As a top athlete or sportswoman you train – physically and mentally – for every eventuality.
Amber Hill, the world No. 1 in her sport of skeet shooting, and one of our strongest gold medal hopes, had worked with a sports psychologist and her regular coaches in preparation for the Tokyo Olympics.
Amber, just 23, goes through all the random scenarios they’ve prepared for. “I was training in the worst thunderstorm possible, in torrential rain where I was dripping wet and could barely see the clay. I trained with speakers to mimic the sound of a very large crowd. Yet you cannot prepare for this.’
Amber is, of course, referring to the crushing news she received on Tuesday evening that she had tested positive for Covid and was unable to participate.
Her bags were already packed and she was preparing for the early night (and an episode of her beloved Love Island) before catching the plane. Suddenly her dream—a dream she’d been preparing for since she was ten and which finally seemed within reach—was over.
“I was just in shock when I saw the line on the first test,” she says, still barely able to take it. “I had lateral flow tests twice a day, so it was routine.”
She’d been packing all day. “I was in isolation so hadn’t been out – I’d even had an Ocado delivery for the snacks and toiletries I’d be taking with me. I had gone through all the gear and I was just settling in to watch Love Island.”
Amber, just 23, is number 1 in the world in her sport of skeet shooting, and was one of our strongest gold medalists before testing positive for Covid on Tuesday
Then she looked at her test. ‘And I saw the slightest lines. My heart sank. I thought, “No way, this can’t happen,” and took another test. And another. And another. I was in complete shock. In total I did five, and I knew it. My Olympic journey was over. I wouldn’t go.
“I just collapsed, sobbing. It took me half an hour before I could even get out. My coach was the first I called. When I spoke to Paul, my sports psychologist, he said, “I’m really having a hard time being your psychologist now, because you’re my friend. I understand your pain. I’m just broken.” ‘
WHEN it was announced that she was withdrawing, she put one word on her website: Broken. This is Amber’s first interview since then, and it has to be via Zoom, as she is self-isolating.
She says she’s still crying a lot of the time, though she jokes about how she never got to see that episode of Love Island, “but will have plenty of time now.”
“I try to keep myself busy, but when I stop, I just feel myself going. My mother says I should keep talking to her if I feel like it.’ But the moment she needs a hug from her mother, she can’t get it.
Fortunately, she’s not all alone. James, her six-year-old friend, is with her, as are her dogs. Wolf, her six-month-old rottweiler puppy, is a great mood enhancer.
“He’s very mischievous and you can’t help but smile when he’s around. Thank God he’s here.’
If her Olympic journey had gone normally, her family would have been in Tokyo with Amber to cheer 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 home in flags and streamers and put a giant “It’s Coming Home” banner over it. Amber was delighted to see it – albeit from a distance. “Because we were so strict with isolation, we did a drive-past and I waved from the car,” she says.
It seems particularly cruel that her caution was in vain. “Someone on my team – we were in a bubble – did test positive for the past two weeks, but I wasn’t too concerned because we took all the precautions we could and were isolated after that. We had been preparing for five years, so we hadn’t jeopardized anything.’
She said she was “in shock” when she saw the line on her test. If her Olympic trip had been normal her family would have been in Tokyo with Amber to cheer 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 at first, she now feels unwell.
“That started last night,” she reveals. “I feel a little overloaded, headache. Not terrible, but not quite right. I was also double stabbed, so maybe the effects are less than they would have been.’
She may feel broken now, but all signs are that she won’t be for much longer. Tellingly, for our 8am interview, she’s wearing her Team GB kit, rather than wallowing in her robe.
“I’m putting it on because I’m there in spirit. I want to support the rest of the team. I’m going to encourage them. I know there will be a few tears along the way, but I will watch, albeit from my couch.
‘The alternative is to lock the doors, draw the curtains and sob alone. I am a very positive person by nature and I try to find the positives here. For example, I’m grateful I didn’t get on that plane. I could have passed it on. If I had already left, I would have had to isolate myself in a hotel in Tokyo, which would be even worse. At least I’m home.’
Amber started skeet shooting when she was ten, because of her grandfather Bill, who asked her to go to the shooting range with him when she lamented watching her brother play rugby. Bill put his own gun in her hands (“he and another man had to keep quiet”), she pulled the trigger—and was instantly struck. Why?
“I could beat the guys,” she says. “They didn’t like it at first, but that just pushed me on. I am the kind of person who thrives on success. If I’m not good at something I 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 stresses (although, for some inexplicable reason, there are still separate categories for men and women).
Her hobby was also linked to the quality time she provided with her grandfather. “It became something special that I did with him. He was my biggest fan.’
He was the one who taught her about weapons – how to hold them, how to clean them, how to care for them, about safety. He gave her her own gun, 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 the Rio 2016 Olympics
‘I still have it. It looks awful, but I loved it. I didn’t want a boring brown gun and my grandpa encouraged me to do it my way. I always have. I’ve always been a girly girl. I didn’t understand 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’re pink, of course, “but they’re the best, and all men use them too.”
She is almost in tears again when the subject is about her grandfather slipping out of her life. By the time of the Olympics in Rio, he had been diagnosed with cancer and it hurts her that she can’t remember the last time they photographed together.
“It was a gradual decline. However, he still came to see me at competitions, even in his wheelchair. When he couldn’t, I bought him an iPad and he followed the results online.”
Bill passed away in 2019. “He always said I could be the best in the world, I would win medals in the Olympics. I thought he was just chasing me at the time!’
She’s thinking about him now. “He would share my pain. I know he would want me to continue. I know he’s still watching. He doesn’t even need an iPad these days. He can keep an eye on me from there.”
Had she returned from Tokyo with a medal, she would have been a national heroine. Fortunately, she has time on her side.
That Olympic gold that her grandfather said she would win is high on the agenda. “Just not this time,” she says.