For someone who spends her life in the water, it’s only fitting that Cate Campbell describes her emotions about the postponed Tokyo Olympics as coming and going in waves.
Most days, they are just a ripple, barely distracting her from the extended training slog she faces before the rescheduled Games, which are due to start exactly a year from Thursday.
The Olympics are shrouded in uncertainty as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads around the globe at a frightening rate. Like thousands of other athletes whose dreams and ambitions are on indefinite hold, Campbell has had to sort through the mental baggage and focus on a distant horizon.
If 2020 had gone as planned, by now the sprint star would have finished a training camp in Cairns, completed a staging camp in Japan and be amid her peers and rivals in the Olympic Village in Tokyo. Campbell has done her best to make peace with her new reality, although it remains a delicate balance between acceptance and enduring motivation.
“I don’t want to be in an Olympic Village right now, because I’m not prepared mentally or physically to be in an Olympic Village right now. I’m not in any sort of state to be there,” Campbell said.
“I oscillate between not wanting to think about it and also wanting to keep that spark alive. One minute I’m ‘who cares, it doesn’t matter’, then it is ‘oh no, this was something special’. You just want to keep yourself motivated.
“That part is really tough, in that there is so much uncertainty and we are putting ourselves physically and mentally through something that requires something at the end, so you push through the present. You are in such discomfort at the time but there is comfort in knowing there is a finish line.
“It hasn’t been completely taken away, just moved. But there’s no real checkpoint between now and then. It’s going to be hugely challenging. The people that pace themselves are the ones that will come out on top.”
The former 100m freestyle world record holder and double Olympic gold medallist did anything but pace herself when the hammer dropped on the Games in March. She tore into a fierce exercise regime in lockdown, convinced she could keep going at the pace in which she tears up and down the Knox Pymble pool in Sydney.
‘It’s going to be hugely challenging. The people that pace themselves are the ones that will come out on top.’
Given her struggles at the Rio Games, where she missed a place in the 100m freestyle final after starting favourite, Campbell has become more attuned to her mental health. It didn’t take her long to realise she needed to confront the disappointment, not train it into submission.
“It came in waves. Initially, I was like ‘right, I’m not going to lose any strength or fitness or focus’. I built myself a gym in the yard and bullied my housemates into exercising crazy amounts with me,” she said. “Then I allowed myself to slow down and that first reaction was not wanting to confront the problem and just run away from it.
“Once I allowed myself to stop and slow down, I realised I was pretty upset and hurt and thrown by what happened. People would say ‘so-and-so’s partner is stuck in Sierra Leone and they won’t see them for six months. At least you aren’t in that situation.
“And I knew that. I knew it wasn’t bad, in that sense. But for me, it was tough. When people said ‘Sorry to hear, it must be really hard’, that helped. Once I let myself get through that, I was able to confront it and then make a realistic plan.
“Not losing strength and fitness is not a realistic plan for a swimmer without a coach and without a pool and stuck at home training in the backyard.”
At 28, with three Olympics to her name, the stakes are higher for Campbell than some of the rising stars of the Dolphins team, including world champion distance freestyler Ariarne Titmus. Should Tokyo 2021 fall victim to the virus, it may be the end of Campbell’s Olympic career.
With fresh virus outbreaks in Australia and some of the biggest Olympic nations, like the USA, at the mercy of the pandemic, Campbell could be forgiven for feeling pessimistic. But if she wants to perform at her peak next year, distraction is not an option.
“There are so many ‘what if’ scenarios swirling around that if you tried to prepare for all of them, you wouldn’t do anything at all. I’ve had to pick one and move in one direction. That is the assumption that on July 23, 2021, there will be an opening ceremony in Tokyo, whatever that looks like,” she said.
“I’m moving towards that because, if I wasn’t, I’d be paralysed by indecision. You have to prepare as if it’s going to happen. Until it isn’t happening, it is, and you know someone out there is doing everything they can to win.
“I don’t want to turn up to an Olympics having under-prepared. That’s a scenario I would never want to find myself in.”
Cate Campbell is an ambassador for Allianz, which has partnered with the Australian Olympic Committee to support athletes and talk about the importance of mental health and strength.