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Bronte and Cate Campbell talk about life in and out of pool

by ZwemZa on July 25th, 2016
Australian swimming stars Cate and Bronte Campbell. (Gregg Porteous)

Australian swimming stars Cate and Bronte Campbell. (Gregg Porteous)

Imagine being the 2015 100m freestyle world champion, and not being the fast swimmer in your family.

Bronte Campbell won that title in Kazan last year, beating her sister, Cate, who won silver. This year, Cate broke the 100m freestyle world record, which had stood since 2009.

In the 100m freestyle, Cate is the world No.1. Bronte is No.2. Sisters. Housemates. Training partners. Best friends. Two of the most humble and easygoing people you will meet.

As part of the Swisse Series, ahead of the Rio Olympic Games, we spoke about an African childhood, committed parents, memorable quotes, the endless training, a cowboy coach, and the perspective their brother Hamish, a cerebral palsy sufferer, has given them.

HM: Bronte … world champion, but not the fastest swimmer in your family!

Bronte: Yeah, it’s crazy, isn’t it? I don’t even get bragging rights around the dinner table, it’s a little bit unfair.

HM: Cate, you’ve been the fastest for a long time, but the one person that might be edging you out of an Olympic gold is your best mate.

Cate: Yeah, it’s a really strange feeling. I want to win, and one of the people standing in the way of me achieving my life’s dream is the one closest to me. It’s a bit strange — we share genes, we share just about everything …

Bronte: Can’t share an Olympic gold medal, unfortunately.

Gold medallist Bronte kisses Cate after the women’s 100m freestyle last year. (Getty Images)

HM: So the 50m and the 100m freestyle: a gold and a silver each, is that the best outcome?

Cate: The best outcome for me is we just tie in everything.

HM: That’s not likely to happen.

Cate: We touch the wall at exactly the same time — it’s possible, it’s happened before. Of course, everyone wants to win, that’s why we do sport. No one goes into a race saying: “Today I really want to come second or third.” We’re selfish, we’re swimmers, we’re athletes, and we’re inherently self-absorbed.

HM: They say “Blood is thicker than water”. But the water thing is first for you guys.

Bronte: I could tell you a funny story about that, actually …

HM: Go for it.

Bronte: It’s actually supposed to be the opposite: blood brothers is thicker than water of the womb. That’s the origin of it. Albert Jack and R. Richard Pustelniak are two authors who say the original meaning of the expression was that the ties between people who’ve made a blood covenant are stronger than ties formed by “the water of the womb”. We’ve all messed it up because we are English.

HM: I suddenly feel intimidated. I was told you are both very well-read.

Bronte: Being well-read is important.

HM: You were both born in Blantyre, Malawi. What can you remember from your childhood?

Cate: Africa was an awesome place to be a kid. I’m glad that we moved when we did, though. Opportunities and a good future weren’t guaranteed, so moving to Australia gave us both.

HM: That was why your parents brought you to Australia — for the kids, not themselves?

Cate: For Dad, it was very important for us to live in a country we could identify with. We were South African citizens, living in Malawi, so we were essentially foreigners. He is very patriotic, and now very patriotically Australian, to the point where he supports the Wallabies over the Springboks!

Bronte and Cate Campbell in 2009. (Drew Fitzgibbon)

HM: You were seven and nine when you came over. Do you remember it well?

Bronte: I do remember Malawi. You always remember your childhood years, and with a nice little rosy tint on them, as well.

HM: I heard you grew up around animals.

Bronte: We had a menagerie of animals. We had chickens, turkeys, guinea pigs, rabbits, dogs, cats, guinea fowl, hedgehogs, lizards — the list goes on …

HM: What’s the pet situation now?

Bronte: Well, Cate and I live in an apartment together, so we don’t have any.

Cate: We managed to kill our only fish.

Bronte: Mum and Dad have a few chickens at home now. We did have a pet pig, but she’s gone to a petting farm. She’s getting hitched, moving on with her life.

Cate: Pigs are a lot of fun, but almost too smart for their own good.

HM: Sounds fun. When your mother, Jenny, used to go shopping in Malawi, she would buy extra bread?

Bronte: She’d give it to the street kids rather than giving them money. It seemed to make a bit more sense.

Cate: It was a very eye-opening place to be a kid. You don’t really notice the poverty as much, but you do appreciate that you have a lot more than most people. When we first came to Australia, the thing that struck us most was the cleanliness. Our favourite activity was watching the garbage trucks with the arms pick up the bins. We would wake up at 6am just to watch them. It was such a novelty.

HM: Little things. You were homeschooled in Malawi?

Cate: Mum homeschooled us right until we got to Australia. I worked pretty hard to get rid of my South African accent as soon as I joined school.

Bronte: I didn’t work that hard at it. Maybe I’m just lazy, but mine has stuck around a little bit.

HM: On laziness, Cate, you were lazy as a child, were you not?

Cate: Yes. My mother called me a “sluggard”, and that’s terrible because there’s a passage in the Bible that says sluggards go to hell!

Cate (bottom) and Bronte dive in for a 50m freestyle heat in Kazan. (Getty Images)

HM: The fact you knew there was passage in the Bible about sluggards is impressive.

Cate: Mum read it to me relatively often.

HM: Bronte, you were the best of the junior swimmers. You had the medals and Cate didn’t like that?

Bronte: That’s a funny story. We had watched the Olympics in 2000: Grant Hackett won the 1500m freestyle and that became my Olympic moment. I decided at seven years old I would swim at the Olympics — that was my dream. I was convinced that every single second from then until now was going to count, so much so that I used to get up an hour early and drag Cate out of bed, just so we could watch the big kids train.

HM: Sluggard was sleeping?

Bronte: She was sleeping. She used to do that sneaky thing where you let someone lap you so you have to do 50m less. When we went to our first swim meet, I won all my races, and Cate came third in a 25m backstroke. When we got home, I wore all my medals around my neck.

Cate: And brought her trophy to the dinner table — she used to position it next to her glass of water.

Bronte: I was quite proud of myself, not very humble.

Cate: I eventually snapped and took her medals and trophy and hid them under my bed. Mum eventually found them, sat me down and said: “Bronte worked really hard for them, Cate. If you want what Bronte has, then you’re going to have to work for it.” I decided that gold medals were much prettier than bronze, so from there on I decided that I would work hard. Then the joke was really on Bronte. While she got me in 2015, my personal best is still faster than hers, and I’m her main competition.

Bronte: Yeah, if I was only humble as a seven-year-old kid, life might be different … There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

HM: Sluggard would still be sleeping?

Bronte: That’s it.

HM: Tell me about your parents. They’ve made significant sacrifices and they are extraordinary with Hamish. What have they taught you about life?

Cate: My mother is the world’s most selfless person, she’s incredible. She gave up nursing, which she loved, to care for her family. After I decided that I wanted to work and wanted to go to the Olympics, both parents were very supportive. They said: “What you put in, we’ll put in”, and they did. Mum got up at 5am every single morning to take us to training. Dad would sit by the swimming pool the entire weekend and read every newspaper in the country. We haven’t been on a family holiday for over 10 years. I once asked Mum if she regretted that we couldn’t do all those things, to which she said: “Well, no, not really, because we get to come on the journey with you.” She is a lovely person, so I feel she may not have been telling the absolute truth.

Cate Campbell (left) and Bronte Campbell embrace post race. (Sarah Reed)

HM: Your point is well made. You guys have sacrificed a lot, but your siblings, Jessica, Abigail and Hamish, have almost had to sacrifice on your behalf.

Bronte: Definitely. It may be your dream, but it affects plenty of other people, and that’s why sport is pretty selfish. You’ve got a whole team of people who are trying to get you to do your best, but in the end it’s you standing there on the podium. It seems very selfish to us, and we’re very aware that it’s not just us.

HM: Jordan Spieth spoke recently of his sister Ellie’s neurological disorder. He said it was galvanising for their family and had given them all a great sense of perspective. Your brother Hamish has cerebral palsy. Has he done that to the Campbell family?

Bronte: Yeah, Hamish definitely adds a sense of perspective. If Africa didn’t give us enough perspective on how lucky we were, Hamish did. He can’t do anything for himself, yet he’s the happiest kid in the world. You don’t really have the right to be upset about a swim race when your little brother can’t feed himself, talk or speak.

Cate: He was born on Bronte’s fourth birthday; all she was worried about was why Mum wasn’t there for her party. He had to be airlifted out of Malawi straight to South Africa. He’s been a massive part of our lives, but Mum always said that she never wanted it to be about Hamish, and in that respect we haven’t let our lives revolve around him. Life hasn’t been allowed to revolve around us either — we’re five kids and that’s the way it’s always been. He adds a lot of joy to our lives.

HM: What’s even more extraordinary about the move from Malawi was that your mother was pregnant at the time, as well as being a fulltime carer for Hamish.

Bronte: Yeah, we would’ve been an interesting sight at the airport. Mum heavily pregnant, four kids in tow, one of them in a wheelchair. It would have been a difficult time for them, but as kids, we were ultimately unaware. Mum and Dad knuckled down, and never let on it was stressful or worrying, and they were doing it all for us.

Cate: Yeah, it was weird. When I told people I had a disabled brother, they would say, “Oh, I’m so sorry”, which I just couldn’t understand. It was never a big deal for us, why be sorry? I got to draw on him and he couldn’t do anything about it.

Bronte: He thinks I’m hilarious, and most people don’t think I’m that funny.

Cate: He’s our brother and he’s perfect just the way he is.

HM: Tell us about Simon (Cusack). He’s a jackaroo come rancher, come cowboy, come outstanding coach.

Cate: Simon’s an interesting story. He was a cowboy in America but stopped because he suffered from night blindness. Can’t see in the dark at all. He used to be a swimmer, his great uncle was an Olympic coach, and his dad was an Olympic swimmer. He decided he was going to coach at his dad’s pool over the summer, and fell in love with the sport all over again. He pioneered a whole new way of training. We wandered into the pool about two years later, two little kids with brightly coloured ponchos and no shoes on. We offered him these rusks we thought were great, but he forgot you have to dip them in coffee. They broke his teeth. We’ve been with Simon for 15 years.

The Campbell family: Jenny and Eric with children Hamish, Cate, Bronte, Jessica and Abigail

HM: What does a broken-toothed cowboy say to you just before you swim?

Cate: Simon is a man of few words; he’s not too keen on the big pep talk. His sign-off line is: “I will see you at the other end.” He’s been saying that to me since I was nine years old.

HM: It’s quite a bizarre scenario to have one coach, coaching two sisters in the same events.

Cate: He once said: “In a way I’m almost family to you, it’s almost like choosing between my daughters. You’re happy for one, you’re disappointed for the other.” He’s seen us develop from these scrawny little Africans into Olympians. I was his first Olympic athlete, and as much as we’ve made him as a coach, he’s made us athletes.

Bronte: Simon doesn’t coach distance swimmers because it bores him. Sometimes we get halfway through a long aerobics set and he’ll say, “All right guys, let’s do something different, I’m standing here bored.”

HM: You are the fastest 100m freestyler the world has ever seen … That’s really cool.

Cate: Yeah, it is. Sprinters have the best of both worlds — it’s the best to train for, it’s the best to compete in, and the best to watch. Everyone stops and watches the 100 freestyle; it’s like the blue ribbon event.

HM: Are you better swimmers for one another’s existence?

Cate: Absolutely. I know I wouldn’t push myself as hard in training if I didn’t have Bronte next to me. You can’t be beaten by your little sister; I’m not wired that way. I don’t think I would be as focused without her. We spend a lot of our time together. She knows what I’m going through and we can share those experiences; a burden shared is a burden halved.

HM: You quote a lot of stuff … impressive. Do you still love swimming?

Bronte: I don’t necessarily love getting in the pool every single morning, I more so love competing. Agassi’s book was the most impressive thing ever. He said he hated tennis, but loved competing.

HM: Hard to win majors if you don’t love the sport?

Bronte: He may not have loved tennis, but he hated to lose so much it didn’t matter. When you stand behind the blocks and you get to race, that’s when you love it, and that’s what you train for.

Cate and Bronte at the Magic Millions carnival in Brisbane this year. (Ken Butti)

HM: Take us to that moment: the Olympics, on the blocks, about to dive in — what’s going through your head?

Cate: Hopefully nothing. There’s all this chaos surrounding you, and so many emotions flooding through your body. It takes everything you have to keep level. Once that gun goes off, it’s almost a relief. It’s an unleashing of emotions, energy and power.

HM: When I say “Rio Olympics”, you instantly feel …

Bronte: Anticipation. Followed by a daunting feeling knowing how much work I have to do before I get there, but it’s a good feeling. My first Olympics was an eye-opener; it was hard. I would love to go to a second Olympics and see what I can do now, because I have grown a lot. I think I have turned from this shy eighteen-year-old who didn’t know much about the world, into someone who can see herself in a world-class Olympic final, and not be scared of anyone there.

Cate: Excitement. Olympics are unlike anything else, and I’m so privileged to be able to go and compete in my third.

HM: Cate, in Beijing you said you were naive and it was a mess. London wasn’t your best outing, either.

Cate: Third time lucky, right? It would be a lie to say I’m not going for that gold medal, but to quote one of my favourite movies, Cool Runnings, “A gold medal is a wonderful thing, but if you’re not enough without it, you’ll never be enough with it.” That really stuck with me. I have to make sure I’m enough without it, because most people will never get it, but I’m definitely going to try my best.

HM: What one trait, if you’re lucky enough to have kids, would you want your kids to inherit from your sister?

Cate: From Bronte, her brains. She is insanely smart, and one day I will get her to put her poetry into a book — it is mind-blowingly good.

Bronte: Cate’s very loyal, very understanding and very patient. I would love my kids to be that patient. It’s unlikely, but it’s possible.

HM: It’s been great to chat — I hope you both come home with gold medals.

Herald Sun


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