As a top sportsman or sportswoman you train – physically and mentally – for every eventuality.
Amber Hill, the No 1 in the world in her sport of skeet shooting, and one of our strongest gold medal hopefuls, had been working with a sports psychologist, as well as her regular coaches, in preparation for the Tokyo Olympics.
Amber, just 23, runs through all the random scenarios they prepared for. ‘I was out training in the worst thunderstorm possible, in torrential rain where I was dripping wet and could hardly see the clays. I trained with speakers to replicate the sound of a very large crowd. Yet you can’t prepare for this.’
Amber, of course, is referring to the shattering news she received on Tuesday night that she had tested positive for Covid and was unable to compete.
Her bags had already been packed and she was preparing for early night (and an episode of her beloved Love Island) before catching the plane. Suddenly, her dream – one she had been preparing for since she was ten, and which seemed finally within touching distance – was over.
‘I was just in shock when I saw the line on the first test,’ she says, still barely able to take it in. ‘I’d been doing lateral flow tests twice a day, so it was routine.’
She’d spent the entire day packing. ‘I’d been isolating so hadn’t been out – I’d even had an Ocado delivery for the snacks and toiletries I was going to take with me. I’d been through all the kit, and I was just settling down to watch Love Island.’
Amber, just 23, is No 1 in the world in her sport of skeet shooting, and was one of our strongest gold medal hopefuls before she tested positive for Covid on Tuesday
Then she looked at her test. ‘And I saw the faintest of lines. My heart sank. I thought: “No way, this cannot be happening”, and did another test. And another. And another. I was in complete shock. In total, I did five, and I knew. My Olympic journey was over. I would not be going.
‘I just broke down, sobbing. I took half an hour before I could even get words out. My coach was the first person I called. When I spoke to Paul, my sports psychologist, he said: “I’m really struggling to be your psychologist now because you are my friend. I feel your pain. I am just gutted.” ’
WHEN it was announced she was pulling out, she posted one word on her website: Broken. This is Amber’s first interview since then, and it has to be via Zoom because she is self-isolating.
She says she’s still weeping much of the time, although she does manage a quip about how she never got to watch that episode of Love Island, ‘but will have plenty of time now’.
‘I’m trying to keep myself busy but when I stop I can just feel myself go. My mum says that I must keep talking to her, when I feel like that.’ But at the very time she needs a hug from her mum, she can’t have one.
Thankfully, she isn’t entirely alone. James, her boyfriend of six years, is with her, as are her dogs. Wolf, her six-month-old rottweiler puppy, is a great mood-enhancer.
‘He’s very naughty, and you can’t help but smile when he’s around. Thank goodness he’s here.’
If her Olympic journey had progressed in normal fashion, her family would have been in Tokyo with Amber, cheering her on, as they were when she competed in Rio, finishing sixth and establishing herself as world-class.
This was never going to be possible this year, so her parents draped their house in flags and bunting and attached a giant ‘It’s Coming Home’ banner across it. Amber was delighted to see it –albeit at a distance. ‘Because we were being so strict with the isolating, we did a drive-past and I waved from the car,’ she says.
It seems particularly cruel that her levels of caution were in vain. ‘Someone on my team – we were in a bubble – did test positive within the past two weeks, but I wasn’t unduly worried because we were taking all the precautions we could, and isolated after that. We’d been preparing for five years so there is no way we would have jeopardised anything.’
She said she was ‘in shock’ when she saw the line on her test. If her Olympic journey had progressed in normal fashion, her family would have been in Tokyo with Amber, cheering her on, as they were when she competed in Rio, finishing sixth and establishing herself as world-class
A more accurate PCR test also showed positive, and although there were no symptoms initially, she is now feeling unwell.
‘That started last night,’ she reveals. ‘I’m feeling a bit congested, headachy. Not terrible, but not quite right. I have been double-jabbed too, so maybe the effects are less than they would have been.’
She may feel broken now, but all the signs are that she won’t be for long. It’s telling that for our chat at 8am, she is wearing her Team GB kit, rather than wallowing around in her dressing gown.
‘I put it on, because I’m there in spirit. I want to support the rest of the team. I AM going to be cheering them on. I know there will be a few tears along the way, but I will be watching, albeit from my sofa.
‘The alternative is locking the doors, drawing the curtains and sobbing by myself. I am, by nature, a very positive person, and I am trying to find the positives here. For instance I am grateful that I didn’t get on that plane. I could have passed it on. If I’d already left, I would have had to isolate in a hotel in Tokyo, which would be worse. At least I’m at home.’
Amber got into clay pigeon shooting aged ten, because of her maternal grandfather Bill, who asked her if she wanted to tag along with him to the shooting range when she was moaning about having to watch her brother play rugby. Bill put his own gun in her hands (‘he and another man had to hold it steady’), she pulled the trigger – and was immediately smitten. Why?
‘I could beat the boys,’ she says. ‘They didn’t like it at first but that just drove me on. I’m the sort of person who thrives on success. If I’m not good at something, I’ll give up, but I was good at this. I just loved it.’
It’s one of the few sports where the sexes ‘can be equal’ she points out (although, inexplicably, there are still separate categories for men and women).
Her hobby was also linked to the quality time it offered with her grandfather. ‘It became this special thing I did with him. He was my biggest fan.’
He was the one who taught her about guns – how to hold them, clean them, care for them, about safety. He presented her with her own shotgun, painted purple.
Pictured aged 18, Amber poses for a portrait with her grandfather Bill Rogers as she was selected for the Team GB Shooting Team for Rio 2016 Olympic Games
‘I still have it. It looks terrible, but I loved it. I didn’t want a boring brown gun and my granddad encouraged me to have it my way. I always have. I’ve always been a girly-girl. I didn’t see why I had to change that.’ And she hasn’t.
Amber is sponsored by a cartridge manufacturer, and has launched her own cartridges with them. They are pink, of course, ‘but they are the best, and all the men use them, too’.
She’s close to tears again when the subject turns to her grandfather slipping from her life. He had been diagnosed with cancer by the time of the Rio Olympics, and it pains her that she can’t remember the last time they went shooting together.
‘It was a gradual decline. He did still come to see me at competitions, though, even in his wheelchair. Then, when he couldn’t do that, I bought him an iPad and he’d follow the results online.’
Bill died in 2019. ‘He always said I could be the best in the world, that I would win medals at the Olympics. I thought he was just bigging me up at the time!’
She is thinking of him now. ‘He’d be sharing my pain. I know he’d want me to go on. I know he’ll still be watching. He doesn’t even need an iPad these days. He can watch me from up there.’
Had she returned from Tokyo with a medal, she would have been a national heroine. Luckily, she has time on her side.
That Olympic gold her grandfather said she would win is very much on the agenda. ‘Just not this time,’ she says.