Australia’s oldest Olympic swimming champion plots her bid for fifth Olympics in Paris while taking time to say goodbye after her last World Aquatics Swimming World Cup 2023 tour.
Cate Campbell has been called the Queen of consistency and a master of self-motivation. World Aquatics caught up with her as she raced at the three October Swimming World Cup events held over consecutive weeks in Berlin, Athens and Budapest.
The 31-year-old Australian legend thought the results were encouraging. “I am not just there to go to my fifth Olympic Games, I am not (going) there to participate, I am (going) there to compete and hopefully do some very fast racing,” said Campbell. “I want to be better than my best, to see where that limit is. I wouldn’t be doing this if I wasn’t willing to give 100 percent.”
In the summer of 2022, while Team Australia was racing at the World Championships in Budapest, she and her partner travelled around Europe last summer, visiting 56 cities in Europe in six months. “The thought of doing nothing for 6 months freaked me out but it was the best decision we had made and it was so much fun. If I had not been able to take the time off, I think I would have retired. It wasn’t that I have fallen out of love with the sport, I just felt that I needed a break”, said the four-time Australian Olympian.
In 2022 Campbell bypassed the World Aquatics Championships and also the Commonwealth Games, returning to the pool to begin training for her Paris campaign in January of 2023. “I knew that I needed to give myself 18 months of training if I wanted to be in shape for Trials and for Paris.” This is not entirely new territory for the Australian champion. She took a year off from swimming in 2017 after suffering her biggest disappointment as an athlete at the Rio Olympic Games. “I just felt like physically, mentally, I just needed some time off,” she said at the time. “I had actually made the conscious decision that I was going to take a step away from the sport in 2017 to lengthen my career.”
Earlier this year she returned to competition at a local swim meet in Brisbane. It was her first time racing since 1 August 2021. That was the day she anchored Australia’s gold medal-winning medley relay at the Tokyo Olympic Games. Nineteen months later in March 2023, she won the 100m freestyle event.
“Considering it’s a local Brisbane meet, I am feeling unreasonably nervous,” she told the Australian Associated Press before she raced “More because I just have no idea what to expect. I am in completely uncharted territory but you have to start somewhere. This is an important first step. I have been back in the pool for about three months now so it will be important to see where I am at and also to see how far I still need to go.”
On July 27, 2024, if all goes according to her plan, Campbell will be racing in her fifth Olympics in Paris at the age of 32 years old.
She insists the Australia Swimming Olympic Trials at the Melbourne Sports and Aquatic Centre next June will be her final races on home soil of the sports-mad and swimming-fanatical continent.
“It will definitely be my last Trials, and I am not sure if I will be looking forward to it or dreading is the right word. The Australian trials will always be the most nerve-wracking event on the calendar,” Campbell said. “The women's 100m freestyle is by far the toughest event.
“To qualify for the Australian swim team you have to be amongst the best in the world. It will be harder to qualify for our national final than to qualify for the Olympic final.”
Campbell is so highly regarded that her peers chose her to be the flag bearer at the Opening Ceremonies of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. She won two gold medals in the 4x100 freestyle and the 4x100 medley relays in Japan, but her path to the Covid-19 delayed competition presented her with challenges.
“The added (Covid) year did not do me any favours. It was really a grind to get there. While I didn't think I was finished with the sport, I wasn’t ready to go back into the daily grind, the relentless monotony of training and the very high expectations that Australians have on their swimmers, and also for the high expectations that I have on myself.” said the Olympic swimmer.
Campbell has won an Olympic medal at each of her four previous Olympic experiences. In addition to the bronze at her first Olympic Games in the 50 free, her Tokyo performances added another bronze, in the 100 free as well as two relay golds.
In London, during her second Olympics, she earned her first Olympic gold medal in the 4x100 freestyle relay that set an Olympic Record.
In Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020, she and her sister Bronte were members of the squad that set consecutive world records in the 4x100 freestyle relay for Australia. In Tokyo, she anchored the winning 4x100 medley relay that set an Olympic record.
“I picked a sport where there is a really objective measure of success and there's a really objective measure of a way to measure your progression,” she told an IOC website correspondent. “I find that there's something about it that, just about every time I get out of the pool, I think I think I could have been a little bit better. It's almost like never being satisfied that has kept me in the sport.”
Her footprints on the pool deck won’t be easy to step into after her 2024 retirement. She became the 100m freestyle world champion in 2013, broke the long course world record in the 100m freestyle in 2016 and she still holds the short course world record in 100m freestyle set in 2017. She is regarded as the greatest relay swimmer Australia has ever produced anchoring gold medal-winning relays at three Olympics, three World Aquatics Championships and three Commonwealth Games.
This is in addition to Campbell winning a haul of medals at the Pan Pacific Championships and once at the Summer Universiade. Four times she anchored relays that set World Records and each of those four times her sister Bronte was a member of the relay team.
“I am getting to say goodbye to the sport which is really special,” Campbell said at the final meet of the Swimming World Cup 2023 season. “I am getting to say goodbye to the people and the places that have been a part of my life for nearly 20 years. This is the last time I will race in Budapest. It's scary but sad and it helps me savour every moment.”