How Cate Campbell shed her own ‘poster girl for failure’ tag and banished Rio Olympic demons
Cate Campbell has come back stronger after the bitter disappointment of her Rio Olympics performances. (AAP: Dave Hunt)
It might be as simple as a run of green traffic lights on her way to training in the early hours of the morning in Brisbane. Or witnessing a small act of generosity on the streets of Sydney.
These days Cate Campbell is always looking out for the good in life.
Easier said than done after the sporting trauma the two-time Olympic gold medallist suffered on the biggest of stages two years ago.
The 2016 Olympics were supposed to be a crowning glory for Cate Campbell but by her own description she “choked”. (Reuters: Dominic Ebenbichler)
The 26-year-old hit rock bottom after the 2016 Rio Olympics, where she finished sixth in the final of the women’s 100 metres freestyle final.
A final she was one of the favourites to win.
Cate Campbell was named Sportswoman of the Year and won Comeback of the Year at the Women’s Health Women in Sport awards this week. (Supplied: Paul McMillan)
The world record holder in the event buckled under the weight of a nation’s expectation. A simple text message of support from a friend informing Campbell they had booked out a boardroom at their office to watch her race had triggered unprecedented levels of anxiety.
“I remembered thinking this was bigger than just me,” she said later. “I was responsible for other people, I have to do this for other people as well.”
A slight mental distraction, in an event where the moments that matter are split into hundredths of a second, set off an unwanted chain of events that left Campbell without a medal, guilt-laden, “ashamed”, even questioning her future in the sport.
Two years on, things have changed. She is looking ahead to Tokyo 2020 with confidence not fear. The mental demons from Brazil are finally banished.
“There are a whole heap of physiological effects from simply switching your mindset,” said Campbell, whose recent return to form was rewarded with the honour of Sports Woman of the Year at Wednesday night’s Women’s Health Women In Sport Awards in Sydney.
“I have done a lot of work. I have worked with the sports psychologists and physiologists who work with the SAS.
Cate Campbell finished outside the medals in both the 100m and 50m freestyle events at the last Olympics. (Reuters: Stefan Wermuth)
“You think we have to perform under pressure … these guys have to perform under fire. They have to remain cool, calm and collected in the face of death.
“Either their own death or possibly killing someone else. That has been really eye-opening.
“I have found [focussing on] breathing has been really important but also simple things like finding things in life to be grateful for.
“This morning, I witnessed a random act of kindness. There was a businesswomen and she walked past a homeless lady and she gave her a cup of coffee.
“It doesn’t just make you feel better, it helps with your brain chemistry and it does wonderful things.”
Signing-off on the past
The two-time Olympic gold medal winner was subjected to waves of online criticism in the aftermath of Rio. It led her to taking some time away from the sport.
“I have discovered that for longevity in your career, you need to take breaks,” said Campbell.
An emotional open letter she wrote earlier this year played an important part of the healing process, an act of catharsis as well as defiance against those who sought to question her commitment.
In it she highlighted some of her own overwhelming disappointment, independent of outside critiques, as well as addressing some of the more poisonous accusations.
Cate Campbell claimed three gold medals at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, including the 50m butterfly. (AAP: Darren England)
“For future reference, when you see someone choking, it’s not because they don’t care,” she wrote.
“It’s because they care too much.”
It was there, too, that she branded herself “a poster girl for failure”.
Given what she’s been through, Campbell says winning Wednesday night’s Comeback of the Year, in addition to the event’s top gong, was uniquely satisfying.
“I think that often athletes are our harshest critics, so to have other people recognise you for achievements that you may not quite see yourself, can be really helpful,” she said.
Success on the Gold Coast, and at the Pan Pacific Championships, proved to Cate Campbell her focus had returned. (AAP: Dave Hunt)
“Definitely, I feel like I have made a comeback, I went out into wilderness of real life for a little bit but I decided to come back to elite sport and give it a real go.
“Over the past year I have really leaned on a lot of people for support.”
A new mindset
Speaking via mobile phone from Sydney airport, the noisy public address in the background doesn’t interrupt Campbell’s clarity in assessing her stand-out year, which included a return to the top of the podium at the Commonwealth Games.
“It has showed me that whatever I am doing, it is working,” said Campbell, whose bright and enthusiastic tone cuts through the noise.
She won three gold medals on the Gold Coast in April and claimed five at the Pan Pacific Championships in Tokyo in August, including an all-important individual 100 freestyle win.
Campbell also swam the fastest relay leg of all time in the women’s 4 x 100 at the Pan Pacs, clocking 50.93 seconds to anchor the Australian team to a memorable victory.
“I still don’t quite believe that that actually happened,” she says.
“It was one of those swims that I hit the wall and I knew I had done a good job.”
Campbell will move to Sydney in January, to work alongside long-time Coach Simon Cusack as preparations for Tokyo 2020 get serious.
Cate and Bronte Campbell after the final of the women’s 100-metre freestyle in Rio. (AP: Lee Jin-man)
“It is going to really be head down, staring down at the black line again,” said Campbell, who will be joined by sister Bronte in the move.
Campbell says the possibility of the perfect race keeps her motivated.
“I have been swimming for over 12 years now, I can probably count on one hand the number of races that have ended up like that,” she says.
While it’s impossible to predict what will happen in Tokyo, a stronger and more balanced Campbell will be on the starting blocks this time.
Expectation will follow her to Japan as it did to Brazil. But it is no longer likely to weigh her down in the water.