When I think of the greatest female athlete of all time, names like Serena Williams, Billie Jean King, Steffi Graf, Cathy Freeman and Jacqueline Joyner-Kersee come to mind.
When Cate Campbell imploded in the women’s 100m freestyle final – the most certain of our certain gold medallists – I was as stunned as anyone.
Like many fans, I wondered how a swimmer competing at her third games, at age 24 and at the peak of her powers – a current world record holder and former world champion who is vastly experienced at a multitude of meets over nearly a decade – could swim like a rookie when presented with her greatest moment.
This was Cate’s moment, this was her ‘window’ – but unbelievably she failed to grasp the moment.
She has now told us why.
Cate has been carrying a hernia for some time. It obviously hurts but that isn’t the real reason. The real reason is pent-up emotional energy that left her physically drained.
She says it started in the early hours of the day of the final, around 2am. Remember, the final wasn’t swum until about 10.30 m that night. So she basically spent the best part of 20 hours turning herself inside out.
Cate wanted this one gold medal so badly, she could taste it. This was the culmination of about more than 15 years of constant training and hard slog. She played in her mind over and over how she must swim her race and the probable thrill she will feel when she touches first. But what if she didn’t?
Then the doubt began to consume her. As the day progressed her mood went from elation to despair and back again. Basically, the burden of expectation, that of her own and her country, overwhelmed her.
It’s little wonder by the time she stood on the blocks she was already drained physically and emotionally.
And it got worse. She rocked back as the starter’s gun went off, making her miss the start by crucial fractions of a second. Then, as is often the case, she panicked and over-swam. She worked too hard getting back into the race.
Incredibly, by the time they all reached the 50m wall, she was in front. But she wasn’t swimming her normal race. She wondered as she pushed off the wall if she would have any gas at the other end. She wouldn’t.
With just 15 metres to go, Cate was still in front and her sister Bronte second, but then both hit the ‘wall’, Cate dropping back to sixth and Bronte fourth.
Heck, we’ve all been there, the pent-up emotion that is. It might have been that stunning girl you wanted to date. But drumming up the courage to ask her out amid fear of a rejection consumed you for hours or days before you summoned the necessary courage to ‘make the call.’
It could have been that job you wanted, but first you had to go through the hell of the interview. By the time you sat down for the interview you were probably already an emotional wreck having played the scene over and over many times in your head.
In the immediate aftermath of the race, I and others were possibly harsh in comparing Cate to Michael Phelps.
At five Olympics, Phelps contested 30 events for 23 gold medals, three silver medals, two bronze medals, one fourth and one fifth. 30 times out of 30 he made a final.
Further broken down, Phelps won 13 individual gold, two silver and a bronze from 18 individual events and ten team gold, one silver and one bronze from 12 team relay events.
His worst result was as a 15-year-old in Sydney when he finished fifth in the 200m butterfly. His only other unplaced swim was in London when he finished fourth in the 400m individual medley.
How was it that Phelps could prepare himself to make 18 individual finals out of 18, medal 16 times and win 13 gold medals, controlling his emotions and nailing his performance time and time again, while Cate struggled to do it the one big chance she got?
I don’t know the answer and no doubt Cate will spend plenty of time seeking it. Those who can control their emotions at the most critical moment are the lucky ones.
But here’s the thing, Cate now thinks she is a failure. She most certainly is not!
That is so far from the truth. She is a champion. She is an Olympian. She is a finalist. She is a medallist and she is a gold medallist. Twice in fact.
In addition, she comes across as an outstanding human being. As indeed does her sister Bronte. She has my deepest sympathy and support.
I wish her well in the future and I sincerely hope that she will be able to find redemption, reconciliation, peace and acceptance in her mind.
Cate Campbell is a champion!