Sam Holness, a triathlete with autism, is the Cristiano Ronaldo of his sport - and wants to become its first autistic pro

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Sam Holness, a triathlete with autism, is the Cristiano Ronaldo of his sport - and wants to become its first autistic pro
Sam Holness. Getty/Nigel Roddis
  • Sam Holness is the "Cristiano Ronaldo of triathletes," according to his father and trainer.
  • The Brit is aiming to become the first person with autism to become a professional triathlete.

Rain, lightning, and even a sandstorm made the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in St. George, Utah last month one of the sport's toughest events this year.

Those obstacles were little trouble, however, for "Super" Sam Holness, who crossed the finish line to become the first ever triathlete with autism to enter and complete the marquee race.

He finished the 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile cycle, and 13.1-mile run in a time of five hours and 44 minutes.

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"I'm very, very proud of myself," the Brit told Insider. "This was only my fourth 70.3 triathlon and the most difficult course I have raced on.

"The cycle and run were hilly, but it was even more difficult because of the weather. My finishing time was faster than the average, and I will get faster. I wanted to go sub-five hours, but this course is so difficult."

Sam's father, Tony, who is also his trainer, said: "It's really excellent. It's set a benchmark for us to know what Sam can do in the future."

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Sam took up triathlon after struggling with team sports

Autism refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and, nonverbal communication, according to Autism Speaks.

Sam was diagnosed when he was just four years old. His autism is primarily around communication skills and making relationships.

Tony and his wife encouraged Sam to take up a number of sports in order to help him improve socially, and though it did in many ways, he also struggled.

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"I started in sports by doing swimming, trampolining, archery, ice-hockey, and judo," said Sam. "But we noticed that team sports didn't work for me.

"Sports were difficult because my fine motor skills were weak and I found it difficult to understand the instructions or the rules - mainly because people spoke too quickly, and instructions would get muddled up in my head."

Sam Holness, a triathlete with autism, is the Cristiano Ronaldo of his sport - and wants to become its first autistic pro
Sam and Tony at the Ironman 70.3 Staffordshire. Getty/Nigel Roddis

He started running when he was 18, and after graduating from university with a degree in sports science, he took the leap into triathlon.

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"He had a sports science degree and was good at swimming, running, cycling, all that stuff so we thought, why not?" said Tony, who is a certified Ironman coach.

"My dad says that my personality fits triathlons, because I am determined and focused and I never give up," added Sam.

The sport has since become Sam's life

"He loves it so much," said Tony. "It is what they call in the autistic world his 'special interest.'"

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"Special interests" are one of the most common characteristics of people with autism, and involve an individual having a highly focused level of interest in a particular subject or activity.

"So this is what he does," Tony added. "He does this 24/7, six days a week."

A typical training day for Sam will involve a run around London's Richmond Park (which is around 7.2 miles per lap), followed by a 2,000 meter swim, a 15.5 mile cycle, and some strength and conditioning exercises.

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To recharge and recover, the 27-year-old takes regular naps and often ends the day with some yoga.

So dedicated is he to his cause, Tony describes him as the "Cristiano Ronaldo of triathletes."

Ronaldo, who is one of the greatest soccer players of all-time, is renowned for his strict workout and diet regime, and his singular focus on being the absolute best at his sport.

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Sam Holness, a triathlete with autism, is the Cristiano Ronaldo of his sport - and wants to become its first autistic pro
Tony Holness says Sam is just like Cristiano Ronaldo. Getty/Martin Rickett

"Some athletes are gifted, they just go out and do what they do," said Tony. "And then you have other athletes who are hard workers, grafters, never give up, always on the training pitch. Sam is one of the latter ones.

"He has talent, but he has to work hard. And that's what he does. He loves training. You talk about [Cristiano] Ronaldo the footballer, they always say he's on the training pitch before everybody, and then after everybody's left, he is still there taking free-kicks.

"That's what Sam is like as an athlete."

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Sam's big goal is to inspire others and change stigmas

Competing in Utah was a huge achievement for Sam, but there is no time to rest for the Londoner, who has his sights set on becoming the world's first professional triathlete with autism.

He competed the London Marathon early in October, albeit virtually, and will be running another Ironman 70.3 race in Portugal later in the month.

"I want to become the first professional triathlete with autism and then to use my career to help raise the awareness of autism around the world," Sam said.

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"Autism is an invisible disability. When I am at the start of a race nobody can tell that I am autistic, all they see is another triathlete.

"I hope to help people with autism to take up sport and get healthier because many people with autism die earlier that their neurotypical peers."

According to Thinking Autism, the average life expectancy of a person with severe autism is 39.5 years, rising to only 58 years for those with high-functioning autism. The average life expectancy across society in the US is around 77 years.

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Sam, as well as Tony, also want to help change the stigma around people with autism and their employability. The National Autistic Society estimates that only 15% of adults with autism in the United Kingdom have full-time jobs.

For graduates like Sam, Tony says that number is even lower, around 7%.

"I want coaches and employers to recognize that people with autism can be talented athletes and employees," added Sam.

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"If I can inspire one person to get healthier or a company to employ a person with autism then its good."

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