Sports Gazette caught up with Great British International Weightlifter Amber Sheppard following her success at the recent British Junior Weightlifting Championships. In a wide-ranging interview, she explains her unusual path into the sport, combs over the highs and lows of her career thus far, and discusses her ambitions and motivations for the future.
Amber is the picture of a student-athlete – decked out in a combination of University kit and sponsored apparel, it is little surprise to find out that she is due to train in just a few hours.
As introductions are made and pleasantries exchanged, it is easy to be impressed by the quiet aura of confidence which she exudes – standing all of five feet tall but with the frame of a powerhouse, it is clear that we stand in the presence of a truly dedicated champion.
And, as she divulges her sporting background and route into weightlifting, this feeling becomes all the more stark.
‘‘I actually started diving aged six – I worked my way up through that, became junior national champion multiple times, competed at British senior level and I managed to represent Great Britain in diving.
I went to Dresden (Germany), and came third with a broken toe! During training, I came off the board wrong and I broke my toe. It didn’t really put me out because I competed on it. The coach said I’d be alright and that it was just swollen, but when it got the end and I went to the hospital, they found out it was broken. I was in a lot of pain when doing it, but I still won a bronze medal on a broken toe’’.
The enthusiasm with which this story is told betrays a competitive spirit found in very few. It was this that saw her transition from the pool to the weight room with relative ease.
‘‘I eventually quit diving when I was 16, but I started getting into strength and condition when I was 15. I knew someone who did it previously, so I went down.
I needed a little bit of help with diving, needed to get a little bit stronger. So, I started doing squats, power cleans, stuff like that, and I did diving and weightlifting simultaneously for a year. Then finally, I wasn’t enjoying diving anymore, quit that, and have been doing weightlifting for nearly five years’’.
Certainly, after ten years of meets, she had lost all love for the sport but found solace in the hustle and bustle of the gym.
She explained: ‘‘I got on well with everyone, and just fitted in. I don’t like having a lot of spare time – if I’m not training for at least three days, I’ll lose the plot! I’ve done football, I’ve done cricket, I’ve done swimming. Everything I was doing as a kid, my parents were like okay, go and have fun. I kind of don’t know what it’s like to not do sport’’.
Indeed, as the conversation progresses, Amber describes how her parents’ influence lead her down the path to participation, and success.
‘‘My dad used to play football – when I was younger I used to go and watch him play. My mum, when she was younger, was quite active as well, so I’ve been brought up in it. When we were younger it was like ‘okay, go and do some sports, to keep you active’. And I found that, yeah, I’m quite good at these things, I’m going to carry on’’.
We were keen to find out more about her exploits, particularly at the London Youth Games, having heard of her motivation to take part in it.
‘‘I’ve competed for eight or nine years. I didn’t know what it was at first, and then I realised as I got older that it was like ‘oh ok, I understand it a little more’. I’ve done it now for every year that I can remember.
The one last year, that was my last year, and I ended up winning. It was quite good to end on a high. I’d ended my Youth Games career, if you like, on a gold medal, so it was quite nice.’’
However, it was as talk turned to her international feats that Amber truly lit up.
‘‘I think, if you ask any athlete – that first time you get selected to an international you’re just buzzing! You’re like ‘Yes! Get me out there’. You finally get all the GB kit, everything you’ve aimed for as an athlete – all you want to do is represent your country. It’s a completely different level. It’s a good challenge.’’
While competing at the highest level is clearly a driving factor behind her continued advancement, she also draws inspiration from sources closer to home.
‘‘When I get to see my friends back home, at uni, all over the place, it’s quite nice that they come up to me and say ‘oh my god, you’re doing amazing’. That helps motivate me – my friends and family are proud of me and I’m like ‘okay, I can still do this’.
People in Crystal Palace gym that I train with, who’ve competed at Commonwealth Games, World Championships, high level athletes. Training with them, I say ‘I want to be like you’. I want to get to that standard, so that’s quite motivational – it’s quite helpful actually.’’
Given her plethora of championship medals and accolades, we were curious to know what had been her most satisfying experience to date. Unsurprisingly though, she was unable to narrow it down to just one.
‘‘Getting my first international gold and taking part in my first international. We went to France and Poland, not exotic countries but we were still representing Team GB. Also, quite a few titles I’ve won at the junior level, coming second at senior level – I don’t think I could pick out one! They’ve all been memorable in their own way.
Even the ones I didn’t win I’ve learnt from. When you do have a bad comp, it is hard to try and take the positives in that moment, but then, if you take a step away, maybe something went right. Maybe I made weight easily or the weights didn’t feel heavy. Anything can happen, anytime, anyplace.’’
Amber’s most recent victory was made all the sweeter as she made a triumphant return from a bout of tendinitis in her hip, after an initial lack of clear diagnosis.
‘’I wouldn’t say I was in a dark place but I got to the stage where I was saying ‘this injury is boring me’. They said I could possibly have a tear, as it took three months for it to heal, not doing anything. Looking back at it now the exercises I was doing really have helped me now, but when you’re in that moment where that’s all you can do, I just didn’t want to do it.
If you ask any athlete what were their hardest bits, they’d probably say injuries- this one came at the wrong time really. It was a bit of a task, but I believed in everything my coach (who has been with her throughout her career) was giving me, his program.
While we can’t help but enquire as to when we can expect to see her competing in an Olympics, she is calmly measured and realistic in her response.
‘‘Obviously coming back from injury I’d like to keep healthy and fit. I’d like to get on more senior internationals from January next year onwards.
I don’t know if it’s too early for this Olympics, just because of those injuries and the commonwealth games coming up. I needed to do the comps that I missed when I was injured to be able to be selected for that, but at the moment I’m going to have to hope, and let my competitions do the talking.’’
We have no doubt that when Ms. Sheppard does begin competing regularly at senior level, her competitions will do more than talk. They’ll sing.