CHULA VISTA, Calif. — It started off as a routine warm-up on an Olympic training center track that two-time BMX world champion Sam Willoughby had ridden around 700 times over four years.
Willoughby remembers losing his balance and flipping his bike, falling upside down and then landing on the top of head. He was in no pain. But panic began to set in as he realized he couldn’t feel his legs, and then shortly after he lost feeling in his arms. The Australian Olympic rider broke the C5, C6 and C7 vertebrae in his neck, putting severe pressure on his spinal cord to where he initially had no movement below his chest. He was airlifted to San Diego for an emergency surgery.
Willoughby felt like he lost his identity in 2016 when the doctor used a term he wasn’t ready to hear.
Willoughby’s accident illuminates the risks of bicycle motocross, a growing sport in which specialized bikes are used for daring jumps on dirt and pavement racing courses. BMX became an Olympic sport in 2008’s Beijing Games, and Willoughby was a poster child for BMX as a 2012 silver medalist at the London Games.
Motionless and distraught in the hospital bed, Willoughby uttered his first thought when he saw his then-fianceé Alise Post.
“You’re not marrying a vegetable,” he told her. He said he loved her too much to put her through what he foresaw as an “unbearable hell” of recovery and care.
But Alise quickly countered back: “I told him, ‘You’re not a vegetable and the hell I’m not marrying you. You’re stuck with me.’”
Fast forward three years and Alise Willoughby sits outside her Chula Vista home next to her now-husband reflecting on the couple’s most trying obstacle. It was the adversity that followed Sam’s accident — in which Alise stood by his side as a coach and confidant throughout his rehabilitation process — that set the stage for Alise’s success now as a favorite to win gold at this summer’s Tokyo Games following a 2019 World Championship title.
The rebellious rider has garnered the nickname “Beast,” and now her coach is the one to both push her to new limits and reel her in when emotions run high. That’s because her husband and coach are now one and the same.
“After the accident, I knew I wanted to be his rock from the word go,” Alise told USA TODAY Sports. “Now, he’s my rock when I’m racing. It’s kind of come full circle.”
Nowadays, coach Sam Willoughby still uses a wheelchair, but he’s defying doctors’ initial prognoses, willing his way to walk down the aisle to stand for the couple’s wedding in January 2019 and not letting his identity be defined by limitations. He takes his role as his wife’s BMX coach as seriously as he took his purpose as a professional athlete.
“When she walked into the hospital room after the crash, all I felt was shame,” Willoughby said, voice cracking with emotion. “I felt like I instantly had become this object where it was everyone’s job to keep me alive. But then she was at my side every step of the way, always kept positive. She made me feel normal and saw me without the injury. I realized the only one not okay with me was me. She never wavered and was always trying to figure out what the next thing was for my progress and well-being. That was the foundation to make a natural transition as her coach.”
Sam and Alise’s love story began on the BMX circuit where Sam developed a crush on Alise. A teenage Sam (now 28) would watch American VHS tapes of Alise (now 29) as a “fanboy” from his home in Adelaide, the capital of South Australia. Sam jokes that he stalked Alise’s Myspace as a teenager for years before she noticed him.
“Eventually, I busted my way into her top friends list,” Sam said, “and 11 years later here we are.”
As rising stars in the sport, Alise, a St. Cloud, Minnesota, native, invited her Australian hunk to stay with her in California and even brought him to school for lunches. After eight years together while both were thriving as professional athletes, Sam finally decided to pop the question in December 2015.
Nine months later, however, the couple’s world turned upside down.
Alise spoke to Sam in the ambulance with his ear to the phone not long after the training run accident.
“I was trying to not be shaky, to be strong for him in that moment,” she said. “I was so scared for him I think I went into shock.”
Sam remembers sitting alone feeling empty in the hospital bed after the accident.
“I think it’s easy to self-bully yourself at that point because being a pro athlete, you’re in the public eye and what are you known for? Being a BMX rider,” Alise said. “Everywhere we went (after the accident), people weren’t asking him how his day was, they were asking him how his (recovery) was going. It kind of goes down to sympathy vs. empathy.”
Depression was inescapable, Sam said. He hardly would leave the house, lost 40 pounds and relied on Alise for many day-to-day needs.
“It was definitely an identity crisis,” Sam said. “I dealt with the insecurity of it for about a year, I didn’t want to go anywhere, I felt useless and like I had no independence, like I was this burden to Alise. At that point, all I cared about was walking again. I was nothing if I couldn’t walk.”
No matter how much Alise was his rock, it took Sam seeing someone else in his shoes to adjust his mindset. Sam’s brother, Matt, dragged him out of the house a year after the accident and scheduled a day at the Auto Club Speedway Track in Fontana, California. Sam, a huge NASCAR fan, was able to escape his reality. Yet that’s when he discovered his new reality. He met Bootie Barker, a former NASCAR crew chief in a wheelchair.
Barker, who became paralyzed from the waist down after a car accident when he was 18, served as Sam’s first glimpse at his future identity as a coach. Barker’s successful motorsports identity was defined after his accident.
“He was just like, ‘You gotta get on with it brother,’ and I was taken back by how he lived his life without limitations,” Sam said, imitating a Southern accent. “Ever since then, that’s what I’ve been doing — getting on with it. I realized it wasn’t BMX that I loved. It was the vessel I used to fuel my competitive side. Since that’s been taken away, I found it in coaching. I can still get the competitive thrill.”
A marriage on and off the track
While depression hit Sam in the onset, Alise found herself in a similar state of identity crisis shortly after. She temporarily lost the will to compete and was timid because of Sam’s injury. At the time, she said, “it doesn’t feel like it matters anymore” compared to the big scheme of life.
But the more Sam fought and rebuilt his identity, the more it inspired Alise to rekindle her love for the sport.
“His perspective on life has become what motivates me deep down,” Alise added. “He doesn’t blame BMX for a second. Instead he sees it was sport that’s helped him have a work ethic to embrace life and push forward. He can find the best in any situation, really, and that positivity is contagious from a coach and a husband.”
They began their athlete-coach marriage in 2017.
“In some ways, I’m more nervous as a coach because there’s less control,” said Sam, who also coaches other BMX hopefuls.
Alise and Sam get asked the question all the time — almost suggesting their situation could spell doom for a marriage: How hard is it working with your significant other?
“Sport is so different than a day-to-day job,” Alise said. “You’re constantly under pressure. We know each other at our most vulnerable states, and that only strengthens the athlete-coach relationship because it’s like having a shoulder to lean on with 100% the best intentions for you. It’s not like he’s a drill sergeant. I know his (criticism) is wanting me to get better.”
Eyes on gold
Alise has come close to a gold medal, taking silver at the 2016 Rio Games. She’s now won the World Championships in two of the three years since, most recently beating 2018 world champ Laura Smulders in Belgium last summer.
Sam’s career as an athlete is over, but his silver medal from the London Games hangs alongside Alise’s silver in their trophy room. In many ways, an Olympic gold medal would hold special meaning for Sam as a coach. But it’s ultimately “all about her.”
That was his mindset when he trained rigorously to walk down the aisle and even dance on their wedding day.
“I felt like I needed to do something symbolic. I didn’t want any robotic assistance,” Sam said. “I didn’t want it to be, ‘Alise stuck with Sam.’ I wanted her to get what she signed up for when I got down on one knee.”
An emotional Alise said: “I told him it didn’t matter to me, I just wanted to marry him. But knowing how much he loved me to get to that point just showed what I always knew: we were meant to be together.”
Follow reporter Scott Gleeson @ScottMGleeson.
To learn more, visit teamusa.org. The Tokyo Olympics begin July 24 on NBC.
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