In the same pool where Australian Melissa Wu first watched divers plunge into the water below during Sydney 2000, the veteran Olympian toils day in and day out thanks to a flame that still burns from within.
“I stay motivated and hungry to keep coming here and training every day [because] of this innate quality I have,” she told Olympics.com in an exclusive interview. “I love working hard on the little things.”
“[The Olympics] is the ultimate goal, the pinnacle of sport, and I'm lucky enough to have already been to three Olympics,” said Wu, who won silver in the 10m synchronised platform diving event at age 16 at Beijing 2008.
“The Olympics is what's keeping me in the sport.”
Wu: More confident than ever
Now 29, Wu carries with her the moments of her career and life that have shaped her to be the person – the diver – she is now, including near-miss podium outings in the individual 10m platform in 2012 (4th) and 2016 (5th), a slew of injuries, her sister’s suicide, bullying, and the challenge of being a leader and representative for the Asian Australian community.
They’re not burdens for Wu. Instead, they are the experiences that have led her to where she is now. And she’s more confident in herself than she ever has been before.
“Focusing on me as a person first and then as an athlete, it really helped me to actually improve my overall competition performance,” Wu said of her focus on her own mental health. “And also, I guess, the quality of training I [am] able to do every day as well.”
A sucker for structure, the past 15 months have been challenging for Wu, much like they have for other top-tier athletes: She was out of the pool for some three months because of the Covid-19 restrictions, thrown off from a routine that had helped her maintain a status of one of the world’s best divers for over a decade.
She didn’t let it derail her.
“It doesn't matter if you have a long period of time outside of the pool, it matters more about how you're adapting what you're doing and training those mental strategies in order to be able to get back into it and build up to where you were more quickly,” Wu explained. “I think for us in diving, we train every day and we don't break very often. And it's a real fear... I think this year taught me that we can't change the fact that we're out of the pool. It's more about just overcoming that and then reaching a peak as soon as possible.”
Diving an escape after sister's death
On paper, one could argue that Wu’s career peaked at Beijing 2008, when she and partner Briony Cole won silver in the 10m synchronised platform event. Wu became the youngest Australian diver ever to win an Olympic medal.
Her rise had come fast: After taking up the sport at age 10 in 2003, she was a national champion by 2006 and won a synchro medal at the Commonwealth Games later that year. She made her World Aquatics Championships debut in 2007.
But her legacy is cemented in her longevity: She returned to the Games in 2012 and 2016, finishing in the top five both times in the individual 10m platform event. The latter Olympics, in Rio, came after her sister Kirsten had taken her own life.
“That time was really tough... my whole view of life changed and my body shape changed; everything was really different for me,” Wu reflected, having also had a bad back injury in 2013. “And when I came back to it, it took me a really, really long time to get back to where I was. And something just didn't feel right physically, emotionally, and everything.”
“[Diving] was more like an escape from [what happened] more than anything else, a place where I could just feel my thoughts with being focused on something other than that.” - Melissa Wu
Kirsten died in 2014, and Wu took time with her family after the suicide. She went to the Rio Games with a photo of Kirsten, which she placed next to her bed in athlete housing.
“I think it made me a stronger person,” reflected Wu. “It gave me that drive to go and do something for me. I think in a way diving saved me and helped me. And it was more of that feeling that I was so glad to have people around me that could support me and be lucky enough to do the thing that I love. And I think it helps me look at diving differently and appreciate it more than I did before.”
'Just a little bit of kindness'
Wu had faced adversity before: As a young athlete, she was bullied on the diving team, often cast as an outsider for her age, size, and race.
“It really was a tough time, especially feeling like I was alone and that I didn't really have anyone who I could relate to and talk to about it,” she said. “So for me, spreading a message of bullying not being OK and trying to stand up to it is important. You can make someone's day... not only prevent them from feeling badly or you [can] actually help them. And maybe that's all they need in a day: Just that little bit of kindness.”
Wu spoke to Olympics.com on a training day in March of 2021 at the Sydney Olympic Park Aquatic Centre – where she first saw diving on TV and dreamed Olympic dreams – and has now become both her safe place and where she challenges herself the most.
“This is basically my home away from home. Yeah, this where we train, every day, six days a week,” she said.
Coached by Chava Sobrino, Wu moves through a training session with a stoic yet determined look on her face, her hair slicked back, wet from the Chlorine. She climbs up for dive after dive (after dive) like someone who knows they have proven their ability time and again, but would like to do so again – for herself.
“The most important thing for me as an athlete and a diver is having goals that I work towards, [but] also being really conscious of what I'm going to try every day, what gets me out of bed in the morning and why I come and do this the year after year after year.”
Melissa Wu's letter to her younger self
Looking at a photo from 2006, when at just 13 Wu made her Commonwealth Games debut (winning silver), the sage and soon-to-be four-time Olympian doesn’t hesitate in advising her younger self.
It’s a perspective that has made her career – and Wu – what it is. Who she is.
“That was the beginning of a long, long journey. That time was probably the only time my life where I was a bit naïve and didn't know I wasn't prepared for everything that [was about to] happen,” she said, smiling.
“I wish that that girl knew that things would be OK. There'll be a lot of hard times, but [I want her] to just never stop knowing that you have what it takes within you. It's all inside. Everything comes from within.” - Melissa Wu