It’s impossible to put a label on Cody Simpson.
But he has no desire to be defined as just one of those things.
And that was one of the Gold Coast native’s key motivations behind returning to elite swimming during the global pandemic in 2019.
“I want to expand the ideas around what somebody can do in their lifetime,” Simpson told Olympics.com in an exclusive interview.
“I think it's very easy to box yourself in and label yourself. And that's the easiest thing for our minds to do to ourselves and to other people is to box them in. But I don't ever want to do that to myself and I never wanted that to other people. So I like to be unidentifiable at times I suppose.
“I've had the musician or the popstar title for a while now and a lot of people in the media still put that before my name. I'm going, “Man, how fast do I have to go before you can drop that?”
Cody Simpson: “Challenging myself is a part of me”
Simpson’s motives for returning to swimming were initially questioned, with some speculating that it was a publicity stunt.
But the former national age group champion proved those doubters wrong through his actions.
After just one year of full-time training following a 10-years away from the water, he qualified for the Australian Olympic Trials and missed out on a ticket to Tokyo 2020 by just 1.24 seconds.
In May 2022, he finished third in the 100m butterfly at the Australian National Championships to secure his place in the Dolphins’ team for the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, UK.
“Challenging myself is the part I love to do and that's all a part of me. My inner compass was so direct and strong that negative stuff didn’t bother me to be honest,” he continued.
“I can understand people questioning it if they didn’t know my swimming background as it must have seemed quite random. Imagine hearing that Justin Bieber was training for the 400m track running or something!
“But I swim for myself and to see what I'm capable of. The by-product of that persistent self challenge and work is good results which lead to people knowing you.
“That's always how I've been - even in music. I didn't set out to be really famous or whatever, it was just like, “I really like to do this, so I'm just going to do it to the best of my ability and practise and go to the studio all the time and record and make stuff.”
The why must be stronger than the what
A ‘challenge’ is a serious understatement when describing an elite swimmer’s training schedule.
Rather than gently ease his way back into the sport after a decade’s absence, Simpson’s coach started with punishing 200m butterfly lengths that put his body into shock.
“I jumped right into the centre of the fire, so to speak. It was almost like hazing for the first six months, and I was just throwing up twice a week!
Subsequently, the mental battle to carry on was almost as important as the physical one.
“The why was stronger then than like the what,” Simpson revealed of his mentality.
“Another mindset that I use is: Don't sacrifice what you want now for what you want the most. What you want now, usually when you're training, is to stop. Your body is screaming at you to just stop and give up. But what you want most is to achieve something great, which should be stronger than what you want right now.”
Learning to graft as a teenage music star
While Simpson is fairly new in his elite swimming journey, hard graft is something he knows well.
On the surface, the creative world of song-writing and the spartan life of an elite swimmer seem like they couldn’t be further apart.
But the reality is that the pursuit of excellence in any job or activity, requires the same dedication and focus from within.
“I remember being 15 in a van in the back of the van going to three cities a day, meetings, going to radio stations and performing acoustically for them, doing interviews, and this would go on for months and months, just getting you getting yourself out there” Simpson recalled.
“That was a serious grind, but it paid dividends for me and laid the foundation for what I'm doing now. So that experience felt a lot like the first six months of my swimming training - going from having done nothing to just building brick by brick from the ground.
“Getting to the top requires complete and utter commitment. I don’t like the word sacrifice because it’s a choice and I love what I do.”
There are more practical similarities between Simpson’s sporting and musical lives too.
Being on stage and playing in front of thousands prepared him for the nerves he’d experience before major race meets, as well as the subsequent media and fan attention.
“In both pursuits you're about to do something that you really care about the outcome of with plenty at stake, and that you’ve trained hard for,” Simpson said.
“At the Australian Olympic trials in 2021, I was going for the final 100 fly like a crowd is chanting my name. Despite not being in shape to make the team at that stage, it could have been overwhelming. But because of the experiences of my life so far, it didn’t ruin me in that moment or make me choke.”
What Cody Simpson learnt from Ian Thorpe and Michael Phelps
Another key part of Simpson’s success in the pool were his legendary swimming mentors.
Four-time Olympic gold medallist Ian Thorpe was keen to work with his compatriot, but under one strict condition.
“He said that if I stopped playing music he'd stop mentoring me as a swimmer, which I thought was really interesting,” explained Simpson.
“He'd had struggles leaving the sport behind as it was so wrapped up and ingrained in his identity that he didn't have anything to go to or any passions.
“He said I am so lucky that you have something else, so never stop that, even if it's on the side, as long as it doesn't distract from training. I liked that a lot because it is a really great piece of advice for general mental health and wellbeing.”
Simpson moved to the USA full-time aged 14 to pursue his dream of becoming a musician, but his desire to swim still burned bright.
As soon as he got the chance, the young singer took a trip to North Baltimore to meet his then hero Michael Phelps.
“I made him sign about 20 caps before he got in the water for training and I did some sessions with Bob Bowman’s junior squad,” Simpson continued.
“This was in 2009 after the Beijing Olympics and he was at the top of his game, so it was like otherworldly to me.”
The 23-time Olympic gold medallist didn’t know who Simpson was back then, but now shares a close bond with the Australian.
“Phelps has been through some of the same struggles [as Thorpe] and actually not long ago he was giving me tips on how to fall asleep during meets, mental sets of triggers and little things you can try and use to relax and take your mind off of racing.
“There were a few visualisation techniques that he shared with me, like closing your eyes and painting the room around you.
“It’s special being able to talk to them as often as I can.”
Doubling up at the Paris 2024 Olympics
In just two years of training, Simpson has gone from nothing (in swimming terms) to making the Australian national team.
But he has far greater ambitions than simply competing in his national team colours.
The versatile athlete's goal is to compete at the Paris 2024 Olympics in one, if not two, events.
“I didn't think I'd go 51 seconds [in the 100m butterfly] yet, so I don't know what I’m capable of,” Simpson said.
“And I want to expand my events. I was in the 100 free finals at the Australian national trials, and I went 49 [seconds] twice in that day for the first time which was a step for me.
“I was like 25th or something at the Australian Olympic Trials last year, but was seventh or eighth this year and only a few tenths off the going to the World Championships in the relay team.
“I may try a few 200s, even if it's just to get me fitter.”
Simpson has already re-written the rules of what's achievable for a human in such a short space of time.
With that in mind, it'd take a brave person to bet against him achieving anything he sets his mind to.