The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - Stellar - - Contents - Pho­tog­ra­phy PETER WAL­LIS Styling GEMMA KEIL Words JOR­DAN BAKER

Aus­tralian swim­ming su­per­stars Cate and Bronte Camp­bell take us in­side the heartache of last year’s Rio Olympics.

It was such a lit­tle thing to spark such a mo­men­tous melt­down: a text, sent by a friend back home in Aus­tralia, wish­ing Cate Camp­bell good luck in her pet event. “I’m so ex­cited to watch you race,” he wrote. “I’ve booked out a board­room in the of­fice so we can all watch you.”

It flashed up about 20 hours be­fore Cate was to com­pete in the women’s 100m freestyle fi­nal at the Rio Olympics, the event in which she set the world record only a month be­fore. Un­til then, things were go­ing well; she had al­ready won gold in the re­lay with sis­ter Bronte, and she was man­ag­ing to block out the ca­coph­ony of ex­pec­ta­tions from home.

This friend was far from the first per­son to wish her luck, but there was some­thing about that text that breached Cate’s walls. “It went from be­ing my own mo­ment to, ‘I have to do this for other peo­ple as well,’” the 24-year-old tells Stel­lar, talk­ing about her dev­as­ta­tion in Rio for the first time.

“I re­mem­bered this was big­ger than just me. I was re­spon­si­ble for other peo­ple. The el­dest-child syn­drome kicked in. Un­til then I’d pushed it out of my mind – how many peo­ple would be watch­ing me, and how many would care. I couldn’t shut down those voices af­ter that.”

She fin­ished sixth, in what she her­self de­scribed as “pos­si­bly the great­est choke in Olympic his­tory”. Bronte, also a medal favourite, fin­ished fourth.

Cate still doesn’t know what time she swam in the 100m. She’s taken this year off com­pe­ti­tion. She and Bronte have never re­ally dis­cussed the race, but that doesn’t mean Cate has shied away from fac­ing her de­mons in the past six months. “What I’ve learnt is fail­ure isn’t nec­es­sar­ily some­thing we should be ashamed of,” she says. “It shows we have the courage to go and dare in the first place.”

TO UN­DER­STAND CATE Camp­bell’s story, it helps to re­mem­ber that she is a big sis­ter, the el­dest of five. Her sis­ter, Bronte, 22, is also a swim­mer, and one of Cate’s best friends and big­gest ri­vals. Her brother, Hamish, 18, has se­vere cere­bral palsy and can’t see or speak. There’s also Jes­sica, 21, and Abi­gail, 16, who are, Cate jokes, “the two for­got­ten Camp­bells in the story”.

“Their achieve­ments are cel­e­brated equally,” Cate adds. “For Jes­sica it was com­plet­ing high school, for Hamish it’s smil­ing in the morn­ing, and, well, Abi­gail cel­e­brates her­self ev­ery day.”

The four el­dest sib­lings were born in Malawi, a poor, land­locked coun­try in south-eastern Africa, where their South African fa­ther worked as an ac­coun­tant and their mother as a nurse. Cate and Bronte would swim in Lake Malawi, where they man­aged to evade a rogue hippo that oc­ca­sion­ally chomped at the hu­mans who in­vaded its turf.

The fam­ily moved to Aus­tralia a few months be­fore Abi­gail was born. Her par­ents had their hands full – mum Jenny is Hamish’s full-time carer – so Cate helped out with her sib­lings.

“I’m the re­spon­si­ble one,” Cate says of be­ing the el­dest child. “I’m the one who’s al­ways look­ing out for ev­ery­one else. If some­one went miss­ing, it was like, ‘Cate, why weren’t you watch­ing them?’”

It’s a trait she hasn’t been able to shake in adult­hood. “She does try to look af­ter ev­ery­one,” Bronte says. “She tries to look af­ter me a lot, which is lovely and very sweet. I don’t need look­ing af­ter. At least I don’t think I do – there’s been a few mo­ments…”

This at­ten­tive­ness is a lovely, em­pa­thetic part of Cate’s char­ac­ter, but it didn’t do her any favours in Rio. Once that text trig­gered thoughts about how many peo­ple wanted her to bring home gold, she couldn’t shut them out.

“From that mo­ment I was ner­vous, anx­ious,” she says. “I don’t blame the friend [who sent the text], as they were gen­uinely there to sup­port me. They don’t even know that this mes­sage was what trig­gered the melt­down to come.”

Cate didn’t men­tion her tur­moil to any­one. “In­stead of seek­ing sup­port, I was like, ‘No, peo­ple are my en­emy, they have put me in this state.’ I went into full pro­tec­tor mode. I lay in bed with a rac­ing heart, and went, ‘No, re­lax, just breathe.’ I was stressed that I was stressed. I should have talked it out a bit, or told some­one that I wasn’t cop­ing.”

Even Bronte, the per­son who knows her best, didn’t no­tice. “I was aware she was pretty wired, as is any­one be­fore the big­gest race of your life,” she says. “I was be­ing a bit self­ish and con­cen­trat­ing on my­self more than I was on Cate. It’s easy, with hind­sight, to see the lit­tle in­di­ca­tors, but at the time I didn’t think it was any­thing be­yond the or­di­nary.”

When Cate climbed onto the blocks the next day, her mind was be­tray­ing her. All the voices of all those peo­ple, those strangers in the street, who had said, “I can’t wait to see you win gold,” were play­ing on re­peat.

“I was at such a high state of stress and arousal, there was static go­ing on in my head,” she re­calls. “I didn’t know how to cope with the amount of sig­nals my brain was put­ting out. I was try­ing to fo­cus on what to do, rather than what could hap­pen, or who was go­ing to be watch­ing me. Ir­ra­tional thoughts won.”

The gun fired, and Camp­bell pan­icked. For the first 25 me­tres of the race, she swam too fast. At the 50-me­tre mark, her body was flooded with lac­tic acid. She knew then that she’d blown it. She fin­ished sixth. Bronte, who had bat­tled in­jury all year, fin­ished just out­side the medals in fourth place.

Bronte was philo­soph­i­cal. She’d swum well, con­sid­er­ing her in­jury. “I felt I’d given it ev­ery­thing.” But Cate was dev­as­tated. “Af­ter all that noise in my head, there was a re­sound­ing

si­lence, deep and dark,” she says. “It was a very lonely place to be.”

There’s a now-iconic photo of the Camp­bell sis­ters clutch­ing each other pool­side as the bit­ter re­al­ity set in. They didn’t need to talk. They knew ex­actly how the other felt. “I was feel­ing so sad for Cate, that she didn’t get her mo­ment,” Bronte says. “It’s not a nice po­si­tion to be in when you have some­one very dis­ap­pointed and very up­set. There’s noth­ing you can say but be there to­gether.”

That night, they took com­fort in the fa­mil­iar post-swim rou­tine: swim­down, bus ride, din­ner. “Ev­ery­thing else was fall­ing apart, but that stays the same,” Cate says.

The 100m swim coloured the rest of Cate’s cam­paign in Rio. In the 50m race, a few nights later, she hes­i­tated on the blocks and fin­ished fifth, ahead of Bronte who was sev­enth.

But in her fi­nal event of the meet, the med­ley re­lay, Cate put her in­di­vid­ual de­feats be­hind her and stormed home to give Aus­tralia a sil­ver medal. It was an ex­tra­or­di­nary feat, given how heav­ily she was weighed down by dis­ap­point­ment.

THE NUM­BERS SPUN around in Cate’s head for months. Twenty-five me­tres. Eleven sec­onds. If only she could have those 11 sec­onds back, she wouldn’t have swum so fast for those first 25 me­tres, her body wouldn’t have been flooded with acid, she could’ve won the race.

The shock gave way to shame and em­bar­rass­ment. For a while, she couldn’t look peo­ple in the eye. She felt that ev­ery time they looked at her, they saw the last few me­tres of the 100m race. “More than any­thing, I was dis­ap­pointed in my­self,” she says. “I’ve al­ways prided my­self on be­ing de­pend­able and ac­count­able, and some­one peo­ple rely on. When peo­ple were re­ly­ing on me to do my job for the coun­try, I’d let them down.”

She went to the wel­come home pa­rade with one gold (re­lay) rather than the hoped-for three. Cate was used to be­ing feted for her achieve­ments, but saw an­other side to the Aus­tralian pub­lic dur­ing that trip.

“For peo­ple to still be sup­port­ing me when I hadn’t won was a very hum­bling ex­pe­ri­ence, and some­thing I wouldn’t have no­ticed if I’d come back with an­other gold medal around my neck.”

For the first few months, she didn’t want to talk about Rio, and her friends and fam­ily didn’t force it. They loved her, vic­tory or not, and be­ing re­minded of that be­gan her healing process.

Af­ter a few months, Cate be­gan the post-mortem with her fam­ily and her coach. It was tough. She still strug­gles to talk about it and has never watched the footage. Both Cate and Bronte have raked over what they would do dif­fer­ently if they had that time again.

But for Cate, Rio has over­whelm­ingly been a les­son in the value of fail­ure.

“Ev­ery­thing I was ter­ri­fied of hap­pen­ing, hap­pened,” she says. “The thing about life is it goes on; you can ei­ther be a par­tic­i­pant or a ca­su­alty. I refuse to be a ca­su­alty of that first 11 sec­onds, I refuse to let it de­fine me.”

For Bronte, Rio taught her to men­tally cope with a body that wasn’t at its best. “It’s easy to step up on the blocks when you have done the work, and had a good prep,” she says. “It was a dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence go­ing into Rio and not be­ing 100 per cent, but learn­ing to back your­self re­gard­less.”

The Camp­bell sis­ters have made some big changes since Rio. The big­gest is that Cate and Bronte no longer live to­gether. “Af­ter Rio, we thought it was time to branch out,” says Bronte, who’s bought her first house in Bris­bane. (“A swim­ming life­style is a sav­ing life­style,” she says. “Un­less you like buy­ing nice clothes and wear­ing them around the house, you have very lit­tle to spend money on.”)

They still miss each other. “Cate used to make me cof­fee,” Bronte says. “Now I have to do my own. I miss her, but I see her ev­ery day.”

Af­ter the Olympics, Bronte trav­elled solo to Viet­nam. Cate went to New Zealand and did things she’d never nor­mally be al­lowed to do for fear of in­jury, such as ski­ing, bungee jump­ing and throw­ing her­self out of a plane. “I dis­cov­ered who I was with­out this swim­ming an­gel on my shoul­der, whis­per­ing, ‘It’s not good to be tired and sore,’ or, ‘Don’t you think you should go to bed?’”

Bronte’s shoul­der in­jury is un­der con­trol, and next month she’ll be at the Aus­tralian Swim­ming Cham­pi­onships vy­ing for a place in the world cham­pi­onship team. But she’s also learn­ing to surf and play gui­tar. “I’m do­ing a few things I don’t have time to do in an Olympic year,” she says.

Cate’s still train­ing, but has taken a year off com­pe­ti­tion. It’s all about swim­life bal­ance. She wants to be able to take a Satur­day off to go camp­ing, or fin­ish a ses­sion with­out push­ing her­self so hard she vom­its; in other words, she wants to live like a nor­mal per­son for a while. She’ll also fo­cus on study­ing – me­dia and com­mu­ni­ca­tions – af­ter tak­ing last year off univer­sity.

She’s pac­ing her­self so she can men­tally, as well as phys­i­cally, be at her best for the Com­mon­wealth Games next year on the Gold Coast and the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.

Af­ter Rio, Cate didn’t swim for al­most two months. When she re­turned to the pool deck, the sight of the wa­ter brought on the agony and tur­moil of the re­cent past. She felt bit­ter and jaded. “[But then] I dove in the wa­ter and glided,” she says. “There was this still­ness and calm. I was like, ‘This is where I be­long, I can still do this.’ It felt like com­ing home.”

``it was a very lonely place to be´


HOLD­ING IT TO­GETHER Cate (left) and Bronte mo­ments af­ter their failed medal at­tempts in the 100m

CATE (above) AND BRONTE WEAR Arena swim­suits; Tony Bianco shoes, tony­bianco.com.au apart­ment

CATE WEARS All Witch­ery cloth­ing, witch­ery.com.au; Tony Bianco shoes, tony­bianco.com.au BRONTE WEARS San­dro Paris jacket, (02) 9327 3377; COS top, (02) 9231 3944; Witch­ery pants, as be­fore; Tony Bianco shoes, as be­fore

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