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Transformer: Cate Campbell

Cate Campbell Women in Sport
Swimmer Cate Campbell.

06 Jun 2014

For most of Australia’s swim team, the 2012 Olympic Games ended with their dreams still bobbing in the chlorinated waters. But Cate Campbell missed even that  opportunity.
There was no bungled race plan. No run through the competitors’ chute to the refuge of the warm-down pool. No tears.  

Her dream ended with a thud on the bathroom floor. 

‘I woke up [two days before the 100-metre freestyle heats] with the most excruciating pain radiating through my stomach and back,’ recalls Cate, who only days earlier won gold in the 100-metre freestyle relay — Australia’s lone victory in the pool.

‘I staggered into the bathroom and ended up passing out on the floor. I woke [my sister] Bronte up who was in the next room, because there’s a lot  of me to hit the floor. I made quite a bang!’

Cate was diagnosed with pancreatitis, ending her campaign for individual gold. It was just another in a string of missed opportunities. 

After qualifying as a 16-year-old for the Beijing Games in 2008 — when Cate was touted as the heir apparent to sprint queen Libby Trickett — there was barely a competition without mitigating circumstances. Injuries and illness led many to write her off as a flamed-out swimming prodigy. 

But in a display of strength and resilience, London appears to have been the turning point. ‘I knew the world hadn’t seen what I could offer yet. It got me motivated, and maybe I wouldn’t be as fast as I am today if I had been able to perform in London.’

A new era

In April this year, Australian swimming great Shane Gould caused a stir by saying the country’s best swimming days are behind it. ‘The glory days are over,’ she bluntly told ABC’s 7.30  while admitting that ‘maverick stars’ would still emerge, though at a drastically reduced rate.  

If that’s the case, then Australians should enjoy the era of Cate Campbell. Following London, she’s been on a tear. The Brisbane-based swimmer easily won the world 100-metre freestyle title last year and posted the fastest time ever in a textile suit in the freestyle relay. ‘HOLY SMOKES. Cate Campbell is amazing,’ tweeted US rival and 12-time Olympic medallist Natalie Coughlin in response. 

Cate followed that performance with another stunning time at the recent national titles, where she says she only ‘skimmed the interest’ of her training deposit — a scary prospect indeed.

This 18-month stretch has led one commentator to describe Cate as the ‘Black Caviar of the pool’, and the transformation has certainly been tranquillising to watch. Her stroke has been fine-tuned to a pure note; effortlessly fluid, particularly when at full speed.   

But Cate doesn’t see herself as a maverick — or a star, for that matter. ‘I’m much too grounded for that label,’ she says lightly. ‘My focus is just to enjoy swimming and inspire some young people along the way; to show them they can achieve whatever they put their minds to.’

Cate’s responses are measured but not remote. They clearly come from the heart. Surprisingly, however, there is no yearning to get people on side or to please. ‘I learnt a long time ago not to try to prove things to other people because they all expect different things of you,’ she says candidly. 

But Cate’s natural warmth makes you feel compelled to like her anyway. Hers is the type of steady, grounded personality — she is, after all, the eldest of five children — that the sport can rely on in its rebuilding phase after a tough couple of years. Cate knows memories are long and reputations must be cherished as much as victories. 

‘I’ve distanced myself from [media scrutiny] and it’s allowed me to remain the same person today as I was six years ago. Swimming doesn’t define me. I’m a person outside of the pool. 

‘But that said, my life is much better for having swimming in it,’ she adds.

Finding her appetite

Cate was never supposed to be a swimmer — at least not a good one. The pool was Bronte’s haunt. ‘She was always the dedicated child,’ says Cate, recalling how it was the younger Campbell sister who was willing to log the miles demanded of a champion. 

Bronte was hungry, and Cate simply wasn’t. 

Instead, the water offered a way for Cate to meet people after the Campbell family moved from Malawi — a small, landlocked nation in Africa — to Brisbane in 2001. But as Bronte’s trophies amassed, and her ego swelled, Cate found her appetite.    

‘Bronte wasn’t the most humble little sister,’ she reveals. ‘Eventually that motivated me to put in the hard work. I think that if she’d been more humble I may not have pursued swimming. 

‘So I guess the lesson to take away from this is: be humble. If you’re not, you’re just going to inspire other people to beat you!’

It’s a lesson Cate is now applying as Bronte begins to nip at her heals. When the younger Campbell finished second at the nationals — recording the fourth-fastest time ever in a textile suit — Cate was overcome with emotion. ‘It was an incredible performance. She’s always been in my shadow but with a performance like that she has really come into her own as a world-class swimmer.’ 

But what if the positions are reversed in the coming years? ‘Our bond is strong enough that we can be happy for the other person. Though I’m going to hold off for as long as possible!’

Never stop trying

No interview goes by these days without Cate being asked about one number: 52.07. It’s Britta Steffen’s world record — set by the German during the super-suit era in 2009 — and most assume it’s on borrowed time. 

But Cate says she tends to steer away from goals. ‘I find that once I’ve achieved a goal I become a little bit listless. So usually I aim for something that can never actually be achieved. That means I never stop trying.’

At the moment, her aim is to swim more like a man. ‘It’s always been a sore spot of mine that I get beaten by boys. So I am doing a lot more work in the gym — and, you know, I know I’ll never be able to beat the boys in my squad but at least I’ll die trying!’

If she even comes close, she’ll have put more distance between her and her rivals. But Cate says she is simply looking forward to the year ahead. With the Glasgow Commonwealth Games and Pan Pacs in the coming months, she’ll have the opportunity to display the consistency she has always craved.  

‘I really want to be one of those consistent performers who can stand up and perform well for my country time and time again,’ she says — and you wouldn’t bet against her achieving it. 

‘I’m in a really good head space as well as pool space right now,’ she concludes with a smile. 

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