Keegan "grateful for every opportunity" ahead of Worlds debut

14 Jul 2023

After 10 years away from a Great Britain swimming team, Amber Keegan tells the story of how she dealt with hardship on her way back to the international scene.

Of all the British aquatics athletes out in Fukuoka for the World Aquatics Championships this summer, marathon swimmer Amber Keegan has had one of the more tumultuous journeys to the top, by her own admission.

The City of Sheffield athlete secured her place on the team at for the Women’s 10km (Saturday 15th July) and 5km (Tuesday 18th July) events at the Seaside Momochi Beach Park for the races, on 15th and 18th July respectively, off the back of a story which has seen injury, mental health struggles, and some unforgettable moments in both the pool and open water.

Speaking to British Swimming before making the journey out to Japan, the 26-year-old opened up about her journey from the start to the present day, and how she's overcame adversity to be where she is today.

“I started trained at Nova Centurion in Nottingham, so that was where I grew up and where I swam.”, said Keegan. “I joined there when I was 9 or 10 years old from my feeder club, which was Calverton and Bingham, which was a tiny little volunteer run club by amazing people. I progressed through the squads and up through Nova’s system and in 2013, when Jamie Main was my coach, I made European Juniors.

“I think I surprised a lot of people by making it. I'd always been a decent kid, but I was never like some kids in my regions who were absolutely incredible. So I was over the moon to make the team and then I definitely surprised everybody, including myself, when I came home with the silver medal in the 400m Individual Medley. It was like a really exciting season where everything happened at once for me and I've gone from being nowhere in swimming to having done a really cool thing and surprising myself.”

Off the back of that silver medal at European Juniors, Keegan then qualified for the World Junior Championships. Despite a successful junior career, she alluded to difficulties with making the transition to the senior programmes – something which a number of athletes have struggled with in the past.

Amber Keegan 2019 [Getty Images]
Keegan took 400m Individual Medley silver at 2013 European Juniors

“I had a couple of years where the transition from junior to senior, especially as a female, was so difficult. Not only are you dealing with the fact that your body is literally changing overnight and that you can't swim strokes like you used to, but on top of that you've got exams, school and other pressures.

“I then moved to University of Sheffield about eight years ago, where I’m still studying a PhD in Chemical Engineering, which has prolonged my swimming career, but even the first couple of years at Sheffield for me were quite difficult.

“December 2016 was where I had my first really good swim since that European Juniors performance, and then literally a month later I tore my hamstring. All of a sudden it was like ‘OK, well we'll get what we can from this season’ and I managed to be near my PB at the end of the season and that was a massive win.

“I also got a shoulder injury the year after and I wasn't really sure that I'd ever be able to swim again, because even things like opening doors and carrying a rucksack was too painful. The idea of getting back into a swimming pool was quite alien at the time to me. So I got better from that and then I got hit by a car the year before COVID, which really injured my shoulder again and caused tendon damage in my ankle, so I just ended up in this nightmare cycle of continually trying to balance healing two opposite injuries at once.”

Following these incidents, Keegan’s confidence and passion for the sport began to make a resurgence, and it was the 2022 British Summer Championships where that couldn’t have been more personified; taking three gold medals, she was one of the most successful senior athletes of the competition – a feat she still looks back on with great fondness.

“I came home having won three events and it was a really huge personal moment for me. At the time I was 25 and you don't see many swimmers coming through when they're that age - it really was my kind of year where everything just finally started to fall into place.” 

Amber Keegan British Summer Champs 2022 1500m Free win
Summer Champs was a key turning point, says Keegan

Following her success at the Summer Championships, she then began to look to the open water for a way back onto the British Swimming programme. With the discipline often being something that people get into off the back of their time in the pool, she shed some light on how this came to be, and highlighted the potential avenues for athletes who may be looking to pursue similar avenues.

“For me, we used to go surfing quite a bit on our holidays as a family, so I knew I really enjoyed being in the sea and I've just always loved being outside but never really bothered with open water before.

“I had entered the Great North Swim before and then had to withdraw so it was more a case of my body being in a good place to try it. I didn’t make the Commonwealth Games team last year, so I went away, allowed myself to be upset, and then I was like ‘OK, what do you do now? You can either quit swimming or you can find something else to make the rest of the season worth it.’

"So I went out and did the Mare Nostrum competitions, because I'd always wanted to do them, and then I said ‘let's try open water. I've always wanted to do it and now's as good as time as any’.

“So I went out to Rio Major and I just absolutely loved it. The first 10 minutes were a bit overwhelming and I was a bit scared - it wasn't instant love, but over the course of that week I grew to love it and I really surprised myself with how well I was doing.

"I then competed at European trials last year and then in Spain and did quite well, so I thought ‘maybe it’s time to start taking this seriously’.

"So then this year, my training has changed quite a lot as I’ve gradually increased my volume from 60k-80k a week. I definitely do more metres than I used to do, but I also do a bit less intensity to balance that because obviously you can't burn the candle at both ends - that's just what works for me. Other people might do things differently, and I do two open water sessions a week, because it can get quite boring when you're doing like a tonne of volume in the pool.”

In being a part of the British marathon swimming programme, Keegan has integrated herself with a team that’s full of experience on the world, European, and Olympic stages. Speaking on how it’s been settling into a team that’s close and small by nature, she paid tribute to the members of the team who have helped her settle in.

Open Water World Cup Sardinia 2023
Keegan and the team out in Sardinia

“It's been a really welcoming environment and I actually really enjoy that. It's a small team and I feel like we all get to know each other a little bit better than maybe I have done on big teams in the past. The other people on the British team and also on other international teams have been incredibly helpful to me because I have a very steep learning curve and I want to do well – I’m not just here to go and be part of it.

“Leah (Crisp) and I in particular have managed to get an extra like race out in Belgrade this year to try and gain that experience and to just learn the skills and tactics in the race. On top of that, Hector (Pardoe), Toby (Robinson) and also people from other countries that I've been chatting to have been really great at helping me to understand the different elements of the race that I might not have had to think of before. It's been awesome to be part of the team and it's been a really nice environment because of the fact that we've had quite like a range of people like me coming into it - I've always really enjoyed teams where you have like a real range of experiences.”

Following the selection meet in Sardinia, Keegan then took ill and was recovering in the following days. She explained how those days panned out, and how the news of her receiving the phone call to tell her she made the team for Fukuoka happened – paying tribute to City of Sheffield for their support during that time.

“I found out on the Monday night. The race was on the previous Saturday and I'd been in the doctors having blood tests because we were trying to work out what was wrong with me. I came out of the doctors to a missed call. When I managed to find out that I made the team, I literally sat in my car, cried with happiness, and then I sent my mum, dad and sister a video - I tried to call them, but they were all in work. I then I drove to Ponds Forge - I wasn't meant to be swimming because I wasn't very well and people like ‘why are you here?’ and I told them ‘I’ve got some news’, which was really exciting.

“I've already explained that I've had a very tumultuous journey and a lot of clubs either wouldn't have been able to or just simply wouldn't have supported me as much as they did. It was never about ‘let's get you back and let's get you on teams’, it was just always ‘what can we do to support you?’, and I’m so grateful for that - it just feels like the loveliest added bonus that I can give back to my club and to the people at my club.”

Due to the nature of an athlete being at a swimming club for so long, Keegan was keen to point out the coaches and staff who have helped her throughout her career – with Russ Barber, Andy Sheppard, Karen Clifton and Mike Taylor all those who have been attributed by her to her own success. European champion from the 2018 competition Ellie Faulkner was also someone who Keegan singled out as an inspiration, as the squad in the Steel City continues to grow during her time with them.

The British medallist gave a powerful answer when asked what still motivates her to continue with the sport – showing a profound sense of self-awareness when reflecting on her ten years since making an international team.

“I guess it’s a bit of a cliché in sport, but for me it really was unfinished business. I think a lot of people from the outside would be very justified in thinking I was absolutely bonkers to carry on doing what I was doing and trying to get back to the sport, and for good reason. I was out of the game for a long time, and if you didn't know the back story and you would just see me swimming slow, you would probably wonder what I was doing.

Pardoe Crisp Keegan Settubal 2023
Keegan, Crisp and Pardoe out in Settubal, Portugal

“With all the context, I knew that what I was doing was still impressive. Some people might have gone similar times, but I was doing it off 25km training weeks and that was the most I've hit that entire season, so I think it's really easy to judge any athlete based on the time you see on the board, but you really don't know this story behind it. For me, it was about going out and enjoying swimming again. I feel like making Worlds is really the icing on the cake and I don't think this would have happened otherwise.”

Rounding off her thoughts as she went back off to continue the preparations for what will be her first World Championships, Keegan gave an insight into her mindset ahead of the two races, whilst at the same time offering help to any athletes who may wish to seek it.

“The pressure’s off for me and I think that's a good thing.  I race well when I'm not putting myself under pressure and I know that for some people being super serious about an event might be how they swim fast, but that's not right for me. I’m there to do a job, but I do my job best when I’m having fun.

“I’m just grateful for every opportunity that that comes my way. Like, yes, I've worked hard for it, but that doesn't mean you guaranteed anything in sport.

“After I came through my rubbish years where frankly, my mental health had been pretty terrible, both causing and because of my absence from the sport, I have set up a not-for-profit organisation in 2021 along with some other athletes called Athlete Interactions which focuses on decreasing the stigma and increasing support for female athletes with their mental health. We're always looking for new volunteers who want to do anything in that area, but more importantly we also have an athlete support network. 

“The actuality is that any female athlete can reach out to us. We're independent, we're confidential, and we're free. We're there for you. We're all athletes or retired athletes and understand the pressures of normal life and the pressure of sport and how they can compound.”

To read more about Athlete Interactions, click here.

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