Cate Campbell’s coach Simon Cusack is not prone to hyperbole, so when he describes his star pupil as “pure art in motion” it is wise to take notice.
Cusack has coached Campbell since she was a nine-year-old, meaning he is best placed to assess how strongly she has come back after the disappointment of the Rio Olympics and taking much of last year off away from competition.
Campbell’s form has been the talk of the swimming pool at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games after she swam the fastest ever relay leg in Australia’s world record in the 4×100 metres freestyle on the opening night of competition.
She won her second gold medal in resounding fashion, setting a new Games record and a personal best of 23.78 seconds in winning the 50m freestyle final ahead of her sister Bronte and Canadian Taylor Ruck on Saturday night.
She will now juggle the 50m butterfly final this evening, an assignment Campbell is treating more as a bit of fun, with her main priority of the Commonwealth Games: The 100m freestyle.
It could be argued the 100m, the heats of which start this morning, will answer the question of whether Campbell’s career has turned the corner after her much-publicised break in 2017.
This followed what she described as “possibly the greatest choke in Olympic history” at the Rio Games the previous year.
She will be facing Canada’s Olympic champion Penny Oleksiak, and in Cusack’s mind, his charge is in career-best form.
He believes the Gold Coast is witnessing the results of the transformation of Campbell as a swimmer and there are several reasons why.
Campbell’s speed has never been so sharp
Campbell produced a devastating leg in anchoring Australia’s 4x100m freestyle relay to its world record on Thursday night, clocking 51.00 on the fly.
No female swimmer has ever gone as fast and Cusack saw enough in Campbell’s performance in the 50m freestyle final to suggest there is more to come.
“I love watching her at that speed,” he said.
“There is only a couple of swimmers in the world that can do that and it’s pure art in motion. It’s lovely.”
‘Scars’ of Rio toughened up Campbell
Campbell’s self-described choke at the Rio Olympics followed her arrival at the Games as a freshly-minted world record holder in the 100m freestyle and heavy favourite to win the gold.
Cate Campbell, left, and her sister Bronte Campbell at the 2016 Summer Olympics. (AP: Lee Jin-man)
The former world champion broke the Olympic record in both her heat and semi-final but after leading the field at the turn in the final — despite messing up her start — she faded in the last 50m to finish sixth.
Cusack knows the pain of Rio will never be forgotten but he believes the now-25-year-old Campbell came through the experience a more resilient swimmer.
“She’s probably more experienced in life … she carries a few scares from Rio, as we all learn from our knocks in life,” Cusack said.
Greater balance found by Campbell outside of the pool
Cusack admits Campbell “loves her familiarity in life”, which is why he and others in her support team encouraged her to remove herself from her comfort zone as often as possible in the wake of Rio.
This has meant Campbell has embraced different activities away from swimming — skydiving is one example Cusack cited — and coupled with changes to her training program her performances are benefiting from the more balanced approach to her career.
“Because she’s well-honed and trained for a long time we’ve probably periodised her training a bit more, so we give blocks to outside of swimming focuses, like university, social events, concerts,” Cusack said.
“We try to strike a bit more balance and then when I need her to knuckle down she comes to ground a little bit more.
“She’s an adult now, she’s 25 so we have to find other areas of growth in her life.”
Campbell’s desperation to face off with Olympic champ Oleksiak
In the build-up to the Commonwealth Games, Campbell said she would have been disappointed if she did not get the chance to race Oleksiak, who famously dead-heated for the gold in Rio with American Simone Manuel.
Cusack might describe Campbell as a “soft kid” and a “lovely girl at heart” but he knows she has been driven by the prospect of defeating the Olympic champion on the Gold Coast.
“At the end of the day we all want a showdown, don’t we? We don’t want a boring swimming race,” he said.
Campbell is desperate to face off with Canada’s Olympic champion Penny Oleksiak. (AAP: Dave Hunt)
“It’s great having Penny in there. All athletes are competitive by nature. They don’t like being beaten, so once they’re beaten once they love giving it back.”
Should Campbell and Oleksiak progressed to the final as expected, the Australian will have the opportunity to give “it back” on Monday night.