Her best friends were always the nerds and never the jocks, but then Cate Campbell fell in love with winning. By Richard Cooke.


Making a splash: Cate Campbell, 22, swimmer

Malawi-born Cate Campbell is one of Australia’s top medal hopes at the upcoming Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. She won two bronze medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, gold in London 2012, and is the reigning 100 metres freestyle world champion. She was named 2013 Australian Swimmer of the Year.

Richard Cooke You’ve been interviewed regularly since your teens. What’s it like to grow up in the media?

Cate Campbell I don’t think it’s really changed me too much, because I have many younger brothers and sisters who have never let that influence me at all. My public speaking has improved a lot; I always received top marks for it at school. But, other than that, it’s been standard. I try not to read too much about what’s said about me. I just take word of mouth that it’s good, mainly.

RC Sometimes people say that being interviewed all the time is like having a therapist, just not a very good one.

CC It is. It definitely helps me order my thoughts, because if you have to explain them to someone else, then you generally have to get them in order. I guess everyone’s interviewed at some stage in their life – whether it’s just talking to an acquaintance who they haven’t met for a while – and they want to make themselves sound better than they are.

RC You had a bit of an unorthodox childhood, so that alternative path of being an “ordinary teenager” was never likely.

CC Yeah, I realised very early on in life that I was never going to be ordinary. By the time I hit my teenage years, I stopped trying. When we moved from Africa I was this tall, pale, gangly creature with a very strong South African accent who didn’t quite know where she fitted in the world and, kind of, found her little niche in quite strange places in the schoolyard. Once I realised I was never going to really fit in, I stopped trying, and I managed to find some people who’d also stopped trying.

RC You were sitting with the nerds, not the jocks. 

CC I was never a jock. I was with the people who were into drama and art and in the school musicals. I don’t think one of them was sporty. I was actually asked by one of my friends after a competition if I had got a “good score”. She was trying really hard to ask the right questions, but failed utterly. That side helped keep me grounded as well, because they never knew what I was up to outside of school, and that suited me just fine.

RC Are you still in touch with those people today?

CC Yeah, I count them as some of my really good friends and, you know, I can go and hang out with them and listen to all of their uni worries, and troubles finding jobs, and all of that kind of stuff. It’s a world totally removed from elite sports, which can be quite overwhelming if you submerse yourself in it completely.

RC When you make that choice, and you’re not going to be partying as much as your friends, and not having that free time, do you live vicariously a bit, too?

CC A little bit. And I get to live through them and hear all their stories without the hangovers, so I reckon I’ve got the best of both worlds. We definitely still have a lot of fun, and they realised a long time ago that I was not going to be going out partying with them, but that doesn’t stop them sharing their stories with me.

RC You have that dedication, but described yourself as lazy when you first started swimming.

CC I’m definitely a very inherently lazy person. Unless I’m really driven to something, I won’t do it. As long as I have the proper motivation, I’m fine. But in all other areas of life I am super lazy and a chronic procrastinator.

RC How did you find that feeling in swimming? It’s famous for being one of the most brutal sports in which to retain motivation.

CC I fell in love with winning. Maybe not so much winning but excelling at something. I was an average student, I can’t sing, I can’t dance, I can’t play any other sport. Swimming was something that I excelled at, and I fell in love with that. I fell in love with seeing the work that I put in directly relating to the results I got. Whereas, for pretty much every other avenue in life, I would put in a lot of work and just not quite see that result. 

RC There are very few people who can do that, but there’s also luck involved.

CC There’s a huge amount of luck involved. It takes one little injury or one little illness to set you back a long way, or to ruin an Olympics for you. It happened to me – I know how fickle sport is, so I’m determined to enjoy it as much as I can. It’s a part of my life that once I’ve said goodbye to it, I’m never going to revisit. I will make sure that I have finished with swimming by the time I quit and that will be it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 12, 2014 as "Making a splash".

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Richard Cooke is a contributing editor to The Monthly, and the 2018 Mumbrella Publish Award Columnist of the Year.

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