Cate Campbell exclusive: How I am channelling my inner Wonder Woman
Cate Campbell knows it all too well.
There are days in the life of an Olympic swimmer when motivation is missing.
The hours spent following a black line at the bottom of the pool, in a sport where medals are decided by hundredths of a second, can often lead to mental and physical burnout. And that’s before you take into account the extra stress of a coronavirus pandemic.
But Australia's two-time Olympic champion has a trick. On the training days where her she needs a boost, she puts on her Wonder Woman costume, and channels her inner superheroine.
“I only bring it out on days when I really feel like I need to step up,” she told Olympic Channel with a smile. “It's in the special rotation cupboard.”
“It's about using everything at your disposal to keep you motivated because it's been such a different and strange and weird 12 months. I really have had to look for different ways to keep myself motivated. And sometimes it is as simple as putting on a pair of Wonder Woman swimmers.
“I think it's about channelling an energy that sometimes we can't feel for ourselves.”
Olympic Channel caught up with Campbell for an in-depth chat over video call, where she revealed the secret to her consistency, how she rediscovered her love for swimming after the Rio 2016 Olympics, and what her goals are for the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics in 2021. And you can see an Instagram picture of that Wonder Woman costume below.
The queen of consistency
Campbell is a master of self-motivation.
Ever since winning two bronze medals as a 16-year-old on Olympic debut at Beijing 2008, she has remained one of the world’s fastest swimmers.
The Malawi-born athlete was part of the Australian team that won 4x100m freestyle relay Olympic gold at London 2012.
She became the 100m freestyle world champion in 2013, set the world record in 2016, and secured more Olympic relay gold alongside her sister, Bronte, in Rio.
Yet despite all of her success, she still remains as focused and hungry as ever to keep winning the sport’s top honours as she heads towards her fourth Olympic appearance in Tokyo this summer.
“Progress is my drug of choice, in that I picked a sport where there is a really objective measure of success and there's a really objective measure of a way to measure your progression,” she continued. “I find that there's something about it that, just about every time I get out of the pool, I think I think I could have been a little bit better.
“It's almost like never being satisfied that has kept me in the sport.”
The benefits of a break
There is one blank in her CV, however.
Campbell took a year out of the sport in 2017 after suffering her biggest disappointment as an athlete.
After securing an Olympic record in the preliminary rounds of the 100m freestyle at Rio 2016, she lined up in the final as the heavy favourite to win gold.
But the smallest of mistakes on the start block resulted in a sixth-place finish in what the swimmer herself harshly called ‘possibly the greatest choke in Olympic history’.
It speaks volumes about Campbell’s mental fortitude that she was able to re-group so quickly, and go on to play a pivotal role in securing the 4x100m relay gold alongside Bronte in world record time. But after that, she needed a break.
“I just felt like physically, mentally, I just needed some time off,” she said. “I had actually made the conscious decision that I was going to take a step away from the sport in 2017 to lengthen my career.”
Cate Campbell's return
The break worked wonders, and Campbell returned in 2018 refreshed.
The Queenslander won three gold medals and a silver at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in familiar surroundings on the Gold Coast, which included another 4x100m freestyle relay world record. She even won the 50m butterfly, despite no prior top-level experience in the stroke. This was indeed, a new Campbell.
Her good form continued into the 2019 world championships in Gwangju, Korea, where she won silver in the 100m free, and two more relay titles.
The year-long break, combined with the disruption of COVID-19, has reinforced Campbell’s belief that she could compete at Paris 2024, and become the first Australian swimmer to compete at five Olympic Games.
“Suddenly 2024 is only three years away, and three years is a real possibility,” she said. “I’ve learnt that you can take a step away from the sport for six months to a year, work really hard for two years and still be in Olympic shape.
“A three-year run is much better than a four-year run, believe me!”
“I have nothing to prove at Tokyo Olympics”
Athletes often use disappointments and anger to fuel their ambitions. But this could not be further from the case for Campbell ahead of the postponed Tokyo Games.
Her mentality has evolved since Rio, and she now accepts that not all of her races will go to plan, that she loves the sport win or lose, and that she performs her best when not dwelling on the past.
“I don't feel like I need to atone for Rio anymore, which is a pretty big step,” Campbell said. “Because for a long time I thought, “Well, I haven't achieved what I've wanted to do. I have, in my world, failed.”
“I had fear. I had doubt. I had a desperation to prove that I was better than that. But I don't think that negative emotion is a good starting place for anything.
“After my break in 2017, I realised that something could still bring me joy, even if the outcome isn't always exactly what you want.
“For me, going to Tokyo is about me standing up and saying I still have more to give to this sport. It still brings me joy. And I still feel like I want to pit myself against the rest of the world.”
Campbell was firing in 2020. As with most Olympians, she was aiming to peak in the Olympic year, and was subsequently frustrated when the postponement was announced.
But she put the situation into perspective and focussed on an opportunity.
“I feel like Tokyo 2020, more than any other Olympics is a chance to be part of history,” she revealed. “To be a part of it is even more of a privilege than the other Games that I've been to. And it's something that and that I think has been a real motivator for me.”
A golden era in women’s freestyle swimming
Campbell fired a warning shot to her rivals - both domestically and abroad - at the 2021 Australian national championships.
She was pipped to first place in a stacked 100m free by Emma McKeon. But the roles were reversed in the 50m free, where Campbell’s blistering 24.28s sealed top spot with this year’s world-leading time.
Such tough competition at this stage, combined with the fearsome Australian Olympic trials in June is is perfect preparation ahead of the Olympics.
“We push each other to be better and we've seen that year in and year out, one of the blue-riband events is the women's 100 metre freestyle,” she said. ”We've also dragged other people up with us. It was only five years ago that there were maybe one or two people in the world who could break 53 seconds. Now, to make a final, you almost have to be swimming 52 seconds, which is just unheard of!
“I feel incredibly privileged to be a part of that.”
That anticipated Olympic showdown almost came crashing down in February this year, when Sjostrom suffered a devastating broken elbow after slipping and falling on ice.
But the Swede was back in the pool just three weeks after her operation. Her miraculous comeback shocked everyone, except her old friend and rival Campbell.
“It would surprise me if it was anyone other than Sarah, but she honestly is a superhuman.”
Australian relay hat-trick?
Speaking of superhumans, Campbell was part of the Australian female quartets that won 4x100m freestyle gold at the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Olympics.
So can she make it three in a row in Japan?
“If I have anything to do with it, then yes!” she exclaimed.
One of Wonder Woman’s key powers is truth-telling, and so if Campbell says it, you better believe it.