What he learnt at home; he took to the Olympics.

23 September 2021


By Alex Bygrave, Communications Advisor

2021 is a year for the history books. Another nationwide COVID-19 lockdown, the biggest vaccine rollout New Zealand has ever seen, and amongst all of that, New Zealand’s most successful Olympic games on record. Fellow of the College, Dr Sam Mayhew was selected to be a part of that New Zealand history. 

Sam is a GP and sports team doctor with over a decade of experience, and special interests in skin cancer and medical dermatology. His passion is sports team medicine, and he has worked with some of New Zealand best top sports teams including the New Zealand Kiwis, New Zealand Warriors, the Tall Blacks, New Zealand Breakers and NZ Surf Lifesaving Black Fins. He is currently medical director for Triathlon NZ and Golf NZ.

Sam was one of three sports doctors and two infectious disease doctors chosen to go to Tokyo with New Zealand’s team of athletes. For the medical team, preparation for life in the village started months before the games. They volunteered their time to review New Zealand’s protocols and regulations, which were designed to ensure the athletes were safe in the space. It was hard mahi, but well worth it. Being able to be a part of the Olympic team is a dream come true for any sports-loving Kiwi. 

Sam watched his dad build incredible relationships with his patients over the span of his career, and from Simon, learned the art of developing good relationships while maintaining professional boundaries. 

“We had famous sports people flowing in and out of our living room, they became a part of the family. You have to get over yourself and not be star struck. You have to learn how to relate and build genuine relationships with those people.”
Hosting an Olympic Games during a global pandemic created unusual challenges for both the medical team and the athletes. COVID-19 was active in Japan, but protocols in place did their job extremely well. Most of the illnesses that Sam would usually be treating in the clinic, just didn’t exist. 

“At times it was really tough, after all the hype leading up to the Olympics, to be sitting alone in a clinic for hours at a time. We just didn’t see the simple infections that usually spread quickly through sports teams. The COVID protocols are definitely something that New Zealand will take into the next Olympics. Although it’s going to be important to find the balance between the athlete’s comfort, and all the hygiene protocols.”

The effects of COVID were mental and emotional, as much as they were physical. Athletes were competing without their usual support crowd and not having their families there to share their achievements was tough.

Having restricted time with the athletes meant that Sam had to use any opportunity he could, to foster those all-important relationships with the athletes on his team. 

“Working with athletes it’s important to build trust and rapport. If decisions have to be made about whether to race or not, it’s important that they feel they can trust the advice they are given and feel supported in their decision making.”

The moment Hayden Wilde crossed the finish line to win New Zealand’s first medal (bronze in the men’s triathlon), is one of many highlights for Sam. 

“As he approached the finish line, he smiled, pointed at me and we celebrated his win together. Being able to share that moment was emotional for us both, it was really special to be a part of his success. We spent time leading up to the race going on training runs together and had built a cool athlete-doctor relationship in the lead up to the race. The week leading up to the race hadn’t exactly been smooth sailing and it’s moments like this that make everything worth it.” 
“I found myself drawn into general practice because of the experiences I had with dad being a GP. Seeing patients in the middle of the night, building those close bonds with your patients and their families, from newborns to those 100 years old. I was so lucky to have the exposure to that aspect of medicine. 
This type of relationship building is a skill that Sam credits to his GP background, and to the influence of his dad, Simon. Simon Mayhew is a GP and passionate sports team doctor, awarded Distinguished Fellowship in 2020 for his significant commitment to sports medicine, as GP to the All Blacks Under 20s, the Kiwis, the Warriors, the Breakers, the Tall Blacks, canoe racing, and Yachting NZ at the London Olympics in 2012.  

Sam watched his dad build incredible relationships with his patients over the span of his career, and from Simon, learned the art of developing good relationships while maintaining professional boundaries. 

“We had famous sports people flowing in and out of our living room, they became a part of the family. You have to get over yourself and not be star struck. You have to learn how to relate and build genuine relationships with those people.”

It was seeing this dynamic in action that drew him into general practice. After medical school, Sam did a year of paediatrics, and while he loved working with kids, he wasn’t satisfied with the hospital lifestyle. He liked the idea of being able to have more time with his patients. 

“I found myself drawn into general practice because of the experiences I had with dad being a GP. Seeing patients in the middle of the night, building those close bonds with your patients and their families, from newborns to those 100 years old. I was so lucky to have the exposure to that aspect of medicine. We got the chance to work together for a few years in general practice before he retired, which was really special. I had patients sharing their stories with me about him from 25 years ago. I hate the phrase, ‘just a GP’… Dad has shown me there are so many facets to general practice. I’m proud to be a specialist GP, it can cover everything and anything that you want it to be.”