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Schultz's humble nature started early in his career. He first entered a race at age 13, and the experience hooked both Sam and his older brother, Andy. The two competed in semi-professional regional events throughout high school, with Andy usually winning.
"When we first started racing I was beating Sam purely because of the two-year age difference," says Andy. "Then, near my senior year of high school, Sam got a little more serious, trained all through the winter on a stationary rider and, not only did he start beating me, he started beating local pros from Washington, Idaho and Montana. That was kind of an eye opener. At that point it definitely wasn't cool to have my little brother beating me."
Sam pushed Andy, and Andy pushed Sam. Both say the competition was always filled with more respect than sibling rivalry. Today, Andy races professionally for the Kenda-Felt team in two national series, and also works at The Cycling House. He credits Sam for keeping him in the sport, but also acknowledges a recent difference between them.
"Back when we first turned pro, it kind of went back and forth. In any given race, we could beat each other," says Andy. "But last year and already this year, Sam has started out at a whole other level. He's the next great American rider, for sure. He's ready to be the rider who takes America forward."
The brothers' uncle, Charlie Schultz, never anticipated Andy or Sam's current level of success. He introduced the boys to mountain biking at an early age, taking them on trail rides and teaching them basic skills. When both showed an interest, he fed it, supplying training books and racing jerseys as gifts for the holidays. When the brothers visited Charlie at his home on the coast of Washington, he'd borrow nicer bikes with proper suspension and easy gears for climbing, then challenge the boys with increasingly difficult rides.
"I remember one time Sam and Andy came out and we have this trail out here called 'The Beast' that's really steep," recalls Charlie. "So we go about three-quarters the way up and Sam can't make it. He's young, I don't remember how old. He turns to me and says, 'I'm going to make it.' Then he turns around and starts to go back again, and he doesn't make it. So, he turns around and starts back up again, and he doesn't make it. He's always had this incredible energy for the sport that's not very common."
For a stretch of his early career, that same drive worked both for and against Schultz. After conquering the regional races, he focused on the U.S. National Series and, at age 17, made the World Championship team as a junior. That success landed him a spot on USA Cycling's U-23 National Team, where he spent three years based at the team's training facility in Colorado Springs, Colo., while balancing a half-time schedule at Colorado State University. Everything appeared to be dialed in, but Sam, still a teenager, started to push too hard.
"Living at the training center, focusing everything on riding my bike, nothing was going well," he says. "I was too single-minded. If you're too focused and things aren't going well, it's a snowball effect. All you think about is that it's not going well and it's not going to get better. It's not healthy."
Schultz switched coaches and refocused his efforts both on and off the bike. In 2006, he was named to the "long team" for the 2008 Olympics, meaning he was a finalist for a chance to compete in Beijing. That same year he was also crowned the U-23 National XC Champion. He signed with the Subaru-Gary Fisher team in 2007 and launched his pro career, promptly earning a series of top-five finishes, including second in the U-23 Continental Championships in Villa La Angostura, Argentina, and second in the U-23 National Championships in Mount Snow, Vt. Last year, in addition to the 16th-place finish in Germany, he placed second in the Continental Championships in Santiago, Chile, and third in the National Championships in Granby, Colo. He talks today as if the lingering pressures from his early success were nothing but lessons well learned.
"I realized that if you want to make a career out of it, if you want to be a normal person, you have to throw some balance into it," he says. "I was stupid about it. I think I'm smarter now."
The switch is apparent to those closest to him.
"There have been times when we've both struggled and talked it through with each other," says Andy. "There are going to be bad stretches. The thing with Sam is, you know he's going to push through. He has a way of taking any bad luck and finding some way to spin it into something positive or funny."
When he's asked for an example, Andy barely hesitates.
"Well, he probably doesn't want it in print," Andy says. "But last year he had this flight back from Germany..."