With a bike under him at the age of three, there was little doubt what Willoughby would do as a grown-up.
“I had this dream from eight years old I wanted to be World Champion,” he told InDaily.
“I’d seen it in a magazine that if you’re world champion in BMX you get a ‘W No.1’ on your number plate.
“So I made an ice cream lid with electrical tape and put ‘W No.1’ on there and used it as an eight-year-old.”
By the age of 22, Willoughby had won this number plate for real – twice.
The Happy Valley BMX Club product had an Olympic silver medal to boot along with two Junior World Championships and three senior titles in the United States – pulling both himself and Australia up to a world No. 1 ranking in BMX.
Competing on the US circuit in 2013, he won 19 of 24 events with a record 13-race winning streak. Still in his early 20s, he had cemented himself as Australia’s most successful BMX racer and arguably the country’s greatest-ever to compete in the sport.
His achievements now see him join cricketer Jason Gillespie, diver Valerie Beddoe, sailing administrator David Tillett, wheelchair basketballer David Gould and Hockeyroo Katie Allen as members of this year’s Hall of Fame class.
Willoughby is also just the sixth cyclist and first from his discipline to make it to the SA Hall of Fame where he is now ranked amongst the likes of Anna Meares and Mike Turtur.
Like those two cycling legends, Willoughby was widely tipped to win an Olympic gold medal and was a hot favourite heading into the BMX competition at Rio 2016.
But the fancied Australian, who had won every race in the lead up to the final, misjudged a jump in the gold medal race and fell to the middle of the pack. He would finish a disappointing sixth.
The weeks that followed would change his life forever.
‘Ultimately what took me down also made me great’
It was September 10, 2016, three weeks after the final in Rio, and Willoughby was out for another fierce training session on the dirt tracks of Chula Vista, California.
He was desperate to remedy his Olympic disappointment with a win in his next tournament.
“I couldn’t put my finger on why it happened, and my way of dealing with that was just go to the next race right away and try and win,” he said.
“I probably should have reached out to a lot more people and been a bit more open, I was just training with a lot of weight on my shoulders at that point and a lot of internal confusion and fatigue probably both physical and mental.
“That was a major part of why I was on the track that day and why what happened happened. My mentality, ultimately what took me down, also made me great in a lot of my career.”
Riding on his back wheel while warming up through the rhythm section of the course, Willoughby’s bike flipped from under him and he landed on his head. Unable to move but aware of the injury’s seriousness, he was airlifted to hospital and underwent emergency surgery.
The diagnosis: permanent paralysis.
“The doctor basically told my Mum ‘What you see is what you get – this is Sam for the rest of his life’,” Willoughby recalls, after learning he had fractured his C4, C5 and C6 vertebrae.
“One moment that stands out is being pushed into a toilet by a nurse and literally being showered and going to the bathroom at the same time … four weeks after you were this alpha male on the start gate trying to win a gold medal.
“I think that was when it hit me really the magnitude of the injury.”
Willoughby was also told that statistically speaking, his partner would leave him within two years.
But his then-fiancée, US BMX star Alise Post, would stand by him every step of the way.
“Originally I tried to push her away for a long time because I didn’t really know how to deal with it myself,” he said.
“I just didn’t want this to be her life of essentially being my carer, so the first thing I said to her when she got to the hospital and I’d just woken up from surgery was ‘you’re not marrying me, you’re not marrying a cripple’.
“She shut that down pretty quickly.”
Sam and Alise met in 2008 when the teenage Australian rider – who “always kind of had a crush on Alise from afar” – headed to China for his first junior world championship.
They were married 10 years later, with Sam making good on his pledge to walk down the aisle.
‘No guarantee of an outcome’
The path to Willoughby’s rescheduled 2018 wedding involved months of gruelling rehabilitation and soul-searching.
Returning home from hospital after learning how to live within his new constraints, the enormity of the task ahead began to hit home.
“[I would] lay on the end of a mat for two hours trying to make a connection from my brain to a muscle to make a contraction,” he recalls.
“It’s just exhausting training.
“But I think I had the skillset from sport to be able to do it, the motivation and the commitment to it was never an issue – I liked that routine of it.
And I was okay with embracing that challenge knowing that there was no guarantee of an outcome because ultimately that’s what sport is as well.
But watching Willoughby ride BMX in his prime felt like the closest thing to a guaranteed outcome.
The South Australian was able to perform with remarkable consistency in a fast and furious sport where race results can often be determined by factors outside of the rider’s control.
In his legendary 2013 season, his record of 13-straight wins in the US smashed the previous benchmark of seven and set a new standard for the sport.
He also remains the only rider in history to win two junior world championships, with his second one coming in front of a home crowd in Adelaide in 2009.
“That was pretty special,” he said.
“That was one where I just felt invincible and I was riding at my absolute limit.”
He backed it up with two senior world titles (2012, 2014) and three league wins in the US (2010, 2012, 2013). He would also make his Olympic debut in London where BMX was featuring for just the second time.
Willoughby, still only a 20-year-old, didn’t view the 2012 Olympics as his be-all and end-all.
“I had so many other goals in the sport … I didn’t feel like it was going to be my last chance at it,” he said.
“Just to me it was an exciting opportunity but I didn’t feel defined by it at all.”
His relaxed approach would see him cruise through to the final and win silver, falling less than four-tenths short of Latvia’s defending champion Māris Štrombergs.
Willoughby, who threw his head back in disappointment after crossing the line, said he quickly realised how the event had put both him and BMX on the map in Australia.
“To go up there and stand up in front of your country … you realise how special a moment that is, and not just for yourself but for your sport as well,” he said.
“I was pretty quick to snap out of the disappointment.
Willoughby had gone from a Happy Valley BMX Club junior to one of the sport’s household names in the space of just 14 years.
“People recognised the sport of BMX racing after [London 2012] which was really cool. It opened up more doors and opportunities because people recognised that title or tick on your resume,” he said.
“I don’t look back at it as my best performance or one of my favourite memories, but I think it’s probably one of the more significant ones from an external standpoint because that’s the one people recognise.”
Finding renewed purpose
Although Sam missed out on a medal in Rio, Alise took home a silver for the US. And while Sam could never compete again after his accident, coaching his future wife would provide him with the channel for his competitive spirit.
“Alise was sort of on the verge of quitting after my injury and then we decided to go down this path together of me trying to coach her,” Willoughby said.
“It was a bit of an outlet for me outside of rehab and for Alise it was a bit of comfort I think from the perspective that we’d always done BMX together. Since 2008 when we met, we went to every race together, we were on the same team, we stayed together.
“And then all of a sudden my injury happened and she was at the races and just felt a bit lost and didn’t feel like she had a purpose with it.
It was really important to me that she didn’t walk away purely because I wasn’t there at the time or because she felt like BMX did that to me and it wasn’t worth it.
Barely six months after his accident, Sam began preparing Alise for her tilt at the World Championship in South Carolina that year, with the duo kicking off a daily training regime.
“When she was training, I would watch and film and help, and then we’d come home and she’d help me with my rehab,” he said.
“It was just a real team effort.”
In what was a landmark moment for the BMX power couple, Alise won her first-ever World Championship by the tightest of margins – edging out Australia’s Caroline Buchanan by 0.008 seconds.
When the photo finish results were announced, she ran back up to the starter’s block to thank her coach.
“There was just a lot emotion around it … it will always be one of the biggest highs,” Willoughby said.
“It was just that crazy contrast from all that had happened that year.”
Alise, who is still working under Sam’s tutelage, has gone on to become a two-time world champion and has her sights set on Paris 2024 after crashing out in “gut-wrenching” circumstances at the semi-final in Tokyo.
Reflecting on his new life as a coach, Willoughby said his accident has given him greater perspective and ability to process defeat.
“The side of the field that I sit on now, you don’t get too low,” he said.
“There are disappointments in the moment and they hurt really bad and I hurt as bad as any of them in the moment.
“But I can move on pretty quick I think because I’ve stared some pretty bad losses down in the face at this point, and I know there’s so much more out there.”
Passing the message on
Willoughby found himself in a dark place post-accident, and he attributes much of his pathway out to respected NASCAR crew chief Robert “Bootie” Barker.
In 2017, a despondent Willoughby along with his brother Matt met Bootie for the first time in a NASCAR semi-trailer. Bootie, who lives in a wheelchair after suffering a similar injury to Willoughby, looked up at the brothers and reminded Sam that the three of them were the same but “we’re just going to have to drag ourselves around a little more”.
“It really just opened my eyes to the life I could live,” Willoughby said.
“All those kind of limitations that had been put on me based on the statistics of what my injury said – that was kind of the moment where I threw a lot of them out the window because I saw Bootie in front of me living an independent life and in control.
“In many ways I’d say it saved my life and allowed me to get to the point I’m at today.”
He describes the mindset he holds at present as one where “I don’t see myself as any different”.
“I just see myself as that same competitive yet compassionate person that I felt like I was before,” he said.
By virtue of his status as a sought-after public speaker, Willoughby has been able to express more of his personality to the public.
“I think I was a little bit misunderstood in my athletic career just because I was very focused and intense,” he said.
“It was only those who were really close to me that really knew the real me, and I think more people have been able to see that since my injury.”
Willoughby often receives messages from teenagers who have endured similar spinal injuries to him. As to what advice he passes on: “It’s really a difficult thing because I’m always wary of what I would have wanted to hear in months one to six.”
“I think it’s so important to go after the ultimate recovery for sure, but my concern is always just giving them inspiration outside of that and just letting them know that there is a good independent life that can be led,” he said.
“I feel like it’s my mission or responsibility to make sure that I can hopefully be that ‘Bootie’ for whatever other kids or adults that are going through similar struggles.”
As for the future, he mentions working in footy and track cycling as potential avenues but notes he remains open to all sports with a “competitive itch that will always need to be scratched”.
After living in the US since 2008, Willoughby now has ambitions to return home and start a family back in Adelaide – the place which now boasts a BMX track named in his honour and will in April officially induct him into the SA Sport Hall of Fame.
“To be recognised for sport in my home where I grew up idolising sports stars like Anna Meares and Andrew McLeod – to now have my name recognised in that light is pretty special,” he said.
The 2021 class will be inducted into South Australian Sport Hall of Fame at a black-tie event at Adelaide Oval on April 8. For more details and to purchase tickets, go here.
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