In 2012 Roedean, an independent day and boarding school in Brighton for girls, wanted to attract more local pupils. Not only this though, the school started encouraging girls who were talented in subjects such as art, drama, dance and sport to apply for a place.
The new approach was a huge success. The 2012 year group was the largest the school had ever had, and amongst these new students was Amber Anning. Accepted into Roedean with the help of a sports scholarship and bursary, she thrived. Now, she’s a record-breaking sprinter with her sights set on the Olympics.
Life at Roedean
Anning joined Roedean at the age of 11 as a day student. I asked her what studying there was like. “My experience was really positive,” she says.
“The facilities were excellent, and are even better now, and the school was rapidly expanding. Like any school, some of the teachers were great and some weren’t but most wanted us to do as well as possible.”
Anning continued taking part in many sports – something she had always done from a young age – such as swimming, netball, hockey, rounders and athletics; she represented the school in all of them.
As an all-girls school, I wondered whether the Roedean environment helped Anning. “The best thing about an all-girls environment was that we weren’t distracted and could focus without having to think about which boy might or might not like us!” she admits.
“We could do anything we wanted to do and were not constrained by gender stereotypes, subsequently Roedean is really strong for STEM subjects.”
We could do anything we wanted to do and were not constrained by gender stereotypes
Having attracted talented sportspeople to the school, I expected Roedean had to back this up with the appropriate support to allow these students to succeed.
Anning confirms: “I was able to leave school slightly early twice a week to travel to training, as my trip was 90 minutes both ways. This was really helpful. I also received a lot of positive support from my peer group and from the headteacher Oliver Blond,” she said.
Indeed, following Anning’s performance at the European Athletics Indoor Championships, Blond said Anning “serves as an inspiration to all the girls at her old school”.
Having achieved an impressive 10 A*s/As at GCSE and three As in her A-levels taken at local college BHASVIC, Anning is also a keen academic. Her mum, Melanie Anning, says: “As parents, her dad and I are very proud of her work ethic.
“She managed to balance travelling 300 miles a week for coaching with her studies and made many sacrifices for a teenager, sometimes having to turn down parties and other social opportunities because of competitions (or need for sleep!).”
It was this strong work ethic that led Anning to make the decision to study in America at Louisiana State University (LSU). She explains: “LSU is a powerhouse of track and field but also strong academically and that was important to me. The head coach, Dennis Shaver, is a legend in collegiate athletics and he and assistant coach Tamara Ards, visited my family in the UK as well as showing me some real Southern hospitality in Louisiana on my recruiting trip.
“I love studying and training in the USA. My mum and her brother were sporty. She went to Loughborough University and my uncle had a scholarship to the USA, so they knew what the American system offered training- and facility-wise, compared to the UK. Luckily I received a full scholarship.”
Anning has many athletics achievements under her belt already. She is particularly proud of her first international medal representing England in 2017, when she won bronze at the Commonwealth Youth Games in the Bahamas, just after leaving Roedean.
And in July 2019, she achieved an individual silver over 400m at the European Under 20 Championships in Sweden (running the fastest time by a British junior for 37 years) and a gold medal anchoring the GB 4x400m relay squad.
In February 2019, she won silver at the British Athletics Indoor Championships and broke a 49-year-old junior 400m indoor record, earning her a spot in the GB team at the European Athletics Indoor Championships.
At the European competition, held in Glasgow in March 2019, Anning took part in the 4x400m relay with teammates Lavial Nielsen, Zoey Clark and Eilidh Doyle, winning silver.
She says: “They were all really kind and supportive and to come away with a silver relay medal was the icing on the cake.”
Her performance in her individual event at the competition drew praise from American four-time Olympic gold medallist Michael Johnson: “A young athlete not afraid to go out and run from the front indoors is exactly what you want. It shows a tremendous amount of confidence and potential.”
Anning says she ‘blown away’ by the comments: “Michael Johnson is a superstar of athletics. I was blown away by what he said and really humbled, but his words also gave me so much confidence because if a multi-Olympic gold medallist and world champion says I have potential, I’ve got to move forward and realise it!”
Did you know?
In the UK Amber Anning is coached by Lloyd Cowan – a former track and field athlete who specialised in the 110 and 400m hurdles. Cowan also coached Christine Ohuruogu, a Beijing 2008 Olympic champion and London 2012 silver medallist.
Next stop, Tokyo
In June, Anning will return from LSU to take part in Olympic trials.
She explains: “If I have a qualifying time, come in the top two and have a world ranking I may get an individual spot, but realistically at 19 I have more of a chance of making the relay squad, but I’m aiming for both.”
So it looks like Tokyo 2020 might end up a warm-up for the following games.
“By 2024 in Paris I plan to be a contender. I do feel nervous but also really excited. My goal is to be an Olympic medallist and making the team this year would be part of that journey,” Anning says.
Interestingly, Anning could compete for three different countries as she is British by birth, has Australian citizenship (her family lived there for three years) and has family from Jamaica.
While Anning looks up to her sports heroes Shaunae Miller-Uibo, Allyson Felix and Christine Ohuruogu, I imagine she’s not far off becoming one herself for today’s school girls.
And with more independent schools realising the urgent need to widen access for a fairer education system, it seems likely we will start to see even more young people getting the support they need to live out their dreams.
This feature was published in Independent School Sport magazine before the announcement that the Olympic Games will be postponed due to coronavirus.