Long jumper Samantha Dale ought to be the beacon of hope for any young athlete whose absence of trophies on their shelves at home belies their wholehearted efforts at training, depth of their desire, or grandeur of their dreams.
Dale’s career biography notes – somewhat ingloriously – that the 22-year-old New South Wales Institute of Sport (NSWIS) scholarship holder was the schoolgirl athlete who didn’t qualify for the State Little Athletics under 13s team. Furthermore, it also documents that as an under-14s and 15s athlete, she didn’t make the top eight in either long or triple jump at the state championships.
Eight years on and Dale, who seized the 2022 national title, has represented Australia at two World Championships, and competed at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games, explained how biology frustrated her progress in school sport.
“I was always good across the board,” said Dale, who also competed in netball, basketball, touch footy, Oztag, and swimming. “I wasn’t the best at everything, and while I was in the top few, it wasn’t until Year 11 that I competed at national level.
“Puberty obviously helped me. I was a very small child, so my muscle didn’t develop until a bit later. I just grew, and by the time I was in Year 10 I started to see progress. And with that, I developed a sense of confidence and the thought that maybe I could get somewhere [with athletics].
“After not being picked for teams, I had a massive confidence boost when I was selected for All Schools and Nationals. I made my first All Schools in Year 11 for triple jump, and I think I was only selected for long jump because a few people pulled out.
“But the following year I won nationals! It was a big jump [6.03m] – and it was so very weird! That was when athletics overtook netball for me. I started training for high jump, then I went to triple jump. It wasn’t until I got through those that I thought ‘long jump now.’
Dale’s decision to turn her back on netball after 13 years of competing on the court to focus to athletics could be viewed by outsiders as a tough choice all because her mother, Claire, was the NSW Netball’s competitions manager.
“I was playing in the club Metro League, which is a representative level,” she said. “I never wanted to go any further than that. Mum was fine with my decision – she’s been very supportive – because she realised athletics was what I wanted to do. She could tell I just saw something in athletics.”
The ballad of Dale’s rapid rise in junior athletics is best narrated by the tale of tape measure. In 2017 she won the state title with a leap of 5.65m, and to prove that feat was no fluke, she backed it up the following season by seizing the under 17’s state crown by leaping 5.79m.
She then won the 2018 (junior) national title with her 6.03m effort and then added a silver medal to her growing trophy collection by performing well at the Melanesian Games. In 2019 Dale’s star continued to rise when she sealed the under-20 National and Oceania titles with a jump of 6.22m.
Her success meant Dale needed to find a coach who could help her to channel her self-belief and late-blooming skills. Before taking part in a recent training session alongside squad mates such as Australia’s 100m sprint king, Rohan Browning, sprinter Ella Connolly, triple jumpers Connor Murphy, Julian Konle and Desleigh Owusu, she spoke about the immediate impact coach Andrew Murphy – a triple Olympian – had on her career.
“My Little Athletics coach got me to a point, but I’d reached the stage where I needed someone to transition me – to build strength; to help with the extras that you need to progress,” said Dale. “Andrew became my coach, and his being an elite athlete helps because he knows what’s needed.
“While I had the basic technical side of long jump, I was lacking a lot for having spent no time training in the gym. So, in 2019 I started gym and ‘Murph’ realised he had a blank canvas to work with.
“That meant I was able to go in to his training program without knowing anything different and that really helped because I just took everything he said to me on board because I really didn’t know what was right anyway! It was a smart decision for me to join Andrew’s squad, it’s worked out the best so far.
“He’s always doing research on something. I trust what he’s doing, and while he can come up with some weird training techniques – crazy technical drills – I trust him because ‘Murph’ really does his research. And, anyway, I’m happy to try something new at training because it does make it fun as well – it changes it up.”
Dale laid claim to being the big improver of Australian Athletics in the summer of 2022 when she raised her personal best from 6.32, to 6.70m – a whopping 38 centimetres. A fortnight later the long jumper from Parramatta in the heart of Sydney’s western suburbs leapt 6.72m, meaning in the space of one single bound Dale rocketed from 45th on Australia’s all-time best list to seventh. That April, she added the national title to her treasure chest after achieving a wind assisted leap of 6.64m.
In 2023, Dale stunned onlookers at the star-studded Maurie Plant Meet in Melbourne when she upset Australian record holder, Brooke Buschkuehl, and American hot shot Tara Davis-Woodhall (who’d win silver at the 2023 World Championships in Budapest) to triumph with a second-round leap of 6.71m.
To put Dale’s jumps into perspective, six metres is 22 feet in the old Imperial measurements. To visualise how far that is picture a giraffe which stands 20 feet tall; two NBA basketball hoops joined end to end is 20 feet; a stretch limousine is 20 feet; four park benches placed end to end measure 20 feet, an Orca – aka a Killer Whale – can grow to 20 feet long while a two storey building is 22 feet high.
“When the kids at school look at the sand pit it’s not the same as when someone pulls out a tape measure to show how far I can jump because that really surprises them,” said Dale, who works as the sports coordinator at Pymble Ladies College. “People say, ‘wow you can jump that far’ and I reply, ‘yeah, but I actually don’t know how.”
Among Dale’s milestone moments is her defeating Buschkuehl, the athlete who she looked up to after she decided to focus on long jump. However, rather than gloat about beating the two-time Olympian who also boats two silver Commonwealth Games medals, she speaks about a gracious opponent.
“Watching what Brooke was jumping – a massive seven metres – and now being out there and competing against her is a bit crazy, really,” she said. “I mean, she was the athlete I looked up to and always thought it’d be cool to jump against her one day.
“I actually said that to her in a competition, that I thought it was crazy I was competing against her and we joked about it. She’s a great person and one that I have a lot of respect for. I do go to Brooke for advice and she’s really good to talk to. I continue to look up to her because she has her struggles – gluten intolerant, celiac and all that stuff.
“It would be really hard [to achieve what she has with that], but what Brooke shows [is while striving for excellence] is going to be hard for everyone, it can be done.”
And Dale – who gives the impression that she might feel the need to pinch herself just to make sure the girl who joined the North Rocks Carlingford Little Athletics Club as a 10-year-old didn’t simply dream that she’s represented Australia – is honest enough to reveal her toughest lessons have come on the sport’s biggest stages.
“What I’ve taken from the world championships and Commonwealth Games is experience and head space is so important,” she said. “And that . . . sometimes . . . it just doesn’t go to plan because I would’ve loved to have done better in both world championships. But you have to accept that sometimes it doesn’t go to plan – and that’s just life, unfortunately.
“But I think that [disappointment] has built up my resilience and I’ve learnt you can bounce back because I returned to Melbourne and jumped really well there. I think it’s now learning to transition that to the European season.
“Now I know what it’s about and what it takes to get there, it’s a bit surreal to know I’ve gone to two world championships and a Commonwealth Games – already! Now I have that experience of what the crowd is like . . . how to block it all out . . . all those little things I was overwhelmed by the first time around.
“As much as I didn’t compete as well as I would’ve liked [in Budapest this year] mentally, and with my surroundings, I found it was much better because of my previous experience.”
And yet, perhaps the most powerful revelation Dale has taken from her world championships and Commonwealth Games experience is the appreciation as to where she’s at. And it’s quite exciting to hear her articulate it.
“At one point I was the second youngest on the Australian world champs’ team,” said Dale with a smile. “And while I remember thinking ‘this is weird, you know, being one of the youngest and jumping up to opens’ whenever I think about that I realise I have years ahead of me.”
Story: Daniel Lane, NSWIS
Photo: Lauren Klemt, NSWIS