Olympic silver-medal modern pentathlete Sam Murray has had an up-and-down relationship with the sport that combines fencing, shooting, swimming, showjumping and running. However, as she prepares to compete in the World Championships in Cairo, she tells The Mixed Zone’s Laura Winter about growing up and putting life into perspective
Sam Murray hit rock bottom last August. The modern pentathlete’s failure to win a medal at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games left her broken and on the phone to her mum in floods of tears.
In a pressure-cooker, high-performance environment, no one had prepared Murray for how she would feel when she missed her target.
Murray, who won silver at London 2012 on the final day of those glorious Games, didn’t know what to do next. Retirement was an option, perhaps the easy way out. Did she have anything left to give a sport to which she had already sacrificed so much?
However, on Friday, 27-year-old Murray will compete in the individual competition at the World Championships in Cairo. She admits she didn’t know if she would ever get here, but is ready to fight for a medal once again.
“When I went to London I had nothing to lose, I was a student with a student loan and a part-time job in a night club,” the 2014 world champion said. “Hell, yeah, I was going to the Olympics. I won silver. I maintained our medal-winning record, which was a proud moment but also a massive relief.
“What happened next is part of growing up and taking on life and responsibilities. There was suddenly all this expectation. ‘She could win Olympic gold.’ But I wasn’t in the right headspace to win a medal. I was no longer a student, this was my full-time job. And I had other things to juggle – I was starting to think long-term. ‘Where am I going to be when I am 35? When am I going to retire, what about my pension?’ I didn’t think, ‘Wow, I have this amazing opportunity’. I just had to get through it, and sadly our Olympic medal-winning run came to an end.
“When I came home from Rio, Mum picked me up and took me home. I had a really good break. But I am still a UK Sport athlete, and the questions started coming. ‘When are you going to compete again?’ And with that came the pressure and expectation.”
Murray spoke honestly to modern pentathlon performance director Jan Bartu. A world champion, double Olympian and Olympic silver medallist, she simply didn’t know if she had anything else to give. But Bartu knew Murray had more to achieve. In January the Lancashire-born athlete was on the comeback trail at Bath University.
However, Murray had had a glimpse of freedom, of life without the rigid structure of a punishing nine-to-five training schedule and felt she would struggle to adjust to the rigours of life as an Olympic athlete once again. “Suddenly my life was boxed in to that athlete lifestyle and it completely consumes you,” she said. “No, I can’t see my friends on a Wednesday night. No, I can’t drink a glass of prosecco on a Tuesday. No, I can’t make it to her wedding. I had gone up to 67kg and was on a diet, doing huge amounts of training.
“Luckily I found joy in getting fit again. I have created a really good bond with our new coach, Jamie Cheeseman, and that has really helped – having people around me who give me strength and support.”
Perceptive and balance are two words Murray emphasises now. Her bitter disappointment after Rio allowed her to grow as a human being, even though it felt like her world was ending. But, more significantly, she fell in love. She met lawyer Kieran Daya in the Hall Mudhouse bar in Bath in January and they have now bought a garden apartment in the city. With something else to pour her energy into she has finally found that balance she so desperately craved.
“He’s amazing,” she smiled. “My life has turned around. He has become my best friend, that voice of reason at the end of the day, and my support. He thinks pentathlon and sport are brilliant, but he also sees me as a person. I have a degree and speak French and Italian.
“I became more rational. OK, I’m still alive, the world is still turning. I still have friends. For four years, I had this weight on my shoulders – if I messed up in shooting once in a training session, I would go home and cry about it. I’d punish myself.
“I had to stop and say, ‘I’m all right just being me’. This job isn’t going to last forever and sometimes I feel I act a little bit [like] ‘I’m an athlete, I have a clean diet’. Well, actually, no! I love a bottle of wine and I like wearing pink rather than team kit, dressed up and enjoying myself. In relaxing I was able to step out of this bubble, this comfort zone.
“I’m in a really good headspace heading to Cairo. I’m fit, I’m happy, I’m healthy. I’m going to do a pentathlon. If I win, that’s great, but if I come eighth, I’ll be really happy. Balance and perspective have fallen into a better place for me as a person – but the good thing is I still love my sport.”
And what of the future? In a painfully honest account for The Mixed Zone, Gail Emms recently highlighted just how brutally tough it is for one of our more successful Olympic medallists post-retirement, without financial security, further education or any work experience to speak of. Murray read that with a heavy heart. Was modern pentathlon truly worth it?
“I felt really sad for Gail and alarm bells started ringing,” she admitted. “But that is the reality of the choices you make. I’ve been able to pursue my hobby for a job, I’ve been supported and have had access to the best facilities and coaches.
“But as a young woman, there isn’t any security in this lifestyle. There’s no pension. What happens when it ends? I have a degree, but I have no work experience. I don’t know if I could sit in an office all day. The older you get, the scarier it becomes. It’s a vulnerable place to be in. I would like to see athletes who have represented their country getting access to further education in a field of their choice.
“What upsets me is the lack of coverage of women in sport. It’s heartbreaking when my friends ask when they can watch me compete and I have to say, no, I’m only on TV once every four years. That’s where the problem lies – if you’re not on TV you can’t get sponsorship deals.
“It’s difficult when you meet young girls at schools and talk about being confident in yourself and find a sport you love doing and embracing it. Then they ask, are you a millionaire? You don’t want to preach a lie to people – being an athlete is a really tough gig. You’ve got to love it to do it. And luckily, despite the ups and down, I really do love my sport.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Laura Winter is a sports journalist, presenter and event host. She worked in sports communications for the International Rowing Federation for two years, before working and training as a journalist in Gloucestershire, covering a variety of sports including rugby, boxing, football, and triathlon. She then turned freelance at the end of 2014 and is part of the team who founded Voxwomen, a women’s cycling show that seeks to give the female elite peloton the coverage they deserve. Laura’s latest articles.