The British pair struck NCAA indoor gold in March and are making the most of the land of opportunity
Making the decision to travel to the US and spend years honing your craft, away from family and friends, is not an easy one to make. Imagine being that apprehensive teenager who finishes school, lands in a new city and has to get to know new people in another country – not to mention perform well in their chosen sport.
On the surface, it’s a daunting prospect but it’s a path which has been trodden by a number of British athletes over the years, who go there to sample the high levels of competition and experience facilities which far exceed what’s on offer in the UK. It’s not a recipe which works for everyone, of course, but Yusuf Bizimana and Amber Anning look right at home.
The British duo were gold medallists at the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Indoor Championships in Albuquerque, New Mexico (March 10-11).
The 22-year-old Bizimana finished second to Navasky Anderson in the men’s 800m final, but was promoted to first place after the Jamaican was disqualified. That meant he became the first Briton since Josh Kerr in 2018 to win an NCAA individual indoor title, having also run a personal best of 1:46.02.
Anning, also 22, was part of the Arkansas 4x400m foursome – alongside Joanne Reid, Rosey Effiong and Britton Wilson – which obliterated the NCAA record with 3:21.75 and set the fastest indoor 4x400m time in history, bettering the world record of 3:23.37 set by Russia in 2006.
In the process, Anning recorded the fifth-quickest indoor anchor leg ever, with 51.47.
“It was the title I always dreamed about winning before I set foot in the US,” says Bizimana, who is going to study for a major in advertising at the University of Texas alongside his track career. “I set my goals really high and I know, deep down, if I give everything I have to achieve those things and surround myself with the right people, why not me?
“The reason why I left home was to become an NCAA champion. I completed the mission and it felt so good. It wasn’t the way that I wanted to win as I wanted to go crazy across the line. In that race, I’d gone to a place that I’d never been to before.”
Inspired by Kerr, who won an Olympic 1500m bronze medal in Tokyo just three years after his NCAA title victory, Bizimana is grateful for the high-level competition the US college scene provides.
“He [Kerr] was killing it in the NCAAs and coming back and making the [British] team,” Bizimana adds. “I liked that kind of route. The times set here are winning championships. I want to be a part of that. I could have stayed in London but I knew what I wanted and I had to move to the USA to compete with the best every week.”
Such high-level competition across the NCAA circuit means that athletes are recording times that would be enough to win a BUCS title in the UK but wouldn’t make a podium in a US university/college level event.
For example, Anning’s personal best of 50.68 was the quickest by a British athlete in 22 years but her Arkansas team-mates Wilson and Effiong, plus Talitha Diggs and Irish star Rhasidat Adeleke, have all gone faster over 400m on the NCAA circuit just this year.
“It didn’t even feel that fast,” Anning tells AW, reflecting on Arkansas’ record-breaking relay. “That [the strength in depth in talent] is one of the reasons why I came to America and why my mum pushed me to come here.
“It’s tough but it just raises your mentality. I think sometimes you can get too comfortable with who you are so it’s nice that I’m not always the fastest and I’ve got to go out and improve myself all the time. It just builds a different confidence in you.
“Training with people like Britt [Wilson] is inspiring because I’m running with someone who ran the second-fastest time ever indoors [49.48] and a couple of months ago it would have been the world record. To see how she trains on a regular basis pushes all of us. To have that kind of group at our age is incredible.”
Anning, who is studying operations management and is aiming to do a major in public relations and advertising, understands the significance of academia alongside athletic pursuits.
There is also an awareness that the US set-up provides an opportunity to grow a wider profile via social media. In an age where sponsorship deals and potential income are related to your digital presence, on top of performance, the duo have realised they have to capitalise.
Given NCAA track and field athletes can now use NIL deals – Name, Image and Likeness agreements which essentially means students can profit from their image – those who compete on the circuit are able to build large followings.
“So many people who aren’t even track fans have commented on my clothing,” Bizimana says, when asked about posting images of himself turning up to track meetings in suits. “That includes brands who have reached out about partnerships in fashion. So I was like cool, just me wearing suits gets exposure?
“In the UK, it’s very hard to do that. In the US, that system is already in place and you just have to perform to get that. If I was to do this in the UK they might even think I was going too far and there’s stigma attached to self-promotion.
“Imagine turning up in a suit at Lee Valley? I would do that. I don’t care because this is what people want to see and it’s what makes our sport more interesting. It’s what creates the hype.”
Anning agrees with that assessment and regrets not starting up a vlog when she first arrived on a scholarship at LSU [Louisiana State University] in 2020, before moving to Arkansas last year.
“I tell my friends back at home, you’ve got to start posting more,” she adds. “It might be cringeworthy or cheesy but to be honest you have to cater towards your fans. They’re not following you because they’re concerned about what you look like, they care about track and wonder how you train and what you eat.
“Building your image is critical and starting off doing this stuff is super important. You’ve got to take advantage of everything that is out there and social media is something I need to be aware of more as you can maximise your image doing so.”
It hasn’t all been easy for the pair who left south London to pursue their dreams. Both Bizimana and Anning state they have come off a tough couple of years which included homesickness, self-doubt and questioning their decisions. There is a desire, however, to repay those who helped them to make the leap.
The long-term goal for both is the Paris 2024 Olympics but a more immediate focus is the chance to win titles at the NCAA Outdoor Championships in Texas in early June.
“My family and quite a few people are coming out to it,” Bizimana says. “I’ve got to focus on what’s in front of me and right now it’s not about making teams or Diamond Leagues just yet.”
Anning, meanwhile, is targeting a place on the British 400m and 4x400m team at the World Championships in Budapest and wants to nail down the qualifying mark of 51.00 – her outdoor best is 51.78 – in the US.
Her ultimate aim is to break Christine Ohuruogu’s British 400m record of 49.41, which would be fitting as both were coached by the late Lloyd Cowan.
“Next year is a big one,” says Anning. “I just think track hasn’t been exciting for me over the past couple of years and now I’m around people who have those similar goals to me, it pushes you on to want greatness.”
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