The Roar
The Roar


Was it mentality, rather than physicality, that failed our swimmers?

Cate Campbell put plenty of pressure on herself, leading to her failure to win gold. (AAP Image/Dean Lewins)
Roar Guru
14th August, 2016

Are our Aussie swimmers, the Dolphins, mentally soft?

Of course, this observation needs to be put in context. They are certainly much tougher mentally than this couch potato. And they are certainly much tougher mentally than most of the other couch potatoes out there.

But compared to some of their fellow athletes, they appear to be mentally soft.

Kim Brennan was favourite to win the women’s single sculls, but she didn’t collapse under the weight of expectation. She handled the pressure and delivered.

When asked why he had swum ten seconds outside his best time in finishing fifth in the 1500m freestyle final, Mack Horton complained about an exceptionally tough 200m freestyle relay schedule.

Giaan Rooney gently told TV viewers, as only she can, that Horton had actually a much tougher program at the national titles, and he wasn’t complaining back then.

Michael Phelps has carried the massive weight of expectation at four successive Olympics and 28 finals – that’s an average of seven finals per Olympics.

He’s had no trouble dealing with favouritism and expectation, managing his preparation and, delivering. All 28 times for 23 gold, three silver and two bronze.

What about the new wonder middle-distance swimmer Katie Ledecky? She won the 200m, 400m and 800m freestyle events as well as anchoring both the 4 x 100m and 4 x 200m freestyle relays.


Four gold and one silver. She had no trouble dealing with favouritism and expectations.

I, and I’m sure most other fans, don’t mind if a swimmer comes 20th, if that’s the best they can do. But when you’re world champion or world record holder, then there’s an expectation that you should only lose when someone else swims out of their skin to beat you.

Too many of our favourites quit too easily. Quit is probably not the right word, but whatever the reasons, they gave up their crowns with barely a whimper.

Cate and Bronte Campbell, Emily Seebohm, Mitch Larkin, Cameron McEvoy and Mack Horton all arrived with huge reputations.

All going well, it was expected they would pull six to eight gold medals between them, plus maybe help win a couple of relays. Only Horton delivered individually in the 400m freestyle and the Campbell sisters as part of the 4 x 100m freestyle relay.

They are all outstanding people, no doubt about it, but each failed for a variety of reasons. Maybe it was overconfidence, or complacency, or deep self-doubt, or a combination of various reasons.

Cate Campbell made this comment, “I think the world got to witness possibly the greatest choke in Olympic history a couple of nights ago.”

I’m sure there have been worse chokes. At least she was in the final, and she was fastest qualifier. So until then she had done everything right.


But Cate has nowhere to hide for her fumble. She was at her third Olympics, she was 24 years old, she was at the absolute peak of her game. This was her moment, her time.

She had seen what had happened with James Magnussen four years and Eamon Sullivan eight years ago, and Cameron McEvoy just the previous night.

She had also seen how a young gun with nothing to lose could swim over the top of all the favourites as did her countryman Kyle Chalmers the night before.

And it was repeated in the women’s final with rookies Simone Manuel and Penny Oleksiak tying for first.

Cate should have left no stone unturned in her preparation, ensuring that she was ready for any and every eventually that might occur.

So what did she do? She swam the biggest dog of a race you could ever imagine.

Cate wants to have another go in 2020. Forget it!

This was her time, and she bombed it. In another four years Penny Oleksiak will probably be the next unbeatable 100m-freestyle favourite. It will be hers to lose in 2020.


Of the four things you never get back, time elapsed and opportunity missed are two of them. For Cate Campbell, her time and her opportunity are both gone.

The Campbell sisters, Seebohm, Larkin and Horton all come across as outstanding human beings. Perhaps it’s not entirely their fault. Perhaps the system is also failing them.

Swimming Australia boss John Bertrand has promised a full review. It obviously must happen. This is two successive Olympics when key athletes have gone “missing” in action.

Giaan Rooney interestedly made mention that the idea of holding national trials four to six weeks out from the Olympics, like the Americans, was tried once before without success.

It’s crazy to try something just once and shelve it because it didn’t quite work the first time. The Americans have been holding their national trials four to six weeks out from the Olympics since God knows when.

Their results speak for themselves. There’s nothing more brain dead than refusing to borrow ideas from the best.