I woke up on September 8th excited to race, to finally know where the training I had done put me. I didn’t focus on the 3K individual pursuit leading up to the games, but when I ran fast times at track camp the idea of a medal kept creeping in. I knew I had it in me.
After coffee and breakfast, I let myself try and relax until it was time to leave. It would be a lie to say, I wasn’t a little nervous. But excitement won over as I got to the track, did a few openers on the track and then put my head phones in as I got on the rollers after a quick break. The little nine-year-old self who dreamed of being a big shot on the bike came out to play — today it was really happening! I sang along to Megan Trainor’s “Me Too” and P!nk’s “Just Like Fire” as the minutes counted down. 20 minutes to go. Bathroom time. Don’t get nervous. “I can do this.” I was the last heat, I would know everyone’s times and what I needed to do. I was racing against Sarah Storey, too, so if she passed me I could try and use her for pacing. 10 minutes to go. Back on the rollers for a few minutes to keep the legs moving. Off the rollers, TT helmet on. I kept my headphones in and spun around the infield listening to Kaleo’s “Way Down We Go” to relax me until my heat. I was ready.
I sat down for a minute before my bike was put in the start gate on the back straight. “Oh shoot, forgot to turn my Garmin on.” I walked up the track to the right side of my bike and got on. And that’s when the emotions hit. This was happening. There’s so many people. Come on, Garmin, turn on. 15 showed on the starting clock. Focus.
It seemed like all of a sudden and the gate was releasing my bike and my race had started. 24.4. One lap down. 17.4. Oh, shoot, too fast. 17.7. Still too fast. My laps were supposed to be 18.5’s. Are we done yet?! How many more laps?!
By four to go, my legs were burning. Just one more lap. One more lap. And just like that, it was over. I had just finished my first Paralympic race. Holy cow, I just finished MY FIRST PARALYMPIC RACE! And I had the third fastest time, a PR for me at 3:52.887. I qualified for the bronze medal round! In 2015 I didn’t qualify for the World Championships, 2016 worlds I came in 5th and now I had qualified third.
I couldn’t get off my bike and needed help getting back to the pit. I was spent. And the final round was going to be a tough one. There was just under a second separating Ania Harkowska from Poland and I.
I got a flush on my legs, spun a little bit and sat down to relax. I had decided to listen to my coach’s advice and head back to the village between sessions and get some more food and fresh air.
After some food, another cup of coffee and some relaxing, I headed back to the track. I intentionally stayed away from social media and text messages other than communicating with Andrew. I knew he would keep me calm. I was in the right mindset as I warmed up for that second session. Not as relaxed and sing-a-long like as the first session, but not so nervous I had to run to the bathroom multiple times.
After watching Jamie claim her silver, Meg fight her way back for bronze and Shawn race to gold, it was my turn. I couldn’t be the only one to not medal tonight. I couldn’t let my team down, couldn’t let my coach down, couldn’t let those watching at home down, couldn’t let my family and husband down. I couldn’t let me down.
15 seconds on the clock again. “Breathe. I can do this.” Five. “Count. One, two, three, four, five. Push back. Six.” The gate releases and I’m off again. Similar to the morning, I had a decent starting lap and a couple fast laps following before settling in. The plan was to have Creed call my splits until six laps to go, where he would instead yell plus or minus and the difference between Ania and I. By the time I heard “plus one,” my legs were feeling the morning session. I used the energy of the velodrome – so many people were there to watch us – to keep pushing as hard as I could go. Three to go. “Plus zero, go Sam!” All I could hear for those last three laps was my heart beat and all the cheering. By the bell lap I knew I was still up, but didn’t know by how much. I just needed to keep it together as much as possible until the finish.
I crossed the line, looked up and saw I had beat Ania. I had done it, I had won the bronze medal round. I was going home with a bronze medal in my first Paralympic Games race. I threw my hand in victory as I went through turns one and two, with just enough energy to make sure I gave my husband a high five as I came through the back straight.
I threw my hand in the air again before dropping down to the apron, crying tears of joy.
It actually happened, I actually won the round!
I needed help off the bike again. This time more so than in the morning. But it was different this time. After I hugged Creed, he made sure to have my attention. “Do me a favor and look to your right. Take this all in.” It will probably be the best thing he’s ever done for me. That moment I will never forget.
After getting off the bike and being helped back to the pit, the 0.004 margin I beat Ania by sunk in. I hadn’t realized it was so close, that I probably gave everyone there and watching at home heart palpitations. Both Creed and Andrew had lost their voices, and now I knew why. It was the closest race of my life. And one of the best moments of my life.
I had a few moments to sit down after giving an interview before being herded to the awards ceremony.
Once the awards were passed out, photos taken and another interview given, and a brief wait for the men’s tandem podium, I was finally able to run across the track and do what I wanted to the moment I realized I had won my bronze — hug my husband. I hugged him for what seemed like forever and not enough all at the same time before fans that came out to watch wanted photos. So I spent a good deal of time smiling as my thank you’s to them coming out and showing off my medal, before it being summoned along with Meg and Jamie back to the pit to get ready to go back home.
I wore my podium suit to dinner and slept with my medal under my pillow. I had a hard time falling asleep. I kept playing the race over and over again, thinking it all must be a dream and a couple times thinking I’m going to wake up in the morning and the UCI is going to tell me they made a mistake and that Ania really won. So I spent a good part of the evening replying to text messages and reading all of the responses from everyone back home. What an amazing feeling it was to read all of that, to see how happy people were for me. It truly was one of the best days of my life. And I was able to finally fall asleep at some point, still on cloud nine.