The slope to glory

Published:
01/04/2022

 

What’s evident upon sitting down to chat with three-time Winter Olympian Sami Kennedy-Sim is she’s a Warringah girl through and through. 

The former Mosman High student smiles fondly as she recalls growing up playing touch football with Manly Warringah and training with Manly Surf Lifesaving Club.

So, it leaves one wondering how she ended up swapping the sun and surf for the freezing slopes.

“I started skiing on family holidays down in the Snowy Mountains,” she says. 

“It wasn't really until I was about 16 or 17 that I had to start choosing between sports. The seasons started to conflict. I needed to be in Jindabyne for the winters and then to head overseas for skiing, which kind of ruled out surf lifesaving.”

Born into an athletic family, she admits she ‘always had dreams and aspirations of being an athlete’.

That path opened up when Sami was 19, after the former Alpine skier tried her hand at Ski Cross while on holidays at Perisher. It was love at first jump. 

“In Ski Cross, you're racing on a track with three other people and it's very clear who's winning and who's losing. So, I guess this athletic or competitive monster came out when I was racing head-to-head,” she smiles.

It seemed the only way was up for the young athlete, progressing on to the international stage before recording her first top 10 result in a World Cup in 2011.

She was well on her way to competing in her first Olympics, the Sochi 2014 Games, when the inconceivable happened.

The day after surgery for a ‘niggling’ knee injury in 2013, Sami found herself paralysed on her left side, unable to speak or breathe properly. 

“I had a blood clot form in my leg post-surgery. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t know that I had a small hole in my heart, and I had that clot dislodge from my leg and travel through my heart, into my brain and I had an infract stroke,” she explains.

While, fortunately, her husband – fellow Winter Olympian Ben Sim – rushed her to hospital within minutes, Sami’s Olympic dreams were now in doubt. 

“They were saying, 'Well, forget going to the Olympics. You're never going to be able to drive a car again.' I got given a leaflet on, 'You've had a stroke, what happens?' And it was all old people on the leaflet going into palliative care. 

“I was like, ‘No, this isn't me. And even if it is me, this is not going to be me.’ I’m stubborn by nature, so I was determined to control the narrative.” 

The then 25-year-old pursued months of private strength and conditioning treatment. Incredibly, by August that year she was back on the slopes of Jindabyne. 

“I was quite scared returning to an extreme sport, but the most natural thing in the world to me is clicking into my skis. It's more natural than walking,” she says.

From that point on, it’s been success after success for Sami, racking up a host of podium and top-10 World Cup finishes.

“For me to be able to compete, a small-town girl from Australia against countries like Sweden and Canada and Germany and Austria who live and breathe skiing, it's very special and definitely made me realise that I have the capacity and the potential to be a world class athlete.”

This unrelenting drive saw her push through two competition seasons disrupted by COVID-19 to qualify for this year’s history-making Beijing Winter Olympics Australian team. 

She was also bestowed the honour of holding the nation’s flag at the Games’ closing ceremony.

“I’m sure everyone will appreciate that it has been so stressful. Normally, I would do 58 flights a year and would come back and forth to Australia to visit my family. Instead, we were relocating for six, seven, eight months of the year overseas,” Sami explains.

“You spent so much time worrying about an illness that, for the most part, you can’t control and that has nothing to do with your performance.

“So, I chose to see holding the flag as an opportunity to wave it for everyone that couldn’t be there, whether that was our families, our friends and, of course, the athletes that had already had to leave because of COVID regulations.”

While the pandemic may be largely behind her, it hasn’t been smooth sailing for the skiing star. 

The Manly local ended up being the first to boycott the World Cup tour event in Sunny Valley, Russia, following the country’s invasion of neighbouring Ukraine.

Her stand caused a domino effect among the athletes, with every non-Russian national pulling out of the competition before the International Ski Federation (FIS) cancelled the event.

“I started to just have this weird feeling in my gut that what we were doing wasn’t okay, and I thought we needed to leave,” she explains.

While Australian officials were able to get Sami, her coach, and her ski technician out of Russia in 24 hours, she says the ‘incredibly stressful’ evacuation was the final straw. It was time to come home to Sydney.

With rumours circulating of potential retirement plans, Sami admits the ‘million-dollar question’ is what’s next on her horizon.

“I don’t know, and I think I’m excited about not knowing,” she says.

“If I’ve encouraged one kid to join up to their local soccer team or go to Nippers or whatever it is to get out of their comfort zone and broaden their horizons, then that’s what being an Olympian is all about. 

“That’s the job done.”

Author:
Stephanie Aikins, Editor-in-Chief, Peninsula Living Magazine

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