Cate Campbell

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Cate Campbell is an Australian Olympic Swimmer who went to her first games at just 16 years old.

She also boasts an incredible line of sponsorships and ambassador roles, and is advocating for the next generation of Australian athletes. 

She is driven, passionate and outrageously inspiring, despite being just 26 years old!

What I love most about Cate is no level of competition or success has gone to her head. What you see is what you get!

Here's 'My 30 Minutes' with Cate Campbell!

It's really nice to catch up with you because we're actually friends but catching up with you, and combining our diaries is crazy, and we don't get to see each other that often.

"Yeah so you decided to make it super formal and mildly awkward. No, it's great! Now we can have a full on catch up, catch up on the past few months, because it really has been that long since we've seen each other.”

It's been a huge year for you, but you've actually announced some even bigger news from what you've been up to. Tell me about that? 

"I will be making the move to the big smoke. I'll be moving to Sydney in 2019, which is terrifying and exciting, a new challenge and I'm really looking forward to it. At the same time, I'm really scared at what that means because I really do love Brisbane. It's been my home for the past 17 years. So, a move to Sydney is a little bit daunting but my coach has taken a job down there and I've been with him for 17 years, he's known me since I was 9 years old. It was a no-brainer that I was going to follow him. I've always said when he coached on the moon, I'd follow him. I guess that Sydney is this moon.”

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It's pretty amazing and Bronte has actually been living in Sydney quite a bit because she has a partner down there. So, she'll make the move as well? 

"It works out really well for her. Her partner lives in Sydney and they've been doing long distance for the past two years so I think she's quite stoked about it and that'll be great. We'll both follow him down there and don't worry we'll still be going for Queensland in the State of Origin. We'll still be rocking the maroon, they won't get me in blue."

It's terribly sad for me because I won't see you as often - I'll need to fly to Sydney for our catch ups?

"There are some beautiful places in Sydney. I think that people focus on the negative sides but there are some beautiful places. The beaches in particular but then the culture as well. And opportunity wise - you suddenly become a lot more marketable if you are in Sydney and have some experience down there."

"I think I'm probably towards the back end of my career at the ripe old age of 26. I'm one of the oldies in the Swim Team, so finishing up my career in a place like Sydney would be really beneficial for me."

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You have lived in Brisbane for a while, but a lot of people will be surprised to hear you weren't actually born here, or even in Australia?

"No, I was born in a little country called Malawi. If you've heard of it - it's probably because that's where Madonna adopts her children from. That's like Malawi's real claim to fame. I was a little bit devastated she didn't pick me. But then my mother does always keep her clothes on when she goes out in public and the same can't be said for Madonna's kids.”

“We moved over here in 2001, when I was 9 years old. It was a big cultural shock but at the same time I very much love Australia. I think it's the best country in the world. I've now done a lot of travel and every time I come home I realise how lucky we are and I'm definitely Australian.”

You're from a pretty big family. When your parents made the move, why did they choose to settle here and what was it like growing up moving at 9 years old?

“I'm the eldest of 5 kids and the youngest one Abigail was born in Australia. She was maybe one of the reasons that we moved when we did. My second youngest sibling, Hamish, he has quite severe Cerebral Palsy and that was due to complications at birth and being in Malawi which is a thoroughly third world country. There wasn't really the health care to care for him so it then became unsafe for my mum to have another pregnancy. So, once they found out they were pregnant with Abigail the knew it was time to leave. I think they'd always had their eye on Australia and They'd had Visas in applications for it and so as soon as they surprise Abigail came along they uprooted the entire family and moved to a different continent.”

“I don't know how my parents did it. They knew one person who lived in Brisbane and they arrived on the shores of Australia with four kids, mum was seven months pregnant, so just at the tipping point of when you can fly and no where to stay, no house, no job, nothing!”

“It's quite a lesson in bravery really!”

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Where does Bronte fit in the five?

"She's the second eldest. There's me, Bronte, Jessica, Hamish, Abigail."

We were joking about this before, but you and Bronte are often mistaken for twins, but you're actually a couple of years apart? 

"We're almost two years apart exactly. My birthday is on the 20th May. Bronte is on the 14th of May. When I was younger I could never understand why I was older but Bronte's birthday came first. It was a point of tension - the 6 days. How was I older but Bronte's birthday was first?”

“Hamish is actually born on Bronte's birthday as well - on the 14th four years later.”

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So, you're not twins at all. But the two of you form what Australia knows as the greatest sister-act we've seen in the pool, in the nation's history. What is it like to loose to your sister and how close are you, or how competitive are you? 

"I think that you could turn that question on its head and say what's it like to beat your sister? Because you're obviously incredibly pleased for yourself, but at the same time you're feeling her. And then you flip it - I'm feeling for myself but I'm pleased for her. There's bitter sweet moments in every situation and every scenario."

"I'm not about to sit here and say that it's wonderful and beautiful, but it is incredibly special and it is incredibly unique. It's not always easy but it's extraordinary."

"It's a childhood dream that has been realised - since the ages of 7 and 9 when we moved to Australia and started swimming, we sat in the back of the car and talked about what we were going to do with our lives after we'd been to the Olympics. I think that if you learn anything in life it's that dreams can look different in reality but that doesn't mean that they're not special and not worth chasing. The things in life that are worth going after can be difficult. They cause you pleasure and pain because if there wasn't pain involved you wouldn't realise how special it was and how wonderful, and how privileged it can be.

"It's complicated but we really are as close as it looks when we are on camera. I think that because we do share that really special bond and really special connection."

Unless you are an elite athlete you can't possibly fully understand what it's like to stand behind the blocks, what it's like to get up in the morning and train every day and push your body beyond the limits that it's supposed to be. We're pushing past all those safety barriers that your brain tells you 'you don't want to do this because it will damage your body'. We damage our bodies, we go past what humans should do and to have someone that is with you every step of the way and gets that is a real, real privilege. And it's a really special, unique, challenging, beautiful, wonderful relationship that we have.”

You train together - when you're training for a particular comp - how many hours are you training?

“Sort of between 25 and 30 hours a week we'd spend at various forms of training.”

Morning swim session, maybe weights session and another after swim session? 

"Yes and spin class, and pilates and all of those things thrown in between.”

And you do all of that together?

"Yep we would do all of that pretty much together. When we're in the pool we do have our heads underwater, so we don't have to talk to each other full time."

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On top of that you were also living together. You also share a fairly similar social group as well. I feel like in recent years the two of you underwent a bit of a transition - Bronte moved out and you started living slightly more independent lives of each other. Was that a healthy transition for the two of you do you think? 

"Yeah I think so. When we initially moved out and started living together we were both quite young and in a way,  it was kind of the next step to living out of home.”

“We're not really pushing our comfort zones much because we've still got each other to lean on and you're still in that really safe family environment. Then as you begin to grow up you begin to have your individual identities, wanting slightly different things for your life. We are actually quite different people and have different interests and we want to associate with different people. Because we did spend so much time together it was just a natural progression. It wasn't this big fight where Bronte packed up her stuff and moved out. It was just the natural progression of growing up and it probably means that when we see each other and catch up we actually really talk to each other, instead of just living together and saying 'oh what are we doing to have for dinner? Whose turn is it to do the washing? You didn't fold your washing! You didn't stack the dishwasher right!' Now when we sit down and we have to make the time to see each other outside of a training environment - we kind of make that time count a little more. So, it's different but at the same time we've managed to keep the intimacy there as well.”

Let’s talk about after Rio. Rio was probably the greatest upset of your career so far. The most heartbreaking moment. Bronte was over there. Did it make a difference having a family member by your side? 

"We never actually talked about it and we haven’t really talked about Rio together."

"I think that we both had our private separate battles to deal with but I think knowing that they were there and going through that with you. If I had wanted help I would literally only had to reach out my hand and I could have touched her bed, that's how small the rooms were and she was right there for me. Having that safety net really helped during what was a really tough couple of weeks and then coming home to the broader supportive network that I have around me - it really did help soften the blow.”

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You often share rooms. Did you share a room at the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast? 

“Yes, we are roomies. When we go away! When you're in competition mode it's very high stress environment and people deal with stress quite differently and it's great because I can just tell Bronte if there's something she's doing that is annoying. I also tend to get extremely messy during competition and it stresses me out if I'm rooming with someone who is quite neat because I feel like I have to up my standards so I'm as good as them. Or I'm worried that my mess will annoy them. Bronte is messier than me, so I feel really good about myself. We also have the same programs, we swim the same events which means we go to the pool at the same time, we come back from the pool at the same time, you don't have to sneak into the room.”

It's cool because you want to be able to be yourself in that environment. It's really amazing that there's not much you could do to annoy her to a level that she’d want to grab you and shake you. 

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I watched your Andrew Denton interview on Channel 7. It had the two of you there. Bronte recited this amazing poetry. I actually didn’t know that about her. I feel like maybe that was common knowledge, but I genuinely didn’t know that. She has a real gift with words. Do you have any hidden talents? It seems like a hobby for her, if you were doing something away from the pool – what would it be? 

“Bronte is a super intelligent, incredibly creative person. I used to win quite often in the swimming pool but if you try and get in an argument with her and she will run circles around you with her words. The way that she can string them together – she will say something to make you agree with her, and then you think ‘no wait, I don’t believe that’. She’s like ‘Yeah, I don’t believe it either I just wanted to see if it could get to you to believe it’.”

“She writes a poem for every swimming competition that we go to and reads it out to the team. I’m privileged because I get the first couple of readings. She’ll ask ‘do you think I need this line here, or this word here?’”

“I’m a lot less complicated. Pretty much what you see is what you get. No real hidden talents. I had one great talent in life and that was swimming, and that’s what you see.”

“If I’m away from the pool – anything outdoors. Whether it’s going for a walk, bike ride, I recently bought myself a kayak. Anything that gets me outdoors and keeps my body moving is something that I really enjoy, but no hidden talents.”

You describe swimming as your hidden talent – amazing hidden talent and you almost owe that to Bronte because Bronte got in the pool before you and was really loving it. You got a bit jealous because she was bringing home these medals and you wanted those too, so you decided to start swimming as well. I’ve often heard it said by sport commentators about the two of you – you have all the natural ability but Bronte has all the drive. It’s almost a bit offensive – but you are a foot taller than her, you’re a bigger build, naturally and physically you could be better in the pool than her in that way. But she’s crazy determined, she often trains harder. What do you think if we combined the two of you – what sort of person would we end up with? 

“While we do have very different physiques, if you look at a swimming race there are very many different physiques. Yes, Bronte might have had that determination and tenacity as a kid, and I may have some physical attributes but there are very many more things that go into making a good swimmer than your stature. It can come down to your anaerobic energy capacity – lots of scientific words that I could put in here that no one else is interested in. Who knows because it’s not just drive and determination or physical ability – it’s your passion and your love for it and your willingness to make sacrifices. I think that anyone can achieve great things in life as long as they find something that they’re passionate about and they enjoy. It’s about finding those two and figuring out what that looks like.” 

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Away from the pool you’ve been studying at uni. You’ve done that on and off part time. Tell me about your studies? What do you hope to do after swimming? 

“I’m studying Media and Communications and I’m not 100% sure what I will do with that. I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I started the degree. I still don’t know what I want to do but I’d love to combine my love of sport and the high performance environment that it attracts and I find that you’re surrounded by highly motivated, highly driven people – whether that’s the athletes, whether it’s the sports scientists, whether it’s the support staff, even the people who usually end up working for a sport organisation – with my interest and little bit of love/hate with the media industry. I think that it’s a really engaging, really dynamic, really different environment to work in. It would be constantly stimulating, the thought of going and sitting in an office cubicle from 9 to 5 and just sitting at a computer typing is honestly my worst nightmare! So, I’d love something that could combine the two of them. Whether that’s a media manager for a sports team or if there’s a charity, or a cause that I’m really passionate about. Then in some way you can take control of the narrative and you can constantly put out positive messages. If I was a media manager for a sports team I’d be in a position where I’d be creating positive content for the athletes and about the athletes and in a way I kind of feel really protective of them because having been on the other side when things are written about you that aren’t particularly nice it does hurt. So to be in that media manager role, even if someone has done a bad swim or a bad performance I can still put a positive light on that. No one tries harder than the athlete and no one is more gutted and more hurt than that athlete. If I can help that in some way – that’s something that I’d really enjoy doing.” 

You’ve got classic oldest sibling, protection mode going on. 

“I know, I am the mother hen. It’s definitely one of the things of being the eldest child, but I see all those people and I see how hard they work and if I can make life just a little better for them, I would like to do that.”

You actually have naturally taken on a role, almost what you want to pursue. You’re heading overseas later this year, you’ll be meeting up with Ian Thorpe over there. You’re representing Australia at an Olympic Forum? 

“I’m going over on behalf of the AOC – the Australian Olympic Council – to an Olympism Forum, which is being held in Argentina in Buenos Aeries who are hosting the Youth Olympic Games, for those up and coming athletes who dream of becoming and Olympian this is a prequel to that. You go over and we’re going to discuss issues that are pertinent to athletes and it’s great that they hold these forums and allow athletes to air issues. Whether or not they’ll listen to them is another thing but the fact that they’re taking some people over there is really good.”

“I’m also a member of the athlete’s commission for the Australian Olympic Council. So again, really advocating on behalf of the rights of athletes is something that I’m incredibly passionate about.”

Let’s talk about your achievements. You’ve been to 3 Olympics – Beijing, London, Rio. You’re hoping to go to Tokyo 2020. But regardless, 3 Olympics, a stack of world championships, Commonwealth Games were earlier this year – you went home with a bunch of medals, swam incredibly well. You’ve just had world champs in Japan – 5 golds over there. From a pool perspective you’re a Rockstar, from my perspective or anyone that knows you, you’re an incredibly lovely person. Not everyone can nail both. You’ve got a great family. You’ve got your love live and personal life bubbling along on the side. Do you ever take a step back and just feel like you’ve actually achieved success? What does success feel like to you?

“It’s kind of weird because as a kid I always dreamed of going to the Olympics, and being an Olympian, and representing Australia and I achieved that by going to my first Olympics when I was 16. I never stopped to think ‘this is a lifelong dream’, it was always ‘ok, I’m going to the Olympics – what’s the next thing, where do I go to from here, how do I keep improving, how do I keep bettering myself?’”

“It’s probably only in the past 2 years that I’ve had to take a step back and say ‘cut yourself some slack! You don’t always have to be moving at 100%, you don’t always have to be pushing to the next thing, sometimes it’s ok to say you did a really good job, cut yourself some slack, take a little break!’ As soon as I do well, some people would think that’s the time where you sit back and go ‘Ah everything I’ve done has gone well’. When I do well I’m like ‘Alright I did that – I can do better’ or ‘what can I do to do better’. It forms this vicious circle that once you do well you’re addicted to that so you keep going. I’ve had to say ‘no that’s not a healthy way to be, you can’t always be about achieving your goals’. Most of my goals are centred around swimming and sport. You have to have a well-balanced, well rounded life, because sometimes it does go your way. You have to have these places to fall back on. I’ve had to sit back and say ‘hang on, you did a really good job, be proud of yourself, don’t just move on to the next thing, take the time to bask in that, to celebrate it with the friends and family who have made the many sacrifices to help you get to that place and then you can start again’.”

For people who don’t know you – they would look at you and think ‘Cate is so successful!’ You’re one of those characters we see in the media, you’re a household name across the country, even in other parts of the world. Do you feel successful at all? Can you imagine how other people view you? 

“No and it’s kind of weird and a little bit awkward when people are like ‘I love you, you’re so amazing, you’re so inspiring’. But my room is really messy. There are dirty dishes in my sink. I’m really lazy. I should have washed my hair this morning, but I didn’t, so I just tied it up. I’m actually just a really normal person and I think you could say that about everybody in life. Most of my friends are as un-sporty as you can get, but I think they’re incredible. I have a friend who is doing a PHD in Fine Particle Physics. That’s a concept that I can’t even begin to grapple with. She has literally explained her PHD to me 4 times and I still don’t know, I couldn’t tell you what she’s doing. I think everyone has those things that, she’s someone who I look up to and who inspires me and I think everyone has that, it’s just that mine is on TV and hers isn’t. Hers will become an article that maybe a handful of super intelligent people will read, but could possibly shape the future of the world, but yet people will know my name and they won’t know hers.”

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Something I know about you is you are incredibly competitive. I can’t understand that because I don’t have a competitive bone in my body. Sometimes I wish I was competitive so I actually cared more about certain things. You’re the opposite! You’ll be competitive if we’re like ‘who can get dressed faster?’ What is the WHY behind everything you do. Why do you do what you do? I feel maybe it’s because you wanted to be an Olympian and that comes with competition and being competitive but is there a bigger picture of why does Cate Campbell do what she does?

“It’s more about how can I be the best version of myself. I look at someone who has done something great and I think ‘if they can do it, why can’t I?’ I think people sometimes feel threatened by people who are really successful because it creates this uncomfortable distance between that successful person and the state that you’re in now. Instead of wanting to lift yourself to their level, you kind of what to drag that person down. Australia has quite chronic ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’. But if we flip that and we look at that person and say ‘they started from where I am and look at where they are, if they can do it, then why can’t I?’ Everyone has their different strengths and weaknesses to work with and around, and everyone will have their own different goals that they want to achieve and strive for but if that person can achieve great things with their talent and through their hard work, why can’t I do the same thing? I think that it’s drawing inspiration from different people but also constantly wanting to better myself. I don’t want to stagnate. I want to keep moving forward. If you keep doing that, then you have an ever moving and evolving goal, which means that you’re never going to stop.”

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I think that’s probably the key for successful people. They never feel successful because the goal keeps moving so you achieve something but it’s hard to celebrate because you’ve got your eyes fixed on the next thing. So perhaps you are very successful without realising it? 

What do you think the future holds for Cate Campbell? We’ve talked about your studies and things like that but in 20 years’ time where do you want to be, what do you want to be doing? 

“In 20 years time, that’s a long time. I’d hopefully – this is going to sound really boring – but I’d hopefully be settled with a family. I’d be doing something that I love doing. I’d be surrounded by people who love and care about me. It’s really boring, it’s like the white picket fence really. It’s not extraordinary, but I hope that I would have a positive impact in the lives of the people who I come into contact with on a daily basis. I think that we underestimate our ability to impact the people who we then come in contact with just by being kind and just by being good, decent people. If you see someone at the checkout who is looking particularly glum – give them a compliment because it might make their day. Everyone is battling demons that you know nothing about and if you could make their life just a little bit better by your being there, then you’ve made a difference in the world. My brain is not smart enough to work out all the astrophysics and figure out how we’re going to remain on this planet and how life is going to be sustainable, but if I can make life a little better for the people who this planet has to sustain – then I think that’s a life worth living. 

Cate Campbell, Olympic Gold Medallist and World Changer – even with just her compliments! 

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Lots of kids? 

“Probably only a few. Part of me wants a big family but then that’s a lot of work and I don’t do well on no sleep. I feel like I’d be a terrible person which kind of defeats the purpose of my life’s ambition (laughs)!”

Time will tell!

Time’s up, Cate Campbell thank you so much for joining me for ‘My 30 Minutes’. 

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