THERE’S NO SHRINE”

IN HER FIRST IN­TER­VIEW IN MORE THAN A DECADE, FOR­MER SWIM­MING CHAM­PION SA­MAN­THA RI­LEY RE­FLECTS UPON THE OLYMPIC DIS­AP­POINT­MENT AND POOL­SIDE CONTROVERSY THAT PLAGUED HER OTH­ER­WISE GLIT­TER­ING CA­REER

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Contents - Pho­tog­ra­phy JAMIE HAN­SON Words JES­SICA HAL­LO­RAN

In her first in­ter­view in more than a decade, Sa­man­tha Ri­ley takes us in­side her busy life af­ter swim­ming.

Not long ago, a well-mean­ing stranger ap­proached Sa­man­tha Ri­ley while she was out hav­ing break­fast with her three sons on the Gold Coast. “Do your kids know what you’ve achieved?” he asked the for­mer Olympic and Com­mon­wealth Games medal­list, to which Ri­ley replied with an em­bar­rassed laugh: “Oh no – we don’t talk about that.”

As they piled into the car af­ter­wards, her boys – Isaac, 14, Lu­cas, 12, and Jesse, seven – ex­pressed an­noy­ance at their mother’s po­lite yet dis­mis­sive re­sponse to her mid­dle-aged fan.

“Mum, we do know what you’ve achieved,” said Isaac. “Why did you say we didn’t?” added Lu­cas. The real rea­son, as Ri­ley re­veals for the first time to Stel­lar, is that her past is com­pli­cated.

It’s been 16 years since the ’90s golden girl hung up her gog­gles. But while Ri­ley is now fully im­mersed in the joys of fam­ily life, she ad­mits that think­ing about her swim­ming ca­reer stirs a lit­tle heartache. Sad­ness strikes when she thinks back to the 1996 At­lanta Olympic Games at which ev­ery­one ex­pected her to win gold; or when she sees other swim­mers com­pet­ing at ma­jor swim­ming tri­als or world cham­pi­onships. Deep down, the re­al­ity is that Ri­ley sus­pects she never quite reached her po­ten­tial.

“I still have mo­ments which are dif­fi­cult, to be hon­est,” she re­veals. “I think be­cause I didn’t fin­ish on my terms and I didn’t win an Olympic gold medal, I find that dif­fi­cult to swal­low at times. I feel like I was good enough to have won one.”

Ri­ley, now 44, also fears there is a “black cross” against her name be­cause of the in­fa­mous headache tablet her coach gave her in the lead up to At­lanta. Her Olympic cam­paign was em­broiled in controversy af­ter it was dis­cov­ered to con­tain a banned sub­stance.

“I do think, ‘What if?’” Ri­ley ad­mits. “What if that lead up to 1996 was dif­fer­ent? What if I didn’t get sick be­fore the 2000 Olympics? [But] I try not to dwell. You can’t change the, ‘What if?’”

De­spite these crush­ing lows, Ri­ley still looks at her swim­ming ca­reer with fond­ness, as an “amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ence with many great mem­o­ries”. While other swim­mers might de­test the early morn­ings and the smell of chlo­rine, Ri­ley loved ev­ery­thing about it.

“Some of my proud­est life mo­ments have come from things I achieved in my sport. I beat the Chi­nese in two events when they came close to a clean sweep [amid wide­spread sus­pi­cions of dop­ing] at the 1994 FINA World Aquat­ics Cham­pi­onships, and broke my first world record…” she trails off.

“Other mo­ments, like be­ing asked to host Princess Diana for lunch, sit be­side her and speak on be­half of the Com­mon­wealth Day Coun­cil [in 1996] are high­lights.”

She also car­ried the Olympic Torch to the very high­est peak of the Syd­ney Opera House be­fore it made its way out to the mid­dle of the sta­dium for the Open­ing Cer­e­mony of Syd­ney 2000.

The sport has given her so much, but while she was one of Aus­tralia’s big­gest swim­ming stars, Ri­ley was – and still is – a pri­vate char­ac­ter. She has spent much of her re­tire­ment re­treat­ing from the spot­light and con­cen­trat­ing on be­ing a mother, build­ing her Sam Ri­ley Swim Schools busi­ness in Queens­land and run­ning bur­geon­ing gym out­lets with her hus­band of 16 years, Tim Fy­dler. She says no more of­ten than yes to pub­lic ap­pear­ances. This is her first extensive in­ter­view in well over a decade. IN THE LEAD up to the 1996 Olympics, Ri­ley had sev­eral dreamy years where she broke world records, won three Com­mon­wealth Games gold medals and took out five world ti­tles. She was the hot favourite for Olympic gold in the 100m breast­stroke.

But her prepa­ra­tion turned into a “dis­as­ter” when coach Scott Volk­ers gave her a headache tablet which – un­be­knownst to Ri­ley – con­tained the sub­stance dex­tro­propoxyphene, a nar­cotic anal­gesic banned by the In­ter­na­tional Olympic Com­mit­tee. Ri­ley ul­ti­mately only re­ceived a warn­ing, but a me­dia storm en­sued.

She braved the tor­rent of spec­u­la­tion with a stoic ex­te­rior but, pri­vately, was liv­ing a night­mare.

For the first time, Ri­ley re­veals to Stel­lar that she had re­cur­ring night­mares dur­ing that time of crowds throw­ing things at her on the pool deck and call­ing her a drug cheat. When out in pub­lic, pho­tog­ra­phers shad­owed her ev­ery move.

“I was a big deal… for all the wrong rea­sons,” she says. “I pre­tended I dealt with that fine, but I didn’t. I had a lot of in­ner demons that haunted me in the whole lead up [to the At­lanta Olympics]. I would push it aside.

“I be­lieve most peo­ple in Aus­tralia don’t think I was a drug cheat. But it was an un­for­tu­nate thing to go through pub­licly”

Now there would be [sports psy­chol­o­gists] to talk to, but not back then.”

While Ri­ley was cleared of any wrong­do­ing, she still lives with the con­se­quences of that “un­lucky” de­ci­sion. “It’s a bit of a black cross against me,” she says.

“I would say that most peo­ple in Aus­tralia wouldn’t think I was a drug cheat. I do be­lieve that, [but it] was an un­for­tu­nate thing to go through pub­licly.”

De­spite the chaos, Ri­ley still claimed an Olympic bronze medal in the 100m breast­stroke, as well as a sil­ver medal in the 4 x 100m med­ley re­lay. At the end of the com­pe­ti­tion she was floored by a mi­graine from the hellish build up.

“I came away with an Olympic sil­ver and a bronze, but it was a mas­sive dis­ap­point­ment. It’s not what I had gone there to achieve,” Ri­ley says. “It wasn’t what I wanted. I was ca­pa­ble of so much more.

“It’s my one re­gret. Yes, it is a re­gret, but one I have also put in per­spec­tive. I think how proud I am of my own chil­dren’s achieve­ments so far and how proud I would be if this was them. When you are liv­ing and breath­ing high-level sport, it seems nor­mal to be dis­ap­pointed in any­thing but gold.”

Ri­ley suf­fered sim­i­lar set­backs in the lead up to Syd­ney 2000.A kid­ney in­fec­tion plagued her prepa­ra­tion and a 14-year-old prodigy by the name of Leisel Jones nudged her out of the team. She left the pool in tears and sub­se­quently re­tired.

For the Games, Ri­ley was given the plum job of be­ing a TV com­men­ta­tor and lived the “high life” – at­tend­ing yacht par­ties on Syd­ney Har­bour and scor­ing tick­ets to the best seats in the house to watch other Aus­tralian ath­letes com­pete. “But it wasn’t where I wanted to be,” she says. “The Syd­ney Olympics – it wasn’t a high­light.”

THERE ARE NO pho­to­graphs of Ri­ley’s glo­ri­ous swim­ming ca­reer in her fam­ily home on the Gold Coast – just two Olympic Torches, which she trea­sures. “There’s no sign of my swim­ming life, there’s no shrine,” Ri­ley laughs.

Like many elite ath­letes, she ad­mits she strug­gled to move on af­ter call­ing it quits, but moth­er­hood helped her in the times she felt stuck in the past.

“That [Olympic] dis­ap­point­ment is some­thing I will carry with me for­ever; but I do know my life is great now. I feel re­ally lucky to live in a beau­ti­ful place, have a great fam­ily life, have suc­cess­ful busi­nesses… I am grate­ful for it all.”

As well as the busi­nesses, Ri­ley’s three sons oc­cupy most of her time now. “Sam is amaz­ing,” says Fy­dler. “Be­tween run­ning be­tween the pools and gyms, her own train­ing and her new role at the Gold Coast Suns [Ri­ley is on the board], she still man­ages to look af­ter four boys. Me be­ing the fourth.” Their house­hold is an en­er­getic one. Ri­ley jokes she is used to be­ing spear tack­led into the couch by one of her sons daily (“I don’t mind it, at least it is on to a soft land­ing”), as well as the con­stant wrestling matches in the house. “They are like lion cubs,” she says. “They are lovely chil­dren and good com­pany.”

She and Fy­dler, a for­mer iron­man turned busi­ness­man, have en­cour­aged their kids to be in­volved in sport – namely nip­pers, surf­ing, rugby and soc­cer – to burn off en­ergy. How­ever, Ri­ley ad­mits she wouldn’t want her sons to fol­low in her foot­steps. She says that elite sport gave her some won­der­ful ex­pe­ri­ences, but ul­ti­mately came at a cost.

“A lot of us come out scarred, in some way or an­other,” she says. “I think the pres­sure… so many peo­ple train just as

“I feel lucky to live in a beau­ti­ful place, have a great fam­ily and suc­cess­ful busi­nesses. I’m grate­ful”

hard and don’t make it. I know that is part of life. I know that [my] kids will have dis­ap­point­ments in their lives. But the ad­just­ment to life af­ter [elite sport] isn’t easy. Many of us who have been through [swim­ming] are the same; we carry some bag­gage from that time of our life. It’s funny be­cause you wouldn’t change the ex­pe­ri­ence, but you still come out scarred. It’s weird.”

What she does want her boys to get out of sport is to learn dis­ci­pline and ac­count­abil­ity, and to know how to be part of a team and count on each other.

“All those things that sport of­fers, that ca­ma­raderie… I want them to have those lit­tle suc­cesses and feel like well-ad­justed kids. Sport has a place in their lives – but do I want them to be pro­fes­sional? Only if it was their dream.”

Mo­ti­va­tion was never a ques­tion for Ri­ley grow­ing up. As a child, she al­ways wanted to go to train­ing and never pressed snooze on her early alarm. Volk­ers de­manded that all his swim­mers train eight times a week. She says it was his in­tense train­ing sched­ule that made her a bril­liant swim­mer.

She is a keen de­fender of the em­bat­tled swim coach’s char­ac­ter – he was called into ques­tion again dur­ing the Royal Com­mis­sion into In­sti­tu­tional Re­sponses to Child Sex­ual Abuse, which looked at the al­le­ga­tions that he abused three women when they were teen swim­mers in the ’80s and ’90s. (Volk­ers stren­u­ously de­nies any wrong­do­ing and charges con­cern­ing these three al­leged vic­tims were dropped in 2002.)

“He was a fan­tas­tic coach and we never saw that side that the al­le­ga­tions were fo­cused on,” Ri­ley says. “All I can com­ment on is that he was a great coach and he did the right thing by us.”

DUR­ING LAST YEAR’S Rio Olympics, Ri­ley’s youngest son Jesse asked if he could take her swim­ming medals for show-and-tell at school. Ri­ley sent an email to the teacher ask­ing if she could keep an eye on them. Jesse’s teacher wrote back sug­gest­ing that Ri­ley “come along with the medals”. It was the first time she had en­tered the class­room as some­thing other than just Mum.

“Jesse was very proud. It was very sweet,” Ri­ley says. “He in­tro­duced me to the class.”

Ri­ley has vol­un­teered to help pro­mote next year’s Com­mon­wealth Games on the Gold Coast, but that’s where her

pub­lic com­mit­ments end at present. She worked on the speak­ing cir­cuit soon af­ter fin­ish­ing her ca­reer, but now re­fuses gigs more of­ten than not.

“I am quite happy to run my busi­nesses, be a mum and [do] the things that I feel are im­por­tant to me,” Ri­ley says. “I feel like I’ve done enough and it’s time to move on. It’s good to know when the time is right.”

SA­MAN­THA WEARS Jac+jack knit, ja­can­d­jack.com; Di­nosaur De­signs ear­rings, di­nosaur­de­signs.com.au; her own pants (all worn through­out)

SA­MAN­THA WEARS Jac+jack knit, ja­can­d­jack.com; Bas­sike pants, bas­sike.com; her own wed­ding ring

FAM­ILY TIES Sa­man­tha Ri­ley with hus­band Tim Fy­dler, sons (from left) Lu­cas, Jesse and Isaac, and dog Sunny.

THE LIFE OF RI­LEY (clock­wise from top left) Sa­man­tha at the 1994 World Aquat­ics Cham­pi­onships; with coach Scott Volk­ers af­ter her de­feat at the 2000 Olympic tri­als; fac­ing the press dur­ing the headache tablet scan­dal.

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