Cate Campbell Breaks Her Silence to Shed Further Light on That Fateful Night in Rio

START OF SOMETHING: Cate Campbell's start is now breaking news. Photo Courtesy AP.

Respected Australian sportswriter Wayne Smith is an old school scribe who has always had a keen eye for the finer points of the game and as a clever wordsmith he tells how it is – you can smell the sweat, you can see the blood and relate to the tears.

He has been around sports grounds and swimming pools for almost 50 years, reporting on anything that bounces and anything that makes a splash.

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STRONG ARM: An elated Duncan Armstrong celebrates gold. Photo Courtesy: Swimming World.

He was poolside when Duncan Armstrong – a fellow Queenslander caused one of the great Olympic upsets to win gold in the 200m freestyle in Seoul in 1988.

He was there again when another great Queenslander Kieren Perkins won gold in the 1500m in Barcelona and then swam the race of his life to do it again from lane eight in 1996 and when Suzie O’Neill and Petria Thomas won gold and silver the same night.

And when Ian Thorpe and Grant Hackett ruled the lanes of gold in 2000 and 2004.

When another great Queensland girl Stephanie Rice made the medleys her own in Beijing and when Kyle Chalmers and Mack Horton added their names to Australia’s long list of Olympic gold medallists in Rio four years ago.

It was there that he stood next to fellow News Limited sportswriter, columnist and author Mike Colman, like all Australians anxiously awaiting the start of the women’s 100m freestyle with Cate and Bronte Campbell both wearing the famous gold cap – Cate the world record holder held the best Aussie hopes.

Cate Campbell AUS, 50m Freestyle Final, 18th FINA World Swimming Championships 2019, 28 July 2019, Gwangju South Korea. Pic by Delly Carr/Swimming Australia. Pic credit requested and mandatory for free editorial usage. THANK YOU.

FLYING START: Cate Campbell flies off the blocks. Photo Courtesy: Delly Carr (Swimming Australia).

The starting mechanism sent the field on its way and immediately the keen eye of Smith saw movement at the station and he turned to Colman and said: “Cate just moved..she broke…I think she’ll be disqualified.”

History played out over the next 53 seconds and Campbell had the most disappointing race of her life, finishing sixth – Smith wrote that in his column for The Australian.

Inside Campbell was shattered, outside she put on a brave face and carried herself like a true champion, as she made her way through a mixed zone of media – a place you really don’t want to be when you haven’t exactly covered yourself in glory.

She went into various “melt down stages” from the television interview with Channel 7 to dealing with accepting the fact that she choked.

Campbell has moved on, taking 2017 off, coming back in 2018 to conquer the Pan Pacs and line up next to the best of the best at the Worlds, the Fina World Cups and the ISL.

She is now preparing for the 2020 Olympic Trials in June as she looks towards a fourth Olympics – to equal Leisel Jones record.

Smith too will dust off his note pad for a ninth Summer Olympics and in preparation put in a request to talk to Campbell and for the very first time since that fateful day in Rio had the chance to ask her about “that start.”


WORD-SMITH: The Australian Newspaper’s chief Olympics and Swimming writer Wayne Smith. Photo Courtesy: The Australian.

This is his story, published in The Australian this week.


MAKING A SPLASH: Cate Campbell in Rio. Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

It was the biggest race of her life, the 100m freestyle final at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, and Cate Campbell swam it fully expecting to be told at the finish that she had been disqualified.

For the first time, Campbell has spoken of the real reason she finished sixth in a race that seemingly all Australia had decided she would win.

For the past three years, Campbell has been prepared to let Australians think she choked. Cate Campbell is convinced she jumped the gun in Rio.

Indeed, she herself fuelled that version of events. But there was way more to the story than that …

Just before the starting gun had fired in Rio, Campbell had moved on the blocks. She then swam the entire race in the belief that she would be disqualified.

To this day, Campbell doesn’t know for certain whether she moved enough to warrant being disqualified. The officials no longer drop a false start rope to rein in any swimmers who have left the blocks early. Instead, they allow the race to be swum to the finish and only then break the shattering news to any transgressors.

The fact that no blazer-wearing official was waiting for her as she left the pool isn’t convincing proof in her eyes that she hadn’t made a false start.

It might simply have been that she had finished sixth, well out of the medals, and the officials were content to let sleeping dogs lie. Had she recovered from the mishap to win gold, silver or bronze … then, perhaps it might have been a different story.

“No, no, I moved,” Campbell said.

“But I might have been still enough to move again when the starting signal went.”

Campbell looks stunned after her 2016 100m freestyle failure. Campbell is consoled by her fellow competitors.

It was in that anxious and ambivalent state that Campbell hit the water. Under normal circumstances, she would by now have reduced her race plan to one or two words, like a professional golfer who whittles down their swing thought to a single key phrase.

But on this day, that was all thrown into chaos. Her mind was in a jumble. The last thing she was thinking of was her race plan.

“I was about 90 per cent sure that I would be disqualified,” Campbell recalled. She paused before continuing. “Maybe it would have been a preferable option.”

Had she been scrubbed from the race, it would at least have provided the Australian public with an answer, however unpalatable.

They recall Raelene Boyle’s disqualification at the start of her 200m semi-final at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. And then, of course, there was the graphic image of Ian Thorpe toppling into the pool before his 400m freestyle heat swim at the selection trials for the 2004 Athens Olympics. Anguished images, deeply engraved in the tales of Australia’s sporting tragedies. Images that the public could at least get their minds around.

Ian Thorpe tumble

FALLEN STAR: Ian Thorpe’s unfortunate tumble at the 2004 Australian Olympic Trials. Photo Courtesy: Sport The Library.

But this was an inexplicable defeat.

Campbell had gone into the final with one Rio gold medal already in her keeping, from the 4x100m freestyle relay, where she had executed her race plan flawlessly.

Cate Campbell gets a hug from her sister Bronte after finishing sixth in 2016. The race:

She had set a world record in the lead-up to the event. But the individual race itself was a shambles. It made no sense.

“The world got to witness possibly the greatest choke in Olympic history a couple of nights back,” she told Channel 7.

Campbell found herself envying distance swimmers, for the first time in her career. Had she made the same mistake at the start of, say, the 800m freestyle, she might have had time to clear her head, put all the negative vibes to the back of her mind and concentrate on the race. But a 100m event gives none of that luxury.

“I won’t say exactly what I said (once in the water) because you won’t be able to print it. But it was along the lines of, ‘holy ….’, I think I have just been disqualified. And then any race plan you had has been taken over by this overarching thought and 100m is not enough time to really reformulate and go again.

“I always say that it was probably the first 25m, 35m of that swim that derailed the whole event. I just dumped way too much energy and that was part of it.”

In pure panic, Campbell sprinted to the front of the field, turning first at the 50m. But, like Gary Hall Jnr in his epic anchor leg of his relay race against Thorpe at the Sydney Olympics, she realised almost instinctively that she had overswum the first lap badly.

She had raised her stroke rate through the roof. Normally, that’s how you recognise Cate Campbell in a warm-up pool filled with hundreds of swimmers, by her long, powerful, very deliberate stroke.

Campbell won gold earlier in the meet as part of Australia’s 4x100m freestyle relay team.

But now it was revving, almost out of control, and it was time to pay the bill. She finished in 53.24sec. Her world record at the time stood at 52.06sec.

To this day, she is still trying to unravel the events that happened that night at the Estadio Aquatico Olimpico, to determine whether her behaviour on the blocks was cause or effect.

“I’m not sure if it was the movement at the start or whether that was a symptom of the mental stress I was under,” she said.


TOP PROSPECT: Cate Campbell has her sights on Tokyo and a fourth Olympics. Photo Courtesy: Swimming Australia

Campbell doesn’t break at the start of her races. If anything, she takes way too long getting going.

Most swimmers have a reaction time of around 0.6sec. Campbell regularly takes 0.8sec to clear the blocks. Almost invariably she is the fastest swimmer through the water. On the rare occasions that she loses, the margin of defeat can invariably be traced back to her slowness off the blocks. That’s what comes of being 186cm tall. Long levers.

The mystery is unsolved but the result remains the same.

“Yeah,” she said. “The end result was the same.”

Now, in the lead-up to Tokyo, she has to decide whether to keep that lesson firmly in mind. Or to chuck it in the dustbin of history.


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Carlos Lomba
4 years ago

Fernando Delgado Sellas

4 years ago

Any videos of the race? Cate

Craig Lord
4 years ago
Reply to  P

In the file now …

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