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MIKE COLMAN : Cate Campbell’s Olympic bronze as brave as any gold medal swims at Tokyo

The bulk of attention rightly went to individual dual gold medallists Ariarne Titmus, Emma McKeon, and Kaylee McKeown as Australia’s female swimmers completed an historically successful Olympic campaign, but the efforts of team captain Cate Campbell can never be under-estimated.

With just the one individual bronze in her luggage as she checked into quarantine for two weeks, Campbell’s haul from Tokyo might seem modest by comparison, but the road she travelled just to get to the Games was as steep and rocky as anyone’s – and tougher than most.

Much has been written and spoken over the past few weeks about the mental health issues that ended the Olympic dream of US gymnast Simone Biles and may have robbed Japanese tennis player and lighter of the flame Naomi Osaka of her Cathy Freeman moment on the court.

But like her fellow Australian Olympian Ashleigh Barty, Cate Campbell has also had her career derailed by the psychological pressures of competing at sports’ highest level.

And just like Barty, she confronted her mental demons her own way – quietly, privately, and effectively.

With just the one individual bronze in her luggage as she checked into quarantine for two weeks, Campbell’s haul from Tokyo might seem modest by comparison, but the road she travelled just to get to the Games was as steep and rocky as anyone’s – and tougher than most

Campbell arrived in Rio five years ago as the fastest 100m woman’s freestyle swimmer of all-time. World record holder and rated an unbackable favourite to bring home the gold, she tanked in spectacular fashion, finishing sixth in a time almost a full one and half seconds slower than her best.

She would later tell veteran swimming writer Wayne Smith that she had been unsettled by a fast start that she thought might have seen her disqualified if she won a medal, but in the aftermath of the race that was immaterial.

The fact was, she had lost in what she herself would publicly label, ‘the worst choke in history.’

The online trolls had a field day, telling her she had let down her country, her gender, the whole human race.

A sensitive, intelligent woman who has always lived by the mantra: ‘I’m a person first, a swimmer second’ her emotional breakdown after Rio proved that those words were a lot easier to say than to live up to.

Inside a year she had walked away from competitive swimming. Her coach Simon Cusack doubted she would ever be back.

Campbell arrived in Rio five years ago as the fastest 100m woman's freestyle swimmer of all-time. World record holder and rated an unbackable favourite to bring home the gold, she tanked in spectacular fashion, finishing sixth in a time almost a full one and half seconds slower than her best

Campbell arrived in Rio five years ago as the fastest 100m woman’s freestyle swimmer of all-time. World record holder and rated an unbackable favourite to bring home the gold, she tanked in spectacular fashion, finishing sixth in a time almost a full one and half seconds slower than her best

‘She would come to training but it was almost more for a visit than anything else,’ he said. ‘She came in to have a conversation and a debrief. She’d have a bit of a swim and say, ‘see you when I see you’.

‘Sometimes it might be a week before I’d see her again, sometimes longer, and then one day she just didn’t come back. I thought she would be lost to the sport, to be honest.’

Her mother Jenny, a nurse and midwife couldn’t care less whether Cate ever swam another race. She was concerned her daughter was on the verge of full-blown depression.

‘It was a dark time for Cate,’ she told me during Cate’s comeback to competition at the 2018 Commonwealth Games.

‘It’s not something I would want anyone else to go through. Sometimes it is harder on the sidelines. 

‘I know as a midwife I felt that sometimes it is harder on the husband than on the wife. The wife knows what she can do. The husband feels helpless.

‘It is never easy to watch someone you love in pain, but if they are resilient, they can come out stronger and that is how it has been with Cate.’

Her mother Jenny, a nurse and midwife couldn't care less whether Cate ever swam another race. She was concerned her daughter was on the verge of full-blown depression

Her mother Jenny, a nurse and midwife couldn’t care less whether Cate ever swam another race. She was concerned her daughter was on the verge of full-blown depression

She went so far as to compare Cate’s recovery from the trauma of Rio to going through the process of grieving.

‘It gets back to understanding what grieving is,’ she said. ‘As a young nurse I felt that I could have handled it better; I thought I could have been of more help to patients, so I really studied it.  

‘With Cate I knew she had to go through a process, so when she was an angry ant, that was OK.

‘I don’t know that I was convinced that she had made the right decision when she decided to have a break from swimming but now I know it was absolutely the right thing to do. It took her out of her only experiences of school and swimming and showed her that there is another world out there, and more diversity in life.’

Gold medallists (from Left to right) Kaylee McKeown, Chelsea Hodges, Emma McKeon and Cate Campbell pose on the podium after the final of the women's 4x100m medley relay swimming event during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre in Tokyo on August 1, 2021

Gold medallists (from Left to right) Kaylee McKeown, Chelsea Hodges, Emma McKeon and Cate Campbell pose on the podium after the final of the women’s 4x100m medley relay swimming event during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre in Tokyo on August 1, 2021

It was that discovery of a world away from the endless grind of following a black line up and down a swimming pool day after day that helped Cate rekindle her love for the sport.

During her break, in which she didn’t swim for three months and made herself unavailable for Australian selection for all of 2017, she did the things that others her age take for granted.

‘Sleeping for one, and hiking, and doing crosswords,’ she told me. ‘They might sound like normal things for other people, but they weren’t for me.

‘It was hard to get my head around at first. I’d see the clock tick over to double digits and think, ‘uh oh, I should be in bed’, and then I’d remember, ‘I don’t have to. I can stay up’.

Cate Campbell arrives ahead of the Women's Health I Support Women In Sport Awards at Carriageworks on October 5, 2016 in Sydney, Australia

Cate Campbell arrives ahead of the Women’s Health I Support Women In Sport Awards at Carriageworks on October 5, 2016 in Sydney, Australia

‘I got to support local acts, go to gigs; do the things that other people my age do. If I wanted to have a swim I could, but I didn’t have to be 100 per cent. I didn’t have to be perfect. It was the first time I’d had a real break from training since I was nine years old. Basically me and the sport needed some time apart.

‘It was a pretty strange thing, but now I know there is another side of life and when the time comes, I can make that transition.

‘I don’t have to be resentful when I hear about other people going for a hike or listening to a band because I’ve done it. It’s given me a whole new perspective, a more holistic view of life.

‘I went to the 2017 world championships in Budapest as a spectator. I was in the stands for every heat and every final. It was amazing. It made me realise, ‘this is why people watch swimming’. It reignited my passion for the sport.’

Australia's Kaylee McKeown, Chelsea Hodges, Emma McKeon and Cate Campbell celebrate after winning the gold medal in the Women's 4 x 100m Medley Relay Final during the Swimming events of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre in Tokyo, Japan, 01 August 2021

Australia’s Kaylee McKeown, Chelsea Hodges, Emma McKeon and Cate Campbell celebrate after winning the gold medal in the Women’s 4 x 100m Medley Relay Final during the Swimming events of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre in Tokyo, Japan, 01 August 2021

It was that passion that was on show in Tokyo, both as a competitor and a team-member soaking up the experience of what will almost surely be her last Olympics and could even be her last-ever event.

Her anchor leg to win the women’s 4x100m medley relay was one of the greatest swims of these, if not any, Games but it was her reaction to Emma McKeon’s gold medal in the 100m freestyle that summed up the place where Cate Campbell now resides so comfortably.

Totally oblivious to her own bronze medal-winning performance she swam into McKeon’s lane, threw her arms around her and shouted in her ear, ‘I’m so proud of you.’

To which her growing legion of supporters could add, ‘Right back at you Cate.’

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