Sport

Australian Opals star Liz Cambage on social media, homesickness and the pressure of expectation. By Richard Cooke.
Credit: DAVID HIGGS

High society: Liz Cambage, 23, basketballer

Liz Cambage is a former WNBA All-Star who has played professional basketball in China, Australia and the United States. With the Opals, she won a bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics. Next month she will compete in the FIBA World Championship in Turkey before returning home to play in the WNBL for the Dandenong Rangers.

Richard Cooke So you just turned down a lucrative offer to play in China, and now you’re headed back to the Australian league. It’s about more than money?

Liz Cambage When I tell people how much I’ve actually turned down they think I’m crazy. But I’m at a place where I’ve realised money isn’t everything. I’d much rather be happy and healthy living in Australia for a quarter of what I get paid overseas. I really want to put my mental health and my physical wellbeing first, and that will pay off later in my career.

RC A lot of athletes get homesick. Are you one of them?

LC I am 100 per cent one of them. The amount of times I have just been crying to my mum or my boyfriend on the phone saying how much I miss them… It’s hard, and it’s hard putting them through it, too, but, yeah, I do get very, very homesick.

RC You had to leave your WNBA team halfway through the season because of conflicts with international games. The fans of women’s basketball in the US are known for being very passionate – did they give you a hard time?

LC I find it interesting – everyone has their thoughts and their views on people’s decisions and what they do. But people have no idea what I’m going through or what my story is. I don’t think you can comment on anyone’s life or their decisions until you’ve walked in their shoes. Everyone will always have an opinion, you’ve just got to learn not to listen to it. And I don’t.

RC Until about 2010 you were a pretty prolific user of social media, and then you stopped abruptly.

LC I just got sick of the phenomenon of trying to please everyone via social media. Whenever you say anything, you know, a million other people would have other things to say back at you. I think it’s funny – when I meet a lot of people who have loads of Instagram fans, they’re completely different to their persona on social media. And it just consumes you. I know a lot of people (and I was one of them), who just wake up and spend hours going through Instagram and sitting on Twitter. There’s just so much more going on in the world.

RC Sometimes that interest gets very acute. You strongly disliked the pressure placed on you at the Olympics, that level of attention. 

LC It came from the media, it came from coaches, it came from other sources, and myself as well. When people keep telling you things, it builds up and up in your mind, and I let it all get to me. After the Olympics I struggled a little bit. It’s funny, it’s just a completely different world. When it’s all over, it’s interesting how each athlete struggles with it, the post-Olympic depression. You can’t even explain the Olympic environment. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance.

RC What is that comedown like? Is it the contrast between the Olympics and everyday life? Is it things not going the way you anticipated? 

LC For me personally, yeah. We all came home with a bronze medal, and in our minds and in the media we just spoke of how we were going to bring home a gold, and how I was the key to bringing home the gold. I let it consume me. So much that I just became obsessed with winning the gold medal – I wasn’t even proud of the bronze medal at all. And I just remember how upset I was when we lost. And after we beat Russia, and won the bronze, I just had this feeling of relief. I couldn’t stop crying, because I was just so happy that it was all over. Looking back now, it’s pretty crazy to think that I was crying with happiness that it was all over. It’s hard to explain. I felt like a bit of a failure, I guess.

RC That kind of attention is rare for a female athlete. Now both you and Lauren Jackson are back playing in the WNBL, but a couple of years ago it wasn’t even being broadcast on the radio, let alone TV. Are you happy to take that kind attention if it benefits the sport?

LC I’m very blessed in what I do and the support I have. There’s one thing I will say from the Olympics – there’s so many other sports and they seriously do not even get a light shone on them, they struggle for funding, they pay their own way and it’s kind of heartbreaking when I see things like that and how selfish we can be sometimes, when we complain about media and coverage. But it’s hard. We’ve got so many great players in the league this season – teams are stacked at the moment and it’s going to be really exciting. I want to inspire young girls to get out there and play more sports – I think the average age girls stop playing team sports is around 16. I want to see them all develop and keep playing.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 23, 2014 as "High society". Subscribe here.

Richard Cooke
is a journalist and writer for television. He is The Saturday Paper's sports editor.