home Basketball, Longform, Paralympics Amber Merritt on Tokyo 2021, Leadership and Mental Health

Amber Merritt on Tokyo 2021, Leadership and Mental Health

Kasey Symons chats with Paralympian and Australian Glider Amber Merritt from hotel quarantine as COVID-19 continues to disrupt athlete’s preparations for the Tokyo Games.

Photo: Basketball Australia/Gary Ramage

As we keep working to adjust to sport with no fans, for some athletes, it might not make too much a difference. 

“Honestly, my parents in London, they were amazing, but my mum missed half of the quarterfinal and semifinal into the gold medal game because she was so nervous. She actually stood off and she was in the bar chugging beers because she was just so nervous for us. I ran out with the team [after] and we saw our families and we hugged them. And the first thing my mum said was, ‘I missed it!’ Good one, Jenny.”

Paralympian and star wheelchair basketballer Amber Merritt laughs at her treasured Paralympic memories from the London Games where she won Silver with her Australian Gliders, sharing in the joy with mum Jenny—albeit after the game. Amber laughs.

She’s amazing. She’s the best support.”

But of course, she’s wishing the state of the world will be different for fans to attend the upcoming Tokyo Games, reminiscing on the atmosphere she experienced in London. 

“I’m just gonna have to ask our coach to put a speaker on the sidelines! Because that does add to it. I remember looking up in London and like seeing family members and friends, like this massive mob of people just all together wearing green and gold and tutus and face paint, and they’re just screaming at their top of their lungs. So to not have that there would be very different and quite surreal.” 

It’s another bizarre reality athletes and fans now face as we navigate sport in a pandemic. And it’s odd to see such extreme measures become the norm in the world of sport. As governments and leagues work to keep us safe from COVID-19, entertained by the competitions we love, and allow athletes to prepare for global tournaments as much as possible, bizarre, strange, weird, and surreal are buzzwords we’re used to.

When I speak to Australian Glider Amber Merritt, she explains her surreal moment at training camp at the AIS in Canberra to prepare for the Tokyo Paralympics that she didn’t see coming.

“Midway through a training session, it was like 10 minutes into the session and our coach just walks in and starts calling some of our girls names. And at no point did it clock in my brain that they were all Perth girls. I was just like, ‘we’re doing five-on-five’ and ‘that’s a really good team,’ and he’s like, ‘you will all need to go isolate’ and I was like, ‘ok, not doing five on five… greeeaaat!’. It was a bit of a trip.”

Amber is in hotel quarantine in Canberra while we chat after literally being taken off the court at a moment’s notice after Western Australia went into lockdown two weeks ago. Anyone from WA who had been in state during the time of exposure had to go into immediate isolation. Thankfully for Merritt and her fellow Western Australian athletes at camp, they were granted an exemption and were able to fly home to Perth that night. At time of publishing, Amber is still in isolation at home in Perth, completing the mandatory fourteen days. But for some relief, she’s still able to train for Tokyo.

“We are exempt to leave the house, be in a car, drive to a training venue, where at that training venue, we would have our own car park, go into the building by security escort. Once we’ve trained, we would exit the building and then a cleaning team would come in and clean the whole stadium down and then we would have to go straight home. We were granted that exception, which was awesome.”

The exemption to train sounds like a small mercy, but it means everything as many athletes traveling to train and play their sports are coming to realise. The psychological impacts of isolation take their toll. 

“Once you like, go past those things, [the challenges of training in quarantine], you start looking at just motivation. I know, this week, I’ve been a little bit productive, which is trying to do some life admin stuff. But there have been mornings I’ve woken up breakfast has been delivered to my door. And I’ve just not wanted to move because I’m like, ‘well, I don’t have anything really to do. So do I need to do it? No.’ I’ve just had to accept like, I’m in that space. I don’t try to fight it. I’m just like, ‘okay, this is how we’re feeling today’. Don’t try and do anything too out of the box or push yourself, just relax for a bit and then I seem to come out.”

Before COVID-19 threw another spanner in the works of Paralympic preparation, Merritt was excited to see what the Gliders were giving on the court in camp.

Photo: Basketball Australia/Gary Ramage

“It was really good, like really, really good. We’re really lucky that we kind of came into camp and straightaway, we were just like, really intense. The first two days, were probably some of the best basketball sessions we’ve had as a team for a very, very long time. 

“And there were a lot of fresh faces there as well. So it was very clear that this was like a fresh start, even though it is a Paralympic year. We’ve had so much change in the last 12 months from COVID, to having a new coach and some new staff members come in too, and unfortunately, we lost some team members last year due to a rejig of classifications. We lost two athletes and two very key athletes in our team.”

The reclassifications to wheelchair basketball took immediate and devastating effect last year after the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) declared the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation (IWBF) would have to align its classification code to The IPC Code where there had previously been a gap. The IWBF had long worked to be more inclusive in regards to athlete ability, but were no longer allowed to continue to classify their athletes outside of IPC scorings of impairment or they would be subject to removal from the Paralympic Games.

It’s something that has caused great distress to the game’s athletes, and is something Amber knows all too well, herself being classed out of swimming—her first love—at age thirteen.

“I was going through it as well with the girls because I’m on the same classification and I have had, I mean, the reason I got into wheelchair basketball was because I got classed out of a sport. I’ve had experience in classification and understanding like that there is the risk of getting classed out of a sport and being in that gray area for a while. I was always very open with them about my own journey. And about like, hoping for the best but kind of preparing for the worst at the same time. 

“But no matter how much prep you do, how many conversations you have with people, no matter how many people reach out to you or what you do in yourself, nothing really can prepare you for it. It’s just like having the floor ripped out from underneath you. And just it’s suffocating. It’s horrific.” 

Merritt doesn’t want this to be the end of the conversation. It’s a difficult one, but the hard questions need to continue to be asked to work through what ability means in competitive sport so it can be more inclusive and a safer space for athletes trying to find their place in it.

“I’d like to see there be something happen. But I just don’t know what that could be. There is that question of what do we deem a disability? We have got athletes or have had athletes, I think there’s still a few who have passed through who have had knee reconstructions. Now, if you see that person every single day on the street, are they a disabled person to you? Or are they a person, like an able-bodied person who’s just got some limitations? So there’s these questions that arise from it. It is quite controversial. I’m in a similar situation, like I was born with my disability, but when I walk around the streets, am I a person with a disability to many people, no, but because of my limitations, I’m still classifiable in this realm of sports. It’s a really challenging space. And I think there’s a lot of conversations that will come from what’s happened and is continuing to happen. Especially because sport is meant to be inclusive. The beautiful thing about sport is the inclusivity of it. And to now tell people, ‘No, you can’t be a part of this’, is really sad.” 

After being classed out of swimming, Merritt took to basketball like a natural and has been on the Australian squad for eleven years. Her resilience and skill has developed her into a passionate leader, though the senior leadership role is something she still finds hard to believe that she holds.

“It took me a while for me to look in the mirror and go, ‘you’re a leader of this team, athletes look up to you. They value what you have to say and the experiences that you’ve had’. And to be honest, sometimes I still pinch myself because it is quite surreal that I’m at that place now in the sport. It’s only, I mean, I say ‘it’s only 11 years ago that I was in that position’. And then I sit back and I’m like, actually, that’s a really bloody long time!”

And it’s easy to see where that mentality comes from. Merritt turns 28 this year. Her first international with the Gliders she was just 16-years old.

“I remember being that new person coming into the team and looking up to athletes like Liesl Tesch and Kylie Gauci and I was always looking up to them like wanting to learn so much. And then after the London Games happened, a few athletes retired and people were like, ‘Amber, you’re now seen as a senior member of this team.’ And I’m like, ‘No I’m not, I’m not even twenty yet. Like, please don’t say that about me!’ 

“And then eventually, after working with some sports psychs and having those conversations, I was able to come to terms with, ‘okay, you are a leader in this team and what does a leader need to demonstrate for this team’ and I started to create my own kind of leadership within myself to then put out to the team. And I faced battles. When we didn’t qualify for Rio, I wanted to retire and then, ever since that point, I’ve always been like in the back of my mind questioning my sanity with this. But I always want to push on because I love it so much. And I’m so passionate about it. 

“But there’s always been those moments and I’ve not been shy about them, I’ve had teammates come and talk to me and hold me accountable for them. But I’ve really come to acknowledge that the way I want to lead people and lead a team is through just doing, I don’t need to tell people what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. I just need to do it for myself, hold myself accountable to the best of my ability. And then if people want to learn that way and follow that way, they will, and they will ask questions and go from there.”

For a reluctant leader, Merritt demonstrates the quality brilliantly. Her extensive experience in the game and overcoming her personal battles holds her in great stead to lead a young team to Tokyo. But not all battles come to an end and Merritt’s ability to be vulnerable and open up conversations about the bad, as much as the good, is something especially powerful.

“I’ve had some really good highs. But I’ve had some really bad lows. I’m not ashamed to admit I’ve had some really poor mental health in my life. And I’ve not been ashamed to now admit that, I mean, two years ago, I was in hospital for an incident because my mental health just wasn’t right. And then I stepped away from it. I had to reassess my life completely. And fortunately, now, I’m not ashamed, I’m very open about it, because I know that every athlete, at some point will struggle, in some way, shape, or form. And to have those conversations, and I do some work now with Lifeline through the AIS in sharing those journeys, hopefully let athletes know it’s okay.”

It’s this support she wants to bring to Tokyo and lead her developing teammates on and off the court. She’s learned from the joys of London and the pain of missing out on Rio, to enjoy the ride a bit more and that’s the lesson she wants to share the most.

“I look back and I’m like, I put so much pressure on myself to the point where I couldn’t enjoy certain moments. Like when Tokyo happens, I don’t want to walk away from it and go, ‘I should have taken this in and accepted this and been more present in the moment’. I want to sit there and be like, ‘okay, yeah, like, not many athletes get to this point’. I want to enjoy every moment of that. You do work so hard for it, you sacrifice so much. And you do so much to get to that point, why not just enjoy it a little bit.”

Questions remain over Tokyo despite the IOC and IPC committing to the Games. For athletes and fans right now, it’s a matter of working towards them, as much as possible in the difficult circumstances restrictions, lockdowns and border closures create, and looking forward to them, in hope. 

For athletes like Amber, it isn’t an option to entertain the doubt. It’s her job and she’s preparing like a gold medal is on the line.

“I’m just really looking forward to the challenges that we’re gonna have to overcome this year. I’m looking forward to looking things dead in the face and being like, ‘I’m going to overcome you’. Whether it’s challenges in my body or challenges in my mind, or team challenges that we face together.”

And when the Gliders are able to take the court in Tokyo, Amber’s message to the fans who might miss out, and to mum Jenny who might not be able to make the trip this time, is to be part of the journey with them. 

“One thing I really want to urge is, when the Games go ahead, even if we can’t have spectators, I really want Australia—everyone in Australia—to still feel a part of it, and they can still feel a part of it. I know like through some of the sponsors of the Australian Paralympic team, you can send messages to the athletes, you can call out to people on social media through Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, whatever it may be, and let people know that you’re there and be part of it as much as possible, even if you’re not physically there.”

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If this article has triggered anything for you and you need to talk to someone, Lifeline Australia is available 24 hours a day on 13 11 14.

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