Olympics: Cate Campbell Back in 100 Free Olympic Final, Delivers Triumphant Bronze Medal Moment

Jul 30, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Emma McKeon (AUS) and Cate Campbell (AUS) place first and third in the women's 100m freestyle final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports
Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports

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Olympics: Cate Campbell Back in 100 Free Olympic Final, Delivers Triumphant Bronze Medal Moment

The list of career highlights for Cate Campbell is lengthy, her international career having now spanned almost half her life. As a 15-year-old, Campbell broke her first Australian record in the 50 freestyle in 2007, and in 2008, she captured bronze in the event at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing behind Germany’s Britta Steffen and the United States’ Dara Torres, the American joining her on the podium 25 years her senior.

Since then, Campbell has remained a force internationally, her form occasionally dipping but then rebounding in stellar fashion. She has excelled at almost every competition in which she has participated. She has played a key roll in leading Australia to three straight Olympic gold medals in the 400 free relay. She has won 12 World Championships medals, including capturing her lone individual world title in the 100 free in 2013. She broke the 100 free world record one month before the 2016 Olympics, and the 2018 Pan Pacific Championships was the highlight of Campbell’s swimming career as she rolled to five gold medals.

Jul 28, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Cate Campbell (AUS) after the women's 100m freestyle heats during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Grace Hollars-USA TODAY Sports

Cate Campbell after her 100 free prelims swim in Tokyo — Photo Courtesy: Grace Hollars/USA Today Sports

But ever since that day in August of 2008, a return trip to the individual Olympic podium had eluded Campbell. Most disappointing for Campbell was the 2016 Games in Rio, where she arrived as the newly-christened world-record holder in the 100 and left with a devasting sixth-place finish in the 100 free and a fifth-place marker in the 50 free. While she simply missed out on bronze by 0.04 in the 50 and gold by just 0.08 in an exceedingly close final, the 100 free was far more dramatic.

In that final, Campbell rocketed out and was first to the turn by a significant margin, only to tighten up badly down the stretch. The result devastated Campbell, and it took time to fully move past that disappointment. She had to learn to be proud of what she had accomplished, not dwell on where she had come up short.

One year after Rio, Campbell said, “I’ve broken world records, I’ve become a world champion, I do have two Olympic gold medals, and one of them is in a world-record time. Yeah, they are not individual, and yeah, they are not exactly what I wanted or what I would dream of, but that doesn’t mean my whole career has been a failure. I’ve had maybe one or two bad swims, and if I put them on a scale, the good far outweighs the bad, and why am I getting hung up on this one little negative? Well, more than little. It was big, let’s face it. But why am I letting one bad swim define my whole swimming career? It doesn’t make sense.”

By the time the Tokyo Olympics finally arrived in 2021, Campbell was no longer the central star of Australian sprinting. That title belonged to Emma McKeon, who ranked first in the world for 2021 in both the 100 free and 50 free prior to the Games. It was McKeon who broke the Olympic record in the prelims, McKeon who had the top seed in the final and, ultimately, McKeon who captured Olympic gold and swam the second-fastest time in history.

And Campbell, the 29-year-old in her fourth Olympics, touched third, 0.07 ahead of Canada’s Penny Oleksiak – one of the two swimmers who tied for gold in the Rio final that was so devastating for Campbell. Campbell’s final time of 52.52 was her fastest in two years.

As the swimmers touched the wall, cameras caught a beaming Campbell reach over the lane line to hug McKeon. “I’m so proud of you!” she exclaimed to her teammate. A few moments later, when appearing in a televised interview with Australia’s Channel 7, Campbell teared up. “This means the world to me,” Campbell said.

No, this was not the coronation moment she had expected five years earlier in Rio. It was not even a gold medal. But it was sweeter because of all that had come before it and because she got to share in the moment with McKeon, her teammate on so many international relays going back to 2013. It was sweeter because after so many attempts that came up just short, she was back on the Olympic podium by herself for the first time since she was, frankly, a kid.

Jul 30, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Cate Campbell (AUS) celebrates after finishing third in the women's 100m freestyle final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Grace Hollars-USA TODAY Sports

Cate Campbell during the 100 free medal ceremony at the Tokyo Olympics — Photo Courtesy: Grace Hollars/USA Today Sports

“I am so glad there’s going to be an Australian national anthem echoing through this stadium, and I’m so glad I get to be on the podium and share that moment with her,” Campbell said. “I am really happy and emotions are going to get the better of me, but it’s been a really long journey to get here and I’m incredibly proud of that performance.”

As hard as Campbell worked to move past the events of 2016, her journey needed this moment to be complete. “There were understandably quite a few demons knocking at the door when I woke up this morning, but I held them all at bay and performed when it counted to get another Olympic medal,” Campbell said.

Campbell’s work is not done yet for this meet as she still has the 50 free and 400 medley relay to go (although it’s unlikely she competes on the mixed-gender medley relay). In the 50, she is ranked second in the world to McKeon and is one of just three swimmers to swim under 24 this year, so maybe Campbell could triple her career tally of individual Olympic medals in a 48-hour span (after 13 years of the total stuck on one). Even though McKeon is the fastest Australian 100 freestyler, Campbell will still handle anchor duties on the medley relay since McKeon will be needed on the butterfly leg.

And maybe now that she has ticked the individual medal off her list, these last few days of racing will produce a freer, inspired Campbell than we have seen in a long time, certainly at an Olympics. The Rio 100 free final singlehandedly derailed her Olympics, so could the opposite happen now, where this breakthrough unlocks greatness and lets Campbell put together two more special performances?

We will find out, but if nothing else, enjoy this chance to celebrate one of the sport’s all-time great sprinters and her cathartic moment Friday in Tokyo, perhaps not her very best swim but certainly among the most meaningful.