Giaan Rooney

Giaan Rooney is a former darling of Australian swimming and an Olympic gold medalist.

Since retiring she's gone on to have a successful media career, alongside other entrepreneurial pursuits.  This week she also gave birth to her second child - a girl named Alexa Leigh. 

Giaan is a great friend and mentor. She came into my life in a whirlwind nearly two years ago, and we’ve been close ever since.

She has taught me so much about life, love, work ethic and how to treat people. 

I hope you enjoy 'Our 30 minutes'.

Paint a snapshot of your life for people.  

Sometimes I feel like I’ve lived a few lifetimes in one and it’s pretty much broken up between my life as a swimmer and my life after retirement. There’s two very distinct parts of my personality and my life that are very separate. Now after being retired for 11 years I can’t even put myself back there which is very strange.

I grew up in a typical family – mum, dad, younger brother. I grew up in Brisbane. We moved to the Gold Coast when I was eight. My Dad was an Air Traffic Controller so he wanted to not work shift work at Brisbane Airport, and have more routine to see his kids grow up.

I started grade three at Miami Primary, All Saints Anglican High School. Loved it. I had a great childhood, was always outdoors, was always active, my curfew was when the street lights came on.

My life really changed forever when I was 11. I was at my primary school swimming carnival. A friend of mine said I’m going to join a swim club did you want to come. I said ‘that sounds great.’ I started off at two afternoons a week, loved it, begged my parents to let me go three afternoons a week, and then begged for more. From the ages of 11 and 14 I swam during the summer and played netball during the winter. Netball was my other great love. I managed to make a state netball team.

"My swimming coach said ‘you’ve got a lot of talent, you could really do something with this but if you want to you have to make a decision now." 

As all our family decisions were made – we sat down around the dining table and it was a full family discussion. It was my dad that said ‘you can always come back to netball, but if you want to be a swimmer and have a go at going to an Olympics you have to do it now.’

I made my first Australian team the next year. It only took me 14 months. I made the Australian Commonwealth Games team at 15 years old. I got to not only swim and train and see my heroes and my idols close up – I got to room with them. I was rooming with Sam Riley and Susie O’Neill, and seeing how they operated and how they did things, how they trained, how professional they were.

That was it for me. As soon as I saw that comradery and support, and the amazing experiences that they were having I thought – I don’t ever want to not be on this team.

It was almost like I had success before the light bulb went off that ‘this is what I want to do’.

I didn’t grow up from a little kid thinking I want to go to an Olympics, I want to be a swimmer.

It was just a decision that was made out of a love of doing something that took my life in a whole new direction.

 What does your life look like now?

 I’m married to Sam who is a fifth generation cattle farmer. We met through mutual friends and when we met he was doing his helicopters pilots license. We have absolutely nothing in common. He had no idea who I was, or what I did. And I had no idea about his world.

In a lot of ways we’re complete opposites, but what I love about Sam is he is his own man. He has a strong sense of self. He doesn’t care what anyone else thinks about him. His motto is ‘I’m a good person, I know I’m a good person, I do the right thing by people, I work hard and if there’s something that someone doesn’t like about that – that’s their issue’.

We’ve been married six years this December. We have a three year old boy called Zander. He’s an absolute rat bag, he’s a million miles an hour, he’s hilarious and I hope his traits of being very strong willed and very spirited end up seeing him being successful in the right world and not leading him to jail. 

Did you feel prepared for life after swimming?

There’s been a lot of talk lately about athletes transitioning from sport to life. I never had an issue, my transition was very easy. I credit that with being a realist, and also timing played a huge role.

I retired from swimming at the age of 23. I could have kept going quite a number of years if I wanted to but it was a light bulb moment.

 "I was an athlete who loved racing, hated training." 

If I could be a footballer and compete every weekend I’d probably still be swimming. But you only had two major shots at it each year to do the part I loved, which means a lot of time to do the part that I disliked.

I had a really strong work ethic. I don’t have any problem saying I worked really hard. When I trained on the Gold Coast I was the only girl in the squad, so there was no girls session. If I didn’t keep up with the boys, I didn’t keep up. That taught me to be really tough.

I was 22 years old and training for the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. It was a home crowd, I was living and training in Melbourne at the time. But it was about six months out and I realized for the very first time that I was proud of myself. That sounds really strange but I realized I was proud of what I achieved. I was never an exceptional athlete but I felt I didn’t have any regrets and I was proud of myself. In that moment I also realized that if I was proud of myself - another medal, another record, nothing was going to change that feeling. Then I had this thought - if I died the next day and people came to my funeral is the only thing that they were going to be able to say about me was the fact that I could swim ok? I realized there was so much else I wanted to do in my life. This all happened in one training session, in a sport that’s won and lost by a hundredth of a second, so I knew I’d lost the edge.

"This all happened in one training session, in a sport that's won and lost by a hundredth of a second, so I knew I'd lost the edge."

I kept it to myself for a couple of days. Then I told my family that the next Commonwealth Games would be my last. I never trained harder than I did in that last six months. I never made more sacrifices, knowing that this would be my last one. But even my coach didn’t know this would be my last competition. I didn’t want it to affect my preparation.

At the time I was also made captain of the Australian Swim Team which was a huge honour. I only got that because Grant Hackett was injured and unable to compete, so I was very much a second choice, but I was ok with that.

I was excited about life after. At the time I was sponsored by a major television network and had a great relationship with the sport department there. They had always said to me ‘whenever you hang up your bathers, you come and see me. We will have a chat about what you want to do after. I reckon we can do something for you’. So I had that in the back of my mind.

As it turned out it was a horrific last competition. My pet event was the 50 metre backstroke. I was so motivated to win this one last time and walk away with a Commonwealth Games medal around my neck.

I started well and I remember finishing and knowing that I’d won. I looked up at the scoreboard and the scoreboard had my name first and then as I was watching it, it changed. It then had Sophie Edington my fellow Australian first and me one one hundredth of a second behind her. I’ll never forget I just kept staring at the scoreboard, and Soph started going nuts with excitement. But I kept thinking ‘it’ll change back, it’ll change back. I know I won this race, it’ll change back’. And it didn’t.

I got out in a complete state of shock. I didn’t show any leadership or Captain qualities at that time. That was my last ever race and no one knew that except those closest to me.

I walked through the marshalling area. It’s my biggest regret because I walked straight past Nicole Livingstone in tears. At that point I couldn’t comprehend what had happened, I still thought there was going to be a mistake and it was going to fix itself.

"As it turned out in the wash up, the touch pad had failed. Video footage showed I had won by half a foot. They don’t take video footage into account. I lost that race."

Omega timing ended up sending me a very expensive watch to try and say sorry but that was my moment, my last ever moment and I felt so robbed.

On top of it I got absolutely blasted by the Australian public and the media, and probably rightly so, in my position as captain for being a bad loser and dealing with it so badly. So I then had to come out and explain it was my last race and that’s why I was so devastated.

It wasn’t a great ending. It was my only bad time in my whole career and it happened to be my last one.

Does it feel to you like you’ve achieved success?

 I find success a really hard word to define. It is so individual to a person.

I look back and I’m proud of what I achieved in my swimming career. I had a degree of success but I’m such a realist and there were so many athletes who did so much more than me and were so much more exceptional.

I had a quote on the back of my bathroom door that said ‘The harder I work, the luckier I get’.

My school friends used to say you’re travelling the world, you’re doing this and you’re winning medals - you’re so lucky. It really used to annoy me. If you want to do what I do, and get up at 4:47am every morning of your life, when it’s cold and it’s wet, your body aches and you smell of chlorine – you could be lucky too.

There is always an element of luck. For me it’s been timing, but nothing is achieved without a hell of a lot of hard work.

What I gleam as success out of my swimming career is everything that it taught me. It taught me how strong I am. It taught me that I have a great work ethic, if I need it. It taught me that I need to back myself. It taught me about my strengths and weaknesses - knowing your weaknesses is more important. It taught me also that you can’t have everything all of that same time. There’s a lot of sacrifices to get anything in life.

"What I gained out of my swimming career is another career. I couldn’t be doing media without that."

But it taught me that more than anything I’m going to be ok in my life.

How would you define success?

I think of myself as a 95 year old woman, still with all my marbles, still with a degree of health and looking back and having no regrets in my life. Being proud of the person that I am and looking back and saying I raised my children well, my grandchildren, my great grandchildren. And that I got through life without causing anyone else any pain or distress and that hopefully I added something to some people’s lives.

 What kind of legacy do you want to leave for your daughter?

We’ve got women standing up for ourselves and we don’t accept any less just because we’re female.

Men and women are so different, so I don’t believe we always have to be on par. We bring such different skill sets to all that we do, we are biologically so different so we’re never going to be exactly the same. I love the fact that, especially women in sport these days, there’s women’s football leagues, the Rugby 7’s won the gold medal in Rio, I love the fact there are equal opportunities.

"Hopefully I can teach her that as long as she’s proud of herself – that’s all that really matters."

*N.B. - This was not a paid interview. Giaan donated her time for 'My 30 Minutes'.