London really inspired me. I remember watching David Weir and Hannah and thinking, ‘One day I’m going to be on that track’. I’m really glad I’m getting the opportunity because it’s not going to be an athletics track forever.
“I’d like to think that I’m going to get to the finals. Then you’ve just got to do your best on the day and I’ll shake hands with whoever crosses the line first.
“I think I am going to be the one to watch in the 200 metres, but you don’t know what’s going to happen. I’ve just got to hope it’s my night and no one else’s.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Will Moulton is going into his third and final year studying Sport, Exercise and Physical Activity at Durham University. He follows and participates in a large number of sports, including cheerleading, but specialises in cricket, football and F1 and has written for his university newspaper. Will is reporting on the Sunderland Ladies football team this season. Will’s latest articles