Interview | Samantha Murray
Samantha Murray has enjoyed a terrific five years as a modern pentathlete. In 2012 she won a bronze in the World Cup, a Bronze in the World Championships, and then ended the year at the London Olympics, where she picked up the silver. This incredible form was carried into 2014, where she became the World Champion.
But the Olympics in Rio was a whole different kettle-of-fish; "I went to Rio as a medal contender... [but] I really struggled last year, I had an achilles heel injury; psychologically I struggled, I felt...almost... tired of being strong. Maybe I'd worked too hard in 2015, maybe I should have saved myself a little bit, taken a few more holidays, learnt how to chill out & relax a bit... I performed well, I just didn't perform exceptionally well, and as a result I came 9th at the Olympic Games. So it was a top 10, which is good, but it isn't what I wanted. And dealing with that, processing it and moving on, it's made me hungry to go again.
I could be crazy, but I'm currently getting back into training, and I'm really enjoying each day at the moment; so I want to win a medal this season, and from there I'll make a decision on the next 4 years. Obviously it's so easy to say, 'I want to win a medal in Tokyo'... but so does everyone else, and it's not easy for your mind, it's not easy for your body, and it's not always easy for the people around you, like your friends... they kind of get used to me saying, 'look guys I can't come this time', there have been weddings and things I've had to miss, and I miss seeing family. It's such a commitment, it's life absorbing... I need to win something this year & then decide if I am ready to take that on again."
Lets go back to what drew you towards the modern pentathlon; you were sporty as a youngster? "I started pentathlon, really by chance I'd say... I rode horses at my Grandma's farm, and when I was at school I was really, really sporty... from the age of 4 or 5 I was in the gymnastics club, I did athletics, swimming, tennis, netball... was just really sporty, really competitive and was quite good at it too. I took the swimming further & joined a local swimming team and I also joined a local athletics team because I loved running at school. It was at a swimming competition where someone approached me and said 'do you know anything about the pentathlon?, considering that you can ride? You could have a go, because we have a club here in the town'. And I did the biathlon, which is where I ran and did a swim... really enjoyed it, and I saw some girl shooting and thought I'd really like to try that. So I went to my local pentathlon club and I picked up a pistol when I was about 11, then I went to a fencing club a bit after and learnt how to fence.
I'd found something where I felt I could really engage with it, express myself through that sport & be competitive. There were regional competitions all over the county where I grew up in Lancashire, and then Nationals every year were events that I worked towards... and I really, really enjoyed it.
Before I knew it, I was going on training camps, and was a member of a team with all the other children in the area. Then representing my country... I was inspired by Athens in 2004 to get to the Olympic Games. I wanted to be there and be an Olympian... I thought that would be amazing"
The modern pentathlon is an intense event, with a lot of running punctuated by shooting; can you tell us how you calm yourself, or slow your heart rate/breathing down to ensure you are steady when you take a shot? "It's really important to be fit enough to be able to run at quite a high speed, and then come into the range without slowing down too much, and pick up your pistol and keep your hand steady. So, because people don't tend to slow down as they come into the range, because it's a race, you just have to be a bit fitter. So yeah, it is a case of being in control of your own breathing, your adrenaline... so when you pick up the pistol, you can hold your breath as you move your arm, and for that momentary second, you can keep the sight still and hit the target. And it's quite tricky... it looks so easy [laughs], but when you try it, it's so hard. And it's all about rhythm as well, if you get out of rhythm and your breath isn't in sync with when you raise your arm, you'll be in a bit of trouble"
Most athletes in an Olympics can dedicate themselves, their training & their nutrition in the pursuit of a single sport; you have multiple events to plan & prep for. How do you fuel yourself to ensure you are prepared for each event? "I train Monday to Friday... it is a full time job for me, and I'll run on a Saturday morning. I'll always eat a good breakfast, something like porridge with some toast, i'll snack mid-morning on some fruit & yoghurt... I'm always drinking, keeping hydrated, drinking energy drinks a lot... I'll have a protein shake. Lunch is always really healthy... I'll get some protein, carbs & veg. Then I'll snack again in the afternoon, then in the evening just a normal meal. Before I go to bed, I'll have a recovery, night-time protein shake. So it is continuous... and I can't miss a meal, I can't have an off-day where I'm just like 'ugh, I'm just gonna eat a bowl of pasta tonight and be like a normal person', you just can't do that when you're using so much energy everyday.
So I do plan my meals, I have a slow-cooker at home, where I like to throw something in, in the morning, like a beef stew & let it just cook all day. So when I get in, it's just there ready to eat with some chunky bread.
But generally, my nutrition goals daily are about 100g of Carbohydrates, and 100g of Protein. There are some times where I can indulge and have a burger and a chocolate fondant, or something really naughty; but equally there are times where I have to really watch what I eat, and cut down on carbs and restrict what I have more. One of the things for me, is that I really enjoy wine, I like to have a drink like most people, or a G&T. It's enjoyable, but it's dead calories, so a lot of weight that I put on, will be through alcohol. So that is the first thing that goes when I'm in a strict training regime. [laughing] Although I have made a deal with my nutritionist that on a Saturday night I'm allowed a large glass of my favourite red wine!"
So, with alcohol, what is the 'best' if you are trying to avoid too many calories? "Honestly, I think a glass of red wine. I think white has less calories than red, but a glass of red with a meal is absolutely fine. I think the calories really add up with alcohol when you're having a spirit with a mixer, like coke or lemonade. That's where all the calories are".
So take us back to Rio, or London; you're on the world stage, billions of people are sat in front of their televisions watching you; do you have snacks between events to maintain a certain level of energy? "For me, because it is competition day, it is all about carbohydrates. My protein intake will be very low, as it takes longer to digest... I just need energy throughout the day. So I am constantly having things like Lucozade, a high-sugar drink, and I'll eat bananas, as they are really good. I get these sesame bars... which are like, sesame seeds in hard sugar... sometimes a flapjack for longer energy... and I do take with me these pots, which are almost like a healthy Pot Noodle for athletes, which is dehydrated food like bolognese or chicken with rice & you just add hot water to it and it expands and becomes food again. It's created for athletes, so its got a lot of carbohydrates & low protein content, its good quality, so I might eat one of those as well".
Protein shakes and bars seem to be everywhere at the moment, both for professional & casual users; what are your thoughts on these products? Do they help you as an elite athlete? "I use protein shakes from a company call Proto-col and the ones I prefer have 18g of protein in them, and a few grams of collagen, so it's really good for your tendons. You can get shakes that have a lot of carbs in, but mine are typically low in carbs because I'm female & I need to watch my intake. I always have either chocolate or strawberry flavour. Sometimes, I'll put a scoop of the powder in my porridge or mix it in with a milkshake or smoothie, just to get some extra recovery benefits.
Protein shakes can be incredibly useful and if you can get a good quality one, it can be really beneficial to your diet, and stop the hunger pangs. Because a lot of the time you get hungry, it's protein that your body is craving"
With so many products on the market, are you ever nervous to try new products, in case there is something in it which might show up on a drug test? "Being a clean athletes is incredibly important to me, and probably all of Team GB; other countries take illegal drugs, that is just how it is. I get all my products from companies that have batch-tested their product. Companies that have external bodies test their products, and give them a batch label to show that they've passed a test and are clean for athletes to take".
It is a controversial topic, but doping was something that was thrown into the spotlight in Rio with the accusations made against Russia. In terms of doping, do you think you have ever competed against anyone where you've thought, 'they have to be on some illegal drugs'? "Sadly yes, and they have been caught recently, a Ukranian athlete has had her medal from Beijing stripped and she has now received a lifetime ban, because they retested her samples in 2009 and found some illegal substances in her blood. Are there other athletes still competing who cheat? Probably. I think the sport-world is in crisis, and a lot of International bodies are not sure what to do... because, do they expose all these cheats, who could be stars of the sport, who could be profiles for the sport, and then risk ruining the image of that particular sport... it's a difficult time. I speak to some people who say, 'why not just make everything illegal?', we just want to see you be faster & stronger; and I do respect that opinion, I do understand it".
Finally, a number of young athletes look up to yourself, but is there anyone you look up to or admire? "Yeah there are a few, one is my mum; she raised me and worked really hard. She instilled in me a lot of motivation and the idea that anything can be possible if you work hard enough, and I'm really grateful for that & respect her for it, because I said I wanted to do this wacky sport at age 12, and that I wanted to be an Olympic Champion, and she was just 'yeah, you can do it, or [would say things like] 'are you working hard enough' or 'what is Joe Bloggs doing who's beating you at the moment?', she inspired me & supported me, and that's priceless. Even today, she is still my biggest fan, she is a role model.
I think, in sport, there is an athlete called Amelie Caze and when I came into the senior field, she was a dominating French athlete, she was 6 times World Champion, 10 times European Champion, won all the World Cups, went to 3 Olympic Games, but never won an Olympic medal... she always seemed to crack under that expectation I think. It was a really shame... if you look at her, she was made to do Pentathlon, she was tall, grew up riding dressage at a pony club in France, she could shoot so well, she swam beautifully, she could run... she was just made for the sport and she had the head for it as well. I would just watch her, and she would look so graceful and I'd think how amazing she was... I remember looking at her and thinking 'I wish it was that easy for me, I wish I could be like Amelie'. Before I knew it, I was on the start line with her at London 2012, and I actually beat her in fencing, because she was having a bad day, and she finished 12th or something like that. It was't until the next season, when I started going in being an Olympic medallist, when everyone is out to beat you and you're being chased, rather than being the chaser, you realise how hard it is to be at the top, then I just gained a huge amount of respect for her, even though she never competed again".