Swimmer Madeline Groves has all the motivation she needs for the Comm Games, at home on the Gold Coast. Plus: our snapshot of GC2018.
In March last year Madeline Groves, one of Australia’s most promising young swimmers, was hanging out in her dorm room at San Diego University. The butterfly star was staying on campus while she trained with a large group of athletes from the American national swim team. She was having a blast, picking up valuable knowledge from her peers, and utilising the know-how of some of the best coaches in world swimming.
She was required to be on premises at the pre-arranged time she had entered into the Whereabouts app – under the rules of international swimming federation FINA, swimmers must nominate an hour of every single day when and where they’ll be available for random drug testing. The authorities must know that sometimes life happens, and that not all athletes can be in their nominated areas at said nominated times. So if testers from the World Anti-Doping Authority turn up to a location at the agreed time and the athlete isn’t there, they receive a strike. Then another one next time. Third strike within 12 months and it’s an automatic two-year ban from competition world-wide.
Sitting on two strikes, Groves, the 200m butterfly silver-medallist from the Rio Olympic Games, was waiting in position. Nominating a time doesn’t necessarily mean the testers will turn up, but after a while she’d heard nothing and got on with the rest of her life, which was being dominated by her preparations for the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
While she waited patiently in her dorm room, in the carpark of Groves’
accommodation quarters hovered the testers. They waited there for a while and then left, firing off a piece of paperwork shortly afterwards that would rock Groves’s world.
“It was very stressful when it all happened,” she graciously shares with Inside Sport, with the 2018 Commonwealth Games just a few weeks away. “I’d made this decision to go to the US. It was this big, exciting opportunity for me. About three weeks into it is when I got this email saying that the week beforehand or whatever it was, I had missed a drug test.
“I had no idea what was going on. It was confusing at the time, but thankfully I had a really good support network around me and we were able to get on our feet quickly and get on top of it.
“As well as training in San Diego, I was also working out of Charlotte in North Carolina with David Marsh and his elite club SwimMAC. So thankfully I did already have some friends over there, so I wasn’t completely alone through it all. It was quite a nice distraction to be over there. I had things to do every day and a whole bunch of new people to befriend and train with and everything. So even though I did have this stressful thing going on in the back of my mind, I still felt like I had a really good time last year. I really got a lot out of it.”
That support network Groves speaks of included experienced Australian sports lawyer Tim Fuller, who opined to the media in the days after Groves’ breach notice that the refs may have been watching over Australian swimmers a little too unfairly following our athletes’ stance on drug cheats in the recent past. (In 2006, swimmer Mack Horton was the target of online abuse after taking home the gold medal in the men’s 400m freestyle final over comments he made calling Chinese runner-up Sun Yang a “drug cheat”.)
“I would suggest that the testing authorities should try harder; they waited for a little under an hour before taking off,” Fuller told Seven News Brisbane following Groves’ breach notice. Along with Groves, drug testers also recorded third and final strikes against her Dolphins compatriots Thomas Fraser-Holmes and Jarrod Poort. Fraser-Holmes stayed at dinner with his parents ten minutes too long and was eventually suspended for a year, as was Poort. Neither swimmer will appear at the 2018 Comms.
“FINA have strategically targeted Australian athletes for sitting on two strikes, and yet there are athletes out there who are, as we all know, cheating the system,” said Fuller during the TV news report. “It just seems unusual they’re using technical breaches to come after Australian swimmers.”
Following breach notice announcements, drug testing authorities are rarely in a hurry to decide on penalties for violations, and Groves’ case was no different. Nor was it any less physically and mentally draining than for any other athlete desperate to clear their name over a possible rule breach. “I had no idea they even tried to come to the facility,” Groves shares today. “At times I felt completely fine, because I knew I had done nothing wrong, and I expected to get off. But then that kind of doubt can creep up on you. The whole process took about eight months; there was certainly time during it
“I GOT THIS EMAIL SAYING THAT THE WEEK BEFOREHAND OR WHATEVER IT WAS, I HAD MISSED A DRUG TEST.”
all to over-think. I wanted to prepare myself as well. You don’t want to be going into these situations blindly. I felt I had a very confident plan going forward. I guess that’s what kept me calm. And then obviously that huge relief at the end when it did go my way.”
Indeed it did. Via a video-link session in October last year, Groves spoke confidently alongside Fuller, challenging the validity of that third strike. They argued that Groves was in the designated time and place, and that the WADA testers, once at her San Diego University campus, failed to do enough to locate her.
FINA agreed, with Groves given the all-clear, but remaining on two strikes until November 2017. In any case, it meant she could finally kick-start her career free of impending potential doom.
There’s massive interest in the 2018 Commonwealth Games from Gold Coast locals, interstate visitors and overseas travellers alike. We’re talking State of Origin combined with the AFL Grand Final, on top of the opening day of the Australian Tennis Open as far as spectator interest and event size is concerned. The Courier-Mail newspaper back in November last year reported that 900,000 of the 1.2 million tickets on offer for the Games had already been sold.
Sure, some of them had had the wrong date printed on them, but Games chair, former state premier and brand-new Australian Rugby League Commission chief Peter Beattie, promised Queenslanders were intelligent enough to work out that their ticket will gain them entry to their relevant event in any case.
“GC2018” – for social media and promo purposes – will feature the largest integrated sports program in Commonwealth Games history, comprising 18 sports and seven para-sports. Beach volleyball, para triathlon and women’s rugby sevens will make their Commonwealth Games debuts. And for the first time at a Comms, an equal number of men’s and women’s medal events will be contested. There’s history being made even before a hockey ball is hit, or someone falls over in that weird steeplechase pool.
Our athletes are going to – again – waltz away to a truckload of medals. Since the Comms began way back in 1931, Australian has owned them, claiming 852 gold, 716 silver and 650 bronze for an impressive collective haul of 2,218 medals. You’ll be knocked over with a feather to learn that swimming has proven our most happy hunting ground, where we’ve scored 558 medals. We’ve also claimed 406 in athletics over the years.
We’ve proven great and enthusiastic hosts of this event, too, with the GC to be the fifth time we’ve invited the extended empire family over, following previous gatherings at Melbourne (2006), Brisbane (1982), Perth (’62) and Sydney, back in 1938.
Groves’ own last hit-out at a major meet should have Aussie swim fans pumped ahead of GC2018. Qualifying fastest for the big dance at Rio, she swam a PB to become the ninth Aussie to score an Olympic medal in the 200m women’s butterfly. Setting the pace for the field through the first half of the race, Groves led Mireia Belmonte Garcia by almost a full second after 50m, but the Spaniard took the lead with a lap remaining. Garcia appeared to be tiring, but she found renewed energy in the final 50m, pipping
Groves by 0.03 seconds in a blanket finish. Another silver in the 4x100m medley relay topped off an awesome meet for the firsttime Olympian.
“I was just really, really excited … it was like my wedding day,” recalls Groves, who will turn 23 shortly after the 2018 Games. “I’m here, I’ve done all this preparation for it. Everyone was there. I just remember feeling really excited. I was swimming good, I knew I’d done the work. I knew it didn’t matter if I felt good: I was fit enough, and it was going to be a good race between myself and Mireia. You can never rule out anyone in an Olympic final, really; you can’t underestimate anyone. But I was happy to be in the middle lane next to her and I think it was a really good fight.”
Groves brings up a good point when describing just how much of an advantage a home Games offers the locals. It isn’t all about just competing on familiar turf, there’s loads of other stuff our Aussie athletes won’t have to worry about this time around. “We’ve been down here full-time since October. The biggest advantage we’ll have at the Commonwealth Games is that it will be an actual home games,” she beams. “Every meet – Olympics, Commonwealth Games – for the home country it really is an advantage having your own crowd there. The support that you get, the cheering, the atmosphere, it’s amazing. It really makes you lift to that next level knowing that the people are cheering for you and cheering for Australia.
“I drive 20 minutes to the pool. I don’t have to even worry about having travel days. This is an especially big thing for us Aussie swimmers; we’re used to travelling far for big meets. We usually have to deal with very long flights; over to Europe or wherever.
“This time everyone else is going to be going through all that. And it will be a lot hotter than Great Britain at this time of year, where a lot of our rivals will be coming from. The Gold Coast will be a big change for them.” We’ll be looking for any advantage over the Poms we can get at our latest home Games –England bettered us by nine gold at the last event in Glasgow in 2014.
Madeline Groves has an interesting take on the whole “why swim butterfly?” question. The newest of the swimming disciplines, it was first swam by Australian Sydney Cavill (son of “swimming professor” Frederick Cavill), the 220 yards amateur champion of Australia at the age of 16. Since then, the most gruelling swim style on the program has only been attempted by the strongest competitors committed enough to perfecting its physically daunting technique. A first-time Olympian at Rio 2016, Groves has previously described the third lap of the 200m butterfly as “swimming with the grand piano on your back”.
“I guess the 200m butterfly is more an event that picks you, more than you pick it,” she offers when asked why she chose it as the major bow in her swimming artillery. “You have to have the very flexible shoulders and kinda the nack for it, I guess. Not everyone is good at butterfly.
“I think a lot of it has to do with my flexibility, but also my efficiency, basically. Being able to swim butterfly is hard. But the
GROVES HAS DESCRIBED THE THIRD LAP OF THE 200M BUTTERFLY AS “SWIMMING WITH THE GRAND PIANO ON YOUR BACK”.
more efficient you can do it and the more momentum you’re able to maintain, the easier it is on you. You have to do the hard work as well.
“All the different strokes, even between events, you have to do specific work; for the 200m butterfly usually that just means doing … quite a lot of butterfly. You can do special dryland exercises, do things like pilates and whatever, but at the end of the day you have to be in there doing those laps and laps of butterfly, and be willing to do it.
"It’s always been my favourite stroke; even when I was younger. I’ve always been pretty good at it. You always enjoy the things you’re good at. I like that it’s a difficult event. I like that not many people feel like they can do it. Doing a lot of butterfly training makes you feel pretty tough sometimes! My shoulders and arms have had a lot of maintenance; it’s taken a lot to look after them.”
Towards the end of last year Groves made the move from her life-long Indooroopilly home base to the Gold Coast. With her longtime coach Michael Bohl also having moved down to the Griffith University HQ ahead of the Comms, all is in place for a serious assault on the 200m butterfly.
“He’s a fantastic coach, obviously,” Groves beams about her mentor. “I’ve been lucky to have known him for a very long time. He just understands how to get the best out of me and how to encourage me; finds the right words to say. We’ve survived very hard sessions in the pool; I know that we’ve done the work for it, but sometimes it’s the advice and the pre-game talk he gives us that gets you excited and makes you feel ready to race.”
A strong all-round swimmer, Groves does have career options when it comes to the various disciplines. The relay medal in Rio is proof of that. For these Comm Games though she’ll be focussing on butterfly, a decision brought about by the rapid-fire flavour of Australia’s selection trials. “I still feel like I have a lot to achieve in the butterfly events,” says Groves. “I still have a lot to go in improving my freestyle, too. It’s always so competitive trying to get into those relays; I’d prefer to try and push myself in the butterfly than kind of risk scraping onto a relay team for the freestyle.”
Having survived that weird close call with WADA, Groves doesn’t appear to be afraid of too much. You can even throw the New Madame Butterfly tag at her; she’s not afraid of living up to it. (She has already bettered a record previously held by the legendary Susie O’Neill, so she’s on her way.) The similarity excites her.
This isn’t arrogance. She’d be fun to have around camp. Your author stumped upon a video on YouTube posted by the Aussie swim team. It was Maddie being interviewed in a café a few years back – one of those cute, dorky “getting-to-know” episodes. She had fun with it. Camera loved her: that big, natural smile and warm blue eyes. She nominated her doppelganger as supermodel Naomi Campbell in that interview, and polar bears as her favourite of the animal world, even though they’d kill her if she was around them … You know, stuff like that.
“It definitely helps to have a sense of humour when you’re in a very competitive sport,” she shares. “It’s always good to lighten the mood, especially at training every day, you know?"
Groves and Mireia Belmonte Garcia go hammer and tong in the 200m fly final at Rio 2016.