The pain is still etched on Sam Willoughby’s face.
Not just pain.
“BMX was my life,” Sam says while looking straight down the camera at the start of Ride, an ABC Documentary released on Sunday.
“Until it wasn’t.”
The accident that left Sam, a two-time world champion and Olympic silver medallist, paralysed from the chest down, happened on September 10, 2016.
Just 22 days earlier, Sam had been racing in the final of the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
As his face fills the screen, there’s no option but to confront the vulnerability shown by Australia’s greatest BMX racer head-on.
“In the blink of an eye I went from sitting on the start gate at the Olympic Games to being told someone’s going to dress you for the rest of your life, to not being able to tie my shoes, to being treated like a two-year-old again, to being told you won’t have any independence ever again,” Sam says.
He dares you to confront that fear, just as he has done so inspirationally.
“I stared that in the eye, I lived that, I felt that,” he says.
“And that was something that I didn’t want to accept.”
Teenage BMX stars colliding
In 2007, 16-year-old Sam Willoughby was using his prodigious talent to make waves in the BMX world.
In 2008 he won the junior world championships in China.
More importantly, Sam met Alise.
Alise Post’s career trajectory was similarly impressive to Sam’s.
She turned professional aged 15 and became the youngest US national champion in history that same year.
As chance would have it, Sam and Alise were staying in the same hotel in China.
It was love at first sight.
“I just thought she was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen,” Sam recalls.
“That was pretty much where our relationship took off.
“My life sort of revolved around Alise and BMX after that point.”
So besotted were Sam and Alise that they managed to convince Alise’s parents to let him move into their home in Minnesota so as to be closer to the US circuit.
“I don’t really know how I sold it to my dad,” Alise recalls with a laugh.
Yet sell it she did and, by pushing each other to new heights in training as they developed their young romance, they quickly became a power couple in the sport.
“Within two weeks of being there I was essentially accepted into a family that was as warm and welcoming as my own,” Sam says.
“That was such a big part of me being able to make it in America.”
It wasn’t long before Sam was back home though, with the 2009 world championships taking place in Adelaide.
There, Sam became the first and only person in history to win back-to-back junior world titles.
After Adelaide, Sam and Alise moved to San Diego, where Alise was going to college.
There was no question of them ever being parted.
“We were all sort of doing it together and riding the bumps of life together,” Sam says.
“Just in love, like, head over heels in love.”
“We grew up together,” Alise says.
“We figured out ourselves well at the same time as figuring out each other.
“In that sense, we kind of became the other half of the other one the whole time.”
BMX is a high-risk sport.
“The room for error is very little because if you fall off, [you’re] done,” Alise explains.
Riders fly down a ramp at 60 kilometres per hour, bumping and jostling with seven opponents all fighting for the same space at the front of the pack, soaring over jumps big and small while pounding the pedals at up to 200 rotations per minute.
It’s intense. It’s dramatic. It’s dangerous.
In 2011, Alise badly damaged her knee in a crash.
Crashing is an inevitable part of riding BMX. It will happen. When it does, you just have to hope that it’s not a big one.
The result was a ruptured ACL and hamstring tendon, fractures in her tibia and femur, plus meniscus and cartilage damage.
“It was just a mess in my knee,” Alise says.
A reconstruction was in order, just one year before the London 2012 Olympics.
Against the odds, Alise made it to the Games but disappointingly fell in her semifinal, her individual dreams dashed just when it felt fate was guiding her towards glory.
While Alise was struggling though, Sam was having a blinder.
In Birmingham just before the Olympics, Sam had realised his dream, becoming Elite World Champion.
It was the biggest moment of his young life to date, the thing he had dreamed about since he first started pounding those pedals on the homemade track in his Trott Park backyard in Adelaide’s southern suburbs.
He had once pinned an ice cream carton lid to the front of his bike with W-1 on it to signify world number one after one of his many races against his brothers and friends.
Now, he stood on the top of the podium adorned in the mythical rainbow jersey, a gold medal hanging round his neck.
That all meant that Sam was favourite for Olympic gold in London but he ended up winning silver.
Perhaps it was the pressure. Perhaps mental fatigue.
Initially disappointed, Sam grew to embrace his second-place medal, with Alise watching on, his success as important to her as her own.
“To be able to experience that with him and see him stand there and watch his country’s flag go up at the podium … it probably helped me pick up and get over whatever sadness I had about my own racing,” Alise says.
All systems go for Rio 2016
After the Olympics, Sam was on a mission.
No time to slow down. No time to take stock. Only to get better.
“Once London finished, he was pretty much straight back on the bike,” Sam’s dad Colin says.
That dedication and single-mindedness was coming to the fore once again.
Sam’s training style had drawn comments earlier in his career.
“There was a lot of people badmouthing and trash talking his training program,” Matt Willoughby, Sam’s brother says.
“Telling him he can’t keep going like that, ‘You’re going to burn yourself out, it’s unhealthy.'”
Whatever he was doing, it was working.
On track, things were going superbly for Sam and Alise.
Sam won 21 out of 25 races on the pro tour, while Alise claimed second overall in the series.
But there were setbacks.
Alise’s mum Cheryl was diagnosed with a stage 4 melanoma and passed away, just after watching Alise win the US nationals.
Six months later, Alise finished second at the 2014 world championships in Rotterdam, while Sam claimed his second senior title, dedicating it to Cheryl’s memory.
“I remember the last time I spoke to Cheryl, just saying how much Alise meant to me and that I was always going to be there for Alise and how much I loved her,” Sam says of why it meant so much to him to dedicate his triumph to the mother of his fiancee.
“He just took that moment for her. It was really special,” Alise says.
At the Games in Rio, Alise performed superbly, emulating her fiancee’s achievement from four years prior to win an Olympic silver medal.
“It was just a real empty feeling,” Sam says.
“It wasn’t like a, you know, throw your helmet mad kind of feeling. It was just like, ‘I just can’t believe that ended like that.'”
‘I wish I didn’t ride my bike today’
It was less than a month later when Sam and Alise’s life was ripped apart.
“It was Saturday, September 10th,” Sam says.
“Went to the track. Just a normal routine warm-up. I used to always go through the rhythm section in my warm-up and just go through on my back wheel, and I just came through a little quicker this time.
“[I] Felt myself sort of flipping off the back of my bike. I remember being in the air thinking like, ‘This is going to hurt.’
“[I] Hit the ground.
“And then I realised I couldn’t feel my legs.
“Some of the parents at the track got down there and one of them was an EMT. He had his hand on my chest.
“I couldn’t feel a thing.
“That’s when I really started to panic.”
Sam was rushed to hospital by air ambulance.
Alise remembers thinking that next to being told Sam was dead, it was the “next worst news” she could have received.
Sam’s parents were on a flight from Australia around six hours after being told of Sam’s accident.
The first thing he said when they arrived was: “I wish I didn’t ride my bike today.”
‘You can’t just continually chip away at me’
Sam and his loved ones were told that the paralysis was permanent.
Thoughts quickly turned to his impending nuptials with Alise.
“I just looked at her and said, ‘You’re not marrying me’, … I was just looking at her like, this beautiful 25-year-old girl that just won her first Olympic medal and now she’s standing in hospital with a paralysed fiancee,” Sam says.
The first few weeks were tough.
Sam was having to adapt to life in a wheelchair, learning his new limits.
“My task was going to be to learn to live in a wheelchair and to teach mum, dad, Matt and Alise how to care for me,” Sam says.
“That was a pretty low point for me.
“I just felt like I’d kind of just become this object and it was everyone’s job just to keep me alive.”
Alise says that Sam tried to push her away, fearing that he was becoming a burden on her and asking her why she was staying with him.
It eventually began to break down her composure.
“You can’t just have me here as your rock and just continually chip away and grind at me. Like, that’s not fair,” Alise says of the moment her emotions got the better of her.
Sam should have known that Alise wasn’t going anywhere.
Alise never backed down from anything, not since she was beating girls twice her size as a minuscule 10-year-old on the junior circuit.
She wasn’t going to back down from this.
“Alise was a pillar of strength,” Sam’s dad Colin recalls.
“She was amazing with Sam.”
Inspiration from an unlikely source
Once Sam was home, out of rehab, things didn’t get better.
“If you could depict depression on a person, that was him at that time,” Alise remembers.
Sam had pinned all of his hopes on one impossible dream. Walking.
“If I don’t walk again I’m useless,” Sam says.
That was not a feeling shared by anyone else in Sam’s life but, no matter how many times they told him that, he would not listen, attaching his entire self-worth on his ability to stand unassisted.
Sometimes you need to hear it from someone else.
Sometimes, you need to see it.
Sam’s brother Matt grabbed Sam, threw him in the car and dragged him to the Auto Club speedway at Fontana to see the NASCAR.
There, Sam met Bootie Barker.
Bootie is crew chief of 23XI Racing and uses a wheelchair, with a take-no-prisoners approach to his abilities in a wheelchair.
His chat with Sam was a “light bulb moment”.
Bootie told Sam that he need not be defined by his disability and that he could, and should, continue to live life to the full.
Afterwards, Sam returned to the house smiling. Laughing.
“They were laughing. I hadn’t heard Sam laugh like that in a long time,” Alise says.
“I just wanted to be like Bootie after we left that place,” Sam says.
“I was just like, it’s all in front of me and … you know my brain’s fine.
“I’m still Sam and I just took all the limitations off of what the possibilities are for me.”
Getting back to achieving goals, together
After the accident, Alise had not really given competing much thought.
With Sam still adjusting to life at home and Alise struggling with motivation, was BMX even that important anymore?
“She was like, ‘I don’t think it matters anymore like me being out there trying to win a BMX race and you’re at home getting dressed by your brother and, like, look what it’s done to you and, like, BMX doesn’t matter, like, why do we even care?’,” Sam says.
“When I heard that, right away my brain just went to, ‘It does matter.’
“I need an outlet for my competitiveness. Why don’t we just do this together?”
They committed to going to the 2017 world championships together.
“It was just so fun for me to just be back in that mindset again,” Sam says, acknowledging that Alise had it far tougher than her competitors, having to arrange accessible accommodation for Sam to travel, as well as prepare herself.
No American woman had won a BMX world championship in 20 years.
“Once I felt that sense of team again with Sam helping me, it kind of gave me a purpose,” Alise says.
“It didn’t come easy by any means and in a way it was like, I don’t know, love conquers all.”
Love conquers all. And Alise conquered the world.
And the world acknowledged her achievement in kind, the beaten finalists coming together and embracing the American in an unprecedented display of affection.
Alise then ran back up the hill and hugged Sam, capping off a frankly remarkable achievement that revitalised both of them.
It was after that when wedding planning commenced.
Sam had made a seemingly impossible promise to Alise a year before the ceremony that he would walk on their big day.
“He found a way, in true Sam fashion, to keep that promise,” Alise says.
Sam’s accident could have been the end of a beautiful sporting fairytale.
Instead, by sheer force of will and the power of young love, it was just the start of another chapter.
“Mine and Sam’s approach is to keep finding joy in the beauty of the imperfection in life,” Alise says.
Sam now coaches Alise, spending time at the same place where an accident almost cost him his life, watching his wife ride over the same jumps.
“I don’t know if everyone acknowledges the mental toughness that that takes to do that,” Alise says.
“I didn’t blame the track, I didn’t blame the jump, I don’t blame the sport,” Sam says.
“Giving back has been a really big part of my journey and something that I want to continue to do.”
Watch Sam and Alise’s story in new documentary Ride at any time on ABC iview.