Words Lester Perry
Images Cameron Mackenzie

Some would say XC is dead (they’re wrong) and others would say we’re seeing a worldwide XC Racing Resurgence. Word on the street is that livestream viewing figures for XC far surpass those of the downhill, and those tuning in are treated to action-packed racing across all categories at each round of the XC World Cup.

It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a Kiwi XC racer hit the World Cup scene with the impact of Sammie Maxwell. She first appeared on most casual fans’ radars at the beginning of the 2023 season, and they’ve seen her climb the ranks, race after race, to become the World Under 23 champion for 2023, and finish the World Cup Series in 3rd.

Anyone who has been immersed in the sport for the last few years, particularly here at home in NZ will know Sammie didn’t just burst onto the scene in 2023 but has been on this path for a few years. What has brought her to where she is now -a World Champion and a strong contender for an overall World Cup title? We were fortunate enough to dig a bit deeper into what makes this fun-loving, small-town girl with a huge grin tick!

Although not from a particularly sporty family, living in Taupo – just minutes from the lake – an active lifestyle is more or less a prerequisite. Although studious and high-achieving at school, early life was so much more than study and learning. The freedom and flexibility Sammie’s environment offered meant that netball, trampolining, running, Pilates, triathlon, football, swimming, cycling, rock climbing, horse riding and more, were regulars on her to-do list, although she was equally happy to lie in a hammock and read a book. Anything that required energy or had an aspect of competition and Sammie was sure to be front and centre!

“I stayed in Taupo throughout all my schooling and certainly consider myself a ‘small town’ girl. I would enjoy the odd trip to the Mount with my grandparents where we would go to malls, etc but after a few days, the traffic and the shops would all lose their ‘exciting’ factor, and I’d much rather have the quiet Taupo streets!”

It’s commonplace for high-performing female athletes to excel in most areas of their lives, and Sammie is no different, slotting right into this stereotype. Throughout the early years, her inquisitive mind and passion for learning were continually stimulated by her parents; both high performers in their fields -her father an engineer, and her mother a laboratory phlebotomist. For years, Christmas gifts included books about biology and physics. A consistent top performer in her academic group throughout college, Sammie was awarded DUX in her final year. “In year nine, when our biology teacher gave us an assignment on a disease, we could pick whichever we wanted, and just research about it. I chose chickenpox because I had recently had Shingles (both caused by the varicella-zoster virus -Ed.). Being my typical curious self, instead of just reading a few lines of Wikipedia and calling it a day, when I got home from school that afternoon, I went straight to our massive bookshelf and got the five biggest medical textbooks mum had used while doing her study. I read everything I could about the virus, the immune system, the physiology of the disease and treatments. I became obsessed with the amazing ability of the immune system and knew from that moment on that I wanted to work with biomedical science.

“It’s fair to say that my teacher also agreed when the feedback for my report read something like: “Sammie, I asked for a college assignment, not something that looks like an abstract out of a university thesis”.

Sammie’s competitive nature spurred her toward mountain biking. “My brother and dad would go riding and I guess I wanted to be like them and join their adventures. I loved being ‘tough’ with the boys. When I was young, I would always be throwing myself into things my brother was doing – to try to impress him I guess. My dad would always buy us a McDonald’s ice cream after riding, and who was going to turn down a bribe like that!”

Alongside MTB rides with her family, Sammie picked up triathlon, meaning time spent road cycling. But she knew MTB was really where her heart was, even in those early years. “I love both types of riding and the road and MTB community in Taupo is so amazing, I really am lucky to have been involved in both; however, I always knew that when it came to racing, MTB was what I was best at and what I wanted to do.”

Sammie’s enthusiasm for all things biomedical science, and keenness for mathematics, led her to study a Bachelor of Biomedical Science, moving to Wellington to study at Victoria University. She graduated in 2022 with a Bachelor of Biomedical Science Majoring in Molecular Pathology.

While training her intellect at university, Sammie was finetuning her racing craft on the bike, building the engine that has since lead to her success. Balancing a demanding study schedule with a strict training regime is a tough challenge and many an athlete has cracked under the pressure. Sammy powered through and, after graduating, began working in a research lab specialising in mRNA therapies and neurological disease research. She has a bit of a Clark Kent vs Superman vibe; outside of work life revolves around her training, but a quick change of costume, donning a lab coat, and she’s all business. “I have had my fair share of 5am wake-ups for training, and working until 8pm to fit everything in,” explains Sammie.

“I am lucky to have a great group of supportive people around me who can identify when I’m running low on energy (sometimes running on cortisol alone!) and remind me to take a break -often meaning dialling back the training a bit until the energy catches up. It’s hard work and definitely not something I could do all year around, but in the few months before heading for Europe, it’s nice to do one last push of mahi to remind myself how tough the ‘real world’ can be before jetting off to frolic around Europe for summer with my bike. It makes me very grateful when I am in Europe, and has taught me some intense work ethic which I pride myself on. In Europe when I have a big training day, I always remind myself I still have it easy – I could be in NZ doing that ride in the cold rain, in the pitch black at 6am – giving me an energy boost and making getting out the door a bit easier.”

All the hard work is now reaping rewards, but it’s been a long journey. Sam Thompson has been working with Sammie for five years, since pre-Covid times – first through the CyclingNZ Performance Hub but, after its demise, through the NZ MTB Academy. “We saw riders like Sammie prosper and develop exceptionally well under the MTB Performance Hub programme. When that was shut down there was a real gap in the development support network that needed to be filled. The NZ MTB Academy makes it possible to provide these athletes with professional support (coaching, sport science, strength and conditioning), professional guidance and also some financial support, to help bridge the gap from amateur to professional, and then also support them when they reach that professional space as well.”

In 2019, Sammie attended her first World Champs, in the Junior category, gaining useful experience and finishing in 14th. With racing on pause through the Covid period, Sammie used her time to address some issues which were hampering her success. “I have struggled with under-fuelling for a long time and spent a lot of time during Covid working with an Eating Disorder specialist, and psychologists, to get on top of this. So this year (‘23), when I showed up to Europe, I had a lot more maturity and was ready to start racing and recovering like a pro, to get through the season without fading.”

It wasn’t until 2022 that we saw Sammie start to settle into her groove on the world stage; the hard work of the previous years starting to pay off. It’s obvious from her results at the two world cups she raced in 2022 that her build to the top began back then, and was only exacerbated heading towards the 2023 season thanks to her methodical training and self-belief.

Coach Sam commented; “What stands out from others is her ability and belief to never give up, and her consistency of training. I would have trouble finding a session in the last five years that Sammie simply hasn’t done because she’s put it off. She simply doesn’t miss a session.”

Trusting the process appears to be one of the keys to Sammie’s progress. The 2023 season has shown a consistent build right from back in May at the World Cup opener in Nove Mesto where she finished 8th.

“It was always the plan to not hit the season at peak form – especially since this is my first full season, and we didn’t know how my body would react. So we decided to start a bit slower and use the first few WC races as ‘form builders’ to introduce the intensity needed for racing. It was part of the plan to let the form physically improve through the season – but I think the biggest change was just gaining confidence in my ability and working my way through the starting grid.”

Following Nove Mesto, a month later, the World Cup circus headed to Lenzerheide, Switzerland. A confidence-building 6th place for Sammie and a solid build towards Leogang where we’d see a major breakout performance, with a 2nd place in the XCO after a tough Short Track (XCC) race to open the weekend. Two weeks later things were beginning to click in the XCC and Sammie crossed the line in 4th, the perfect primer for the XCO three days later. Another strong ride and into second at the XCO at Val Di Sole. Confidence, experience and physical form were all coming to a head just in time to peak for her season goal: the World Championships in Glentress, Scotland Then, on the 12th of August, Samara Maxwell became U23 Women XCO World Champion! After a dominant ride, distancing the field on the first climb, she eventually crossed the line draped in a New Zealand flag, having made history; the first Kiwi woman to win a Cross-Country world championship.

“In the days leading up to Worlds we had made a minor suspension change, but everything else was pretty much the same. I think just steady training for a few weeks with some good days over the local ‘cols’ and riding with Ben Oliver helped a lot; I accumulated stress on the bike but Sam (coach) and I were also watching closely because we knew the worst thing we could do would be to accumulate too much fatigue and dig myself into a hole before the event which can easily happen during pinnacle points in the season.

“I was lucky also to have the help of Louis Hamilton in Scotland; he showed me the best lines to take on the course and, as a privateer, this is something I don’t have access to at World Cups, so I owe a lot of my success on the day to him!” Sammie now had the spotlight firmly on her as she steamrolled into the remainder of the season. Heads were turned and everyone wanted some time with the “fresh face” in the pits, who they’d seen grow and develop quickly through the early season. Her secret was out and she thrived on meeting and chatting with so many new people who were discovering this fun- loving, Kiwi world champion for the first time.

“The people are amazing, and the sport is growing so much -it’s awesome! Changes to broadcasting this year allow people back home to watch my races and that’s helped increase the number of people following the sport and created a very exciting atmosphere at events. The girls I race with are amazing and I’ve met some amazing friends this year -I am just so excited to watch this sport develop over the next few years!”

Prime conditions and a strong race in the XCC rewarded her with second place at the opener in Pal Arinsal, Andorra. Sammie’s first outing in the XCO World Champs stripes would come a couple of days later, and in the toughest conditions of the season so far. The venue was hit with storms in the hours leading up to racing, forcing schedule changes (meaning no live feed) and leaving the course sodden and slippery. The form was there but conditions -and the venue being at over 2000m elevation –meant Sammie couldn’t unleash what was required to be back on top, finishing a credible 4th place.

Les Gets was next on the calendar and another dominant display in the XCO where she effectively put her competition to the sword on each climb, putting the group under pressure every time the gradient tipped up. After multiple lead changes throughout the race, Sammie finally made it stick on lap three, taking the lead once and for all, and maintaining a 30-second lead. It wasn’t all said and done, however, and she narrowly avoided catastrophe; crashing on a grassy off-cambered corner in the closing minutes of the race. Fortunately, her gap to second place was enough, and she limited her losses to cross the line with a stellar dance move finish line celebration and take her first World Cup win!

Never one to completely relax, Sammie has taken up learning French this season to keep her mind busy between racing and training. In years to come she’ll be getting plenty of French language practice, after a mid-September signing to high profile, French-based team, Rockrider Ford for the remaining 2023 races, and through until 2026.

“It’s been a dream ever since I can remember to be a professional cyclist. I’m beyond honoured to say, that thanks to Rockrider Ford Racing Team, this dream is finally a reality. I already feel so at home in this team and have had the biggest, warmest welcome. It only makes me more excited to see what we can achieve in the future together.”

With all of the downsides of being a privateer now being taken care of, Sammie can focus solely on being a professional athlete, no longer stressing about having no income while racing across the world. With the mental load of finances and logistics now removed, preparations for next season are already underway. One of Sammie’s goals is to improve her technical descending, an area where she and her coach identified she’s been losing time to her competitors.

Sammie came out swinging at the debut race for her new team in Snowshoe, West Virginia for the XCC World Cup Round 7. Another solid race battling Ronja Blöchlinger for the win but narrowly missing out, finishing second. Snowshoe’s XCO race shaped up to be another epic battle with Blöchlinger, but this time it was Sammie who came out on top. It almost wasn’t to be though, and she narrowly avoided a huge crash on the opening lap, washing the front wheel out on greasy rocks and colliding with a tree, fortunately she stayed upright. Sammie put in a cracking ride, regaining her composure to go blow for blow with Blöchlinger in the early laps. Sammie continually pulled time on the climbs, and by the mid-point of the race had taken lead for the final time, growing the gap for the remaining laps to take the win by a minute, marking a perfect start with her new team.

Next up was a trip across the border to Mont-Sainte-Anne, Quebec, for the eighth and final race of the 2023 season. Blöchlinger rounded off her perfect XCC season with her eighth win, just pipping Sammie for the win again, and collecting valuable overall series points. The XCO race saw the toughest conditions of the season; rain had set in, making the technical course even more technical for even the most skilled riders, leaving them battling not only each other, but the conditions and course as well. At times, the race looked more like a duathlon than an XCO with most riders taking to running sections at times. Thanks in part to Stephan Tempier’s line coaching, Sammie rode the technical sections confidently.

“I was able to ride everything in the wet, even really tough sections that the elite were crashing on, so that was a huge positive. It meant I felt safe and confident and was able to have sooo much fun slipping and sliding my way past people!” Proving her mental resilience after a start loop flat tyre; she chipped away at the field for the entirety of the race, eventually finishing fifth, securing herself third place in the overall series and cementing herself as one of the world’s top XC riders. When asked about any wisdom she wished she had known earlier in her career, and what tips she’d pass on to other young women looking to break into the World Cup circuit, Sammy offered some clear advice:

“Never feel like you’ve got to make sacrifices or suffer unhealthily to succeed. In our heads, we often think elite athletes are insane people who have super-human abilities to suffer, and when it comes to physical training yes, they do suffer, but when it comes to their mentality, the top-of-the-top athletes protect their mental health above all else, and this is something that’s taken me a while to figure out. If our brain is unhappy or starved of the joy and energy it needs, we will never be able to perform at our true potential. So always make sure you are looking after your body and giving yourself the rest you deserve! Plus, eat the damn dessert! I spent too long turning down yummy foods because I thought it was what a real athlete would do – when in reality, ice cream is your superpower! “What it takes to win should be sustainable and enjoyable. You need to believe in yourself, and you can’t do that if you keep feeling like you are having to change the way you function or change what you want to do to succeed. It should come naturally. I can say I wasn’t acting any different for my lead into Scotland than I was during the middle of winter last year in NZ – once again it’s just a matter of trusting the process, loving what you do and enjoying yourself while you put in the work!”

No one gets to the top alone, and it takes a village to support an athlete as they work their way there. Sammie wanted to pass on a special thanks to all who’ve helped and supported her in this journey so far.

We’re excited to watch her develop and see where Sammie’s career takes her as she steps into Elite for the 2024 season. One thing’s for certain: that grin of hers will be showing up in race coverage for many years to come!

This article is taken from:NZ Mountain Biker, Issue #112

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