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‘It was like looking in a mirror’: Cate Campbell can relate to O’Neill

by ZwemZa on September 17th, 2019

Cate Campbell has bounced back from her own disappointment to become a senior leader among the Dolphins.Credit:AP

When Australian swimming icon Susie O’Neill broke down on radio as she watched, for the first time, her 200m butterfly final from the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, there was one athlete that identified with her more than most.

O’Neill was the white-hot favourite to win her pet event at her home Games. The previous night, she had ensured an individual gold medal was already in the bag with victory in the 200m freestyle. As the 200m fly world champion and world record holder, Madame Butterfly would now take flight for her crowning moment.

It didn’t happen. American rival Misty Hyman went out fast and finished even better, with O’Neill unable to run her down over the final stages and winning silver in her final event before retirement at age 27.

For 19 years, the moment had haunted O’Neill, now a morning presenter on Nova in Brisbane and a deputy chef de mission for the Tokyo Games next year. Replaying it would unearth emotions the usually stoic and always grounded O’Neill had buried deep down, long ago.

I’m still trying to find reasons even 19 years later,” she said through tears. “If I could swap my 200m free for this I would, this one was more important. I’m ‘Madame Butterfly’ at this stage, that’s my nickname … this is my race.

“But I knew this is my last race, so this is how it ends. It’s stupid, hey … I know I won all those races, but it’s hard not to be fixated on your last one.”

To be honest, it was almost like looking in a mirror of how I felt immediately post-Rio

Cate Campbell

From her new base in Sydney, freestyle sprint star Cate Campbell watched the footage and swiftly sent O’Neill a message of support. O’Neill had helped Campbell through the depths of her disappointment after the Rio Olympics when, as unbackable favourite for the 100m crown, she faded to miss the medals.

Now Campbell saw in O’Neill the same emotions, the same rationalisations, that she had wrangled with as she tried to come to terms with her own performance on the grandest stage the sport can offer.

“To be honest, it was almost like looking in a mirror of how I felt immediately post-Rio,” Campbell said. “What was really interesting was that the fear of watching it was worse than actually watching it (for her). You can see the emotional scars and the pain that leaves on you.

“All of the things she had done to try and cope, I had done as well. You want to fend it off, you don’t want to face it head on. When we (athletes) fail, we feel it much more deeply than anyone ever could. I hope that people will learn to be kinder from seeing more reactions like this.”

While it was difficult to watch a friend and swimming mentor deal with such an outpouring of emotions so publicly, Campbell also said there was an element of relief in seeing that she wasn’t alone in trying to come to grips with a result that didn’t go as planned.

“I found it very confronting, in her obvious heartbreak,” Campbell said. “But I also found it really validating… I know it’s just a race, all of those things she was saying I know they are true… but the depth of her feelings, I had also felt. It was really comforting to see someone of her stature, even 19 years later, that those feelings are real.”

While it took almost two decades for O’Neill to watch the vision of her event, Campbell made it a relative priority as part of her healing process, which has seen her become one of the formidable racers in the world once more less than a year out from Tokyo.

Preparing for an onslaught of negativity from the public, media and even herself, Campbell wrote down the worst possible scenario from every quarter, then read it over and over again. When she eventually pressed play, she had partly succeeded in numbing the pain.

“I watched my race. I wrote out every thing that I thought other people would say about me, or said about me. I wrote the things I said to myself, then I wrote out all the worst things the public could say about me, then all the things Simon (Cusack, coach) could say about me.

“It was all there on paper and I read through it over and over again and desensitised myself to it. Otherwise, you live with that fear all the time.

“Knowing something and actually believing it are two different things. Just because you say it to yourself doesn’t always mean you believe it. I just had to accept this is what happened. From there, you can move on.”

Campbell has become a beacon for Australian swimming, both in and out of the pool, with her comeback set to turn full circle when she swims in Tokyo next year. For now, the former 100m freestyle world record holder is preparing to take part in the inaugural International Swimming League, where she will compete for the London Roar.

Phil Lutton | The Age

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