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