Picture by 2018 Getty Images

How healed Cate Campbell is swimming in calmer waters ahead of Tokyo Olympics

After an under-par performance in the 100m freestyle final at Rio 2016, the Australian reveals what went wrong that night, how she rebuilt her career and why she may compete at Paris 2024.
By Andrew Binner

The 100m freestyle final at the Rio 2016 Olympics was supposed to be the greatest moment of Cate Campbell’s career.

For starters, it’s swimming's blue riband event.

Then there's the fact that the Australian had previously anchored the 4x100m freestyle relay team flawlessly to the gold medal, and also broke the individual 100m free Olympic record in the heats and semi-finals. The stage was perfectly set up for another Olympic title.

Campbell took the lead at the first turn and everything looked like it was going to plan, until she inexplicably faded to a sixth-place finish. She had choked, or so everyone thought.

Even Campbell herself called the race ‘possibly the greatest choke in Olympic history’ at the time. But four years later, ahead of the postponed Tokyo Olympics, she has now set the record straight as to what happened that night at the Estadio Aquatico Olimpico.

Far from choking, the Malawi-born swimmer had in fact moved on the blocks before the gun had sounded, and swam the rest of the race expecting to be disqualified.

“I moved. I was about 90 per cent sure that I would be disqualified. Maybe it would have been a preferable option,” the 28-year-old told The Australian in relation to giving the public a reason for her below-par performance.

Unlike in distance swimming where there is more time to think, even the slightest hesitations are fatal to the medal ambitions of sprint swimmers.

In her state of panic, Campbell’s normally calm, smooth strokes were replaced by furious strokes that caused her to shoot off, before quickly burning out.

“Any race plan you had has been taken over by this overarching thought and 100m is not enough time to really reformulate and go again.

“I always say that it was probably the first 25m, 35m of that swim that derailed the whole event. I just dumped way too much energy and that was part of it.”

She clocked a 53.24s time, well off the pace of her then world record of 52.06s.

A different approach towards Tokyo 2020

To this day, Campbell isn’t entirely sure what happened on the blocks in Rio.

However, the weight of expectation from a nation that places high prestige on swimming, in addition to the pressure of being the world-record holder certainly played its part.

After taking a year off in 2017 Campbell roared back to form in style, taking home three golds and a silver at the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast.

At the 2019 world championships in Gwangju, she was edged into second-place by a sizzling Simone Manuel in the 100m free, but finished ahead of Sarah Sjostrom in a star-studded race.

The Sydney-based Queenslander then played a focal part in helping the Dolphins seal a host of relay golds.

When the Tokyo Olympics take place in 2021, she is intent on enjoying the occasion this time.

"I'm coming around to my fourth Olympics so it's very surreal that I'm still here. It's really exciting, I feel like I've grown a lot as a person, I've changed," the four-time world champion told 7News.

"I've also gained a new perspective on swimming. I've taken some time away from the sport, I'm making sure I'm enjoying every moment of this career because it's not going to last forever."

"Over the past couple of years I haven't been as dominant on the world stage in the 100m freestyle, it's been very evenly spread."

But despite the new mental outlook, her goal remains the same: to win medals in the 50m and 100m free.

"For me it's a chance to celebrate the possibility of doing something that only one other Australian swimmer has done before," she said in reference to Leisel Jones’ record of competing at four Olympic Games.

"I want to make sure I give this a red-hot crack.”

Sister act: Being competitive with Bronte Campbell

Another hoping to be on the plane to Tokyo is Cate’s younger sister, and fellow 50m and 100m swimmer Bronte.

The younger by two years, Bronte finished two places above her sister in that Rio 2016 100m free final.

When Cate made her comeback to swimming in 2018, she had to settle for silver behind Bronte at the Commonwealth Games. However, the siblings agree that their achievements in the water have a lot to do with growing up competing day in, day out alongside a fellow world-class athlete.

“We were pretty competitive,” Bronte Campbell told ABC of their upbringing. “But I was probably more competitive than Cate was.

“But I can be second-fastest in the world and not even the fastest in my family!” - Bronte Campbell

It goes as no surprise therefore, that Bronte makes up another important quarter of Australia’s all-conquering 4x100m freestyle relay team, who are the current Olympic champions and world record holders.

But for Bronte to compete at the Tokyo Olympics in an individual event she must not only compete against her sister, but also the likes of 4x100m relay teammate Emma McKeown, demonstrating the strength of Australian women’s swimming at the moment.

Becoming Australia’s first five-time Olympian at Paris 2024?

Ultimately, the disappointment of Rio 2016 gave Campbell Senior the motivation to continue swimming, and right some wrongs at the Tokyo Olympics.

She had anticipated that it would be her final hurrah in the pool, until the COVID-19 pandemic forced the Games to be delayed until 2021.

With only three years between Tokyo and the Paris 2024 Olympics, the door to continue to another Games has been left ajar.

Campbell will be 32 in 2024, and with the option to scale down her workload by focusing on the 50m sprint, there is every chance she will become her nation’s first five-time Olympic swimmer.

“I always said I wouldn’t discount another Olympics but I was thinking Tokyo would be my last because four years is a long time between drinks,” Campbell told AAP.

“Do you keep going and try and push for (2024)? I am not sure. I think it really depends mentally and physically if I feel I am capable of going around again.”

Whether she finishes up her Olympic career in Tokyo or Paris, the hallmark of Campbell’s career will be her astonishing consistency at the very top table of swimming over such a long period of time.

The only thing missing from her illustrious resume is an Olympic gold medal in an individual event. Now wouldn’t that achievement make for a better headline from the Olympics in 2021?