On the surface, Sam Grewe seems easy to describe.
You could start by cataloging his many accomplishments: Paralympic gold and silver medalist, three-time high jump world champion, world record holder. You could detail his experience overcoming cancer and relearning to walk after having his leg amputated as a middle schooler. And you’d be remiss not to mention that he’s now a medical student at one of the nation’s top medical schools in the University of Michigan.
But that doesn’t paint anything close to the full picture. And it’s not what Sam would really care that you knew about him, either. I wanted to get at what he’s really like. If you met Sam at a bar and talked with him for an hour, what would your impressions be?
As it turns out, Sam Grewe is remarkably unremarkable.
Sam loves his mornings, and he kicks off each one the same way. After his 6:30 alarm, he greets his two dogs, whom he adores.
“Captain Jack is definitely Mady’s,” Sam said. “Snoopy is definitely mine.”
Mady Martinez is Sam’s girlfriend. The pair met while attending Notre Dame four years ago. Now, they’re living out their dreams together, both studying to become physicians.
“Mady has been huge, huge, huge in supporting me throughout the entire way,” Sam said. “Whether it’s making dinner when I have late practices, or having a protein shake waiting for me, or just letting me vent to her when I have bad practices… she’s just been the backbone of keeping me afloat.”
With canines greeted, Sam cooks up a hearty breakfast for him and Mady. The first hour and a half of every morning is blocked off in his schedule – it’s time to relax and prepare for the long day ahead.
At 8:30 A.M., the focus turns to medical school. Sam’s in his first year, and that means lectures – lots of them. Most days, he’s at his desk until about 5:00 P.M., watching pre-recorded video after pre-recorded video, trying his best to keep up with the ever-expanding volume of material that a doctor in training has to learn.
At times, it’s difficult. The routine becomes monotonous. The end goal, however, keeps Sam steady.
At age 13, Sam developed Osteosarcoma — a type of bone cancer — in his lower leg, upending his once normal 6th grade life. After two years in the hospital, surgeons performed a daring procedure called a rotationplasty, hoping to preserve as much functionality as possible.
The operation was a success. His ankle now functioning as his knee, Sam relearned to walk and got back to school. But after two years away from the classroom, his reintegration was anything but seamless — entering his freshman year of high school, Sam had nothing more than a 6th grade education.
He did, however, have a vision for his future.
“I got to experience a lot of the intangibles that go into medicine, a lot of what goes on behind the scenes, what a good doctor is and what a good doctor doesn’t look like,” Sam said. “When I left the hospital for the last time, I felt like I had all these lessons built up, and it felt almost irresponsible to not go forth and try to give back to those experiencing something similar to what I also faced.”
Eight years after missing more than half of middle school, he was accepted to every medical school he applied to: Stanford, Yale and Harvard among them.
He chose Michigan.
“I love medicine,” Sam said. “I love the people side of medicine, mostly. I also have a lot of other hobbies. I like to grab drinks with my friends and a lot of other things that aren’t necessarily compatible with other schools. These people (at Michigan) are the people that I wanted to be with.”
5:00 P.M. signals time for Sam to get up from the computer and catch his breath. Walking Captain Jack and Snoopy and cooking dinner — Sam loves to cook — usually does the trick.
7:30 P.M. — practice. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, Sam heads to the Varsity Track and Field Center for jumps. He works closely with several coaches, both from the U.S. Paralympic team and with the Adaptive Sports program here at Michigan.
But the most significant guiding voice in Sam’s ear is the one that’s been there all along. Kyle Mishler is the jumps coach at Goshen College in Indiana, near Sam’s hometown of Middlebury. The pair met in 2015 while Sam was using the college’s track to train.
“He’s the coach that’s gotten me into the position that I’m in today,” Sam said.
Sam records each of his jumps and sends them directly to Mishler, who then provides detailed feedback.
Make no mistake, Sam is among the all-time greats of Paralympic high jumping, and he’s gotten there largely due to his unflappable work ethic. But training isn’t always painless.
“Now that I’m only able to train at the end of the day and I’m usually exhausted, and some days it’s without a coach there, it can be really difficult to get myself to go and do it for myself,” Sam said. “Previously, I didn’t have a choice, and that made it pretty easy.”
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Sam swaps the track for the weight room. As part of Michigan’s Adaptive Sports program, Sam lifts at the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living, a facility that provides a variety of services to community members with disabilities.
Regardless of where Sam is training, one item always accompanies him — his notebook. High jump is a hugely technical sport, and jotting down his thoughts and feelings during workouts helps him keep track of all the small bits of information that an elite high jumper has to consider.
After winning gold in the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics, Sam has officially reached the pinnacle of his craft. This success hasn’t gone unnoticed. This fall, Sam was recognized for his performance in Tokyo at halftime of the Michigan football team’s hope opener against Washington. His story has been featured on many news outlets, including NBC. Sam was recently asked to be a featured speaker at the TEDxUofM conference on campus.
However, Sam spends little time thinking about how his successes reflect upon himself, instead preferring to see his achievements as instrumental pieces to a larger goal.
“I like (the attention) in certain contexts,” Sam said. “But sometimes I very much do just want to be a student in the classroom, and some days I’m just kind of pissed off and grumpy and don’t even want the attention.”
Sam is willing to sacrifice his desire to fly under the radar, however, if it means he can serve a greater purpose.
“But for the most part, I think it’s great because any attention helps promote the Paralympic movement, helps raise awareness, and helps people get excited about it. It’s good to have people talking about a Paralympic athlete, because that wasn’t always the case.”
The day’s workout concludes at 9:30 P.M., and Sam heads back home for some recovery and a show with Mady.
Bedtime arrives shortly after at 11:00 P.M. After about an hour of tossing and turning — Sam has a hard time shutting his brain off these days — he drifts off to sleep and prepares to do it all again in six and a half hours.
Sam is proud of his accolades and of his balancing act between being a gold medalist Paralympic athlete and medical student. But it’s not always a labor of love. And it’s not sustainable forever.
“I really want to at least make it through to (the 2024 Paralympic Games in) Paris,” Sam said. “And that’ll be a very good point for me to retire. I’ll be an M.D. just a few months after that, and it just won’t be feasible to continue.”
Until then, the balancing act will continue, to the amazement of many. Sam is aware of the legacy he’s leaving and of the examples he’s setting. From the outside, his story is the epitome of accountability, drive and grit. What Sam has accomplished at such a young age is truly remarkable.
But when you sit down with him, Sam seems much more excited to talk about other less remarkable topics – his love for grilling, his attempts to learn guitar, his undying allegiance to Notre Dame and how much he values spending time with those he loves.
So if you met Sam at a bar and talked with him for an hour, there’s a good chance you’d never figure out that you were in the company of a high jump world record-holding Paralympic gold medalist. Instead, you’d probably come to know Sam as just a normal guy.
And in the context of all that he’s done, that’s remarkably unremarkable.