Shane Gould knows a thing or two about the pressure swimmers feel at the Olympics.
At the 1972 Munich Olympics, she stunned the world with three gold medals, in the 200-metre and 400-metre freestyle, and 200-metre medley, setting world record times in each race. She also won silver in the 800m and bronze in the 100m and remains the only Australian to win three gold at a single Olympics.
She was just 15, and retired from competitive swimming aged just 17 because of the pressure and media attention her success attracted.
Today, despite Australia winning three gold, four silver and three bronze in the pool at the Rio Olympics – two more gold than in London 2012 – there are calls for reviews into “what went wrong”.
It’s perhaps a reflection of how much of the national psyche and pride is tied to the Australian swimming team and their performance amid predictions of five gold medals.
World champion Cate Campbell was certainly feeling the pressure and after missing out again in the 50m on Sunday, coming 5th, said “It’s fair to say that this week hasn’t been my best”.
Her sister Bronte finished 7th but leaves Rio with the gold medal she won with her sister in the women’s 4x100m freestyle relay.
She described her performance in the 100m as “possibly the greatest choke in Olympic history”, but showed she retained a sense of humour by adding “I nearly needed someone to come and give me the Heimlich manoeuvre to help me out there”.
Cate went into the race as the world record holder and broke the Olympic record in the heats, while her sister Bronte beat her to gold at World Championships.
She finished sixth after leading for most of the race ahead of the world record.
But Campbell showed she was a champion just a few minutes after her 50m disappointment when she anchored the 4x100m medley relay to silver after hitting the water in sixth place.
The win bolstered Australian spirits after fellow gold medalist Mack Horton missed out on a podium finish in the 1500m, revealing afterwards that he’d been fighting off a cold in recent days.
Speaking on ABC Radio 702, Shane Gould was full of praise for the “fantastic” way Swimming Australia was treating the athletes “as whole people”.
“The Olympics is just one part of their life,” she said, adding that their approach was “going to prevent the depression and bad behaviour that we’ve seen in some of the retiring athletes”.
Gould was much more concerned about life outside the pool, saying “this generation, I think, will be much much better placed”.
She disagreed with the idea of a “captain’s pick” in the team, but believes Australia should test out holding the trials closer to the event, like the Americans.
The champion, who returned to swimming in her 40s, setting new records, and coaches today, argued that the fundamental change needed was “higher stakes competition practice”.
As for what happens in the pool at the Olympics, the only swimmer to ever hold every world freestyle record simultaneously recounted her own experience at Munich 44 years ago, as she stepped up to the starting blocks for the 100m final.
Gould said that after hitting the water, she was just a few strokes into the race when a revelation popped into her head that explains perfectly what it’s like amid the intensity of competition
“Oh shit, it’s not a 100-metre day.”
She won bronze.
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