“Success and happiness are not linked.” Cate Campbell reveals her advice for life’s tough times.

The Olympic swimmer opens up on heartbreak, hope and healing.
Cate Campbell smiling

It’s hard to miss Cate Campbell in a crowded room and it’s not just because of her towering stature or incredibly lean, sculpted figure.

Raw, honest and not afraid to reveal the vulnerable, the 31-year old Olympic swimmer and Avène Australia skincare ambassador makes a surprising admission. “I am definitely a people pleaser,” she says, a soft smattering of freckles dancing across her cheeks as they lift to make way for her trademark beaming smile.

“I realised early that the best way to get people to like me was to win. But then I started to think that the only reason people liked me was because I was winning. If I wasn’t winning, I didn’t think I held any value or any worth and that people would not want to be associated with me.”

It’s a surprising confession from someone who oozes strength and self-assurance but the captivating candor is part of her charm. Things have not always gone to plan for Cate but she has well and truly come out the other end. And now she’s sharing her advice for others facing adversity.

Cate Campell’s advice on facing failure

The favourite for gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics, Cate missed out on a medal, a result that not only left her feeling crushed under the weight of disappointment but attracted both pity and scorn from members of the public. “Honestly, some people didn’t want to know me after that, or they would come up to me in public to share a criticism. A lot of people did that, but then a lot of people were still in my corner and applauded me for trying.”

That burden of expectation shifted after she received a letter from two young sisters who reminded her that she had nothing to prove. It was the turning point that propelled her towards the Tokyo Olympics. Despite bringing home bronze, the four-time Olympian was ready for a break and took 15 months off after the 2020Tokyo Olympics to travel. Although she says she hasn’t ‘achieved’ anything in that time, Cate has never been happier. “Success and happiness are not linked. We learn a lot from failure…in fact all successes are built upon failures. It doesn’t mean all the time and effort you put into prepping is wasted and it doesn’t mean we should be ashamed.”

Cate Campbell sitting on the edge of the pool wearing a blue swimsuit
Olympic champion Cate Campbell

Can Cate Campbell make a fifth Olympics?

It has taken some soul searching to get to this point but Cate’s fierce determination to exercise that hard-won resilience is palpable: She is attempting to become the only Australian female swimmer to race at a fifth Olympics in Paris next July. Withy a wry smile, she somewhat sheepishly admits that the monotony of 35 hours of training each week for the past 10 months (and counting) seems like a lot for what comes down to a career-defining 90 seconds in the pool.

“The older I get the more I realise enjoying the process is more important than thinking about whether all the torture will be worth it if I don’t achieve the desired outcome. To be honest, even when you do achieve what you’ve been striving for, once you come down from the high you find you are no happier after a win than you were before. Happiness and achievements are not linked.”

“I have been at my most successful and most unhappy at the same time. In the last couple of years, I haven’t ‘achieved’ anything but my happiness levels have increased.”

Although Cate has achieved incredible success, her focus has shifted beyond sharing the wins – it’s the tough times, she believes, that are truly character shaping. “It’s the moments when you feel exhausted, downtrodden and disheartened that you find new reserves of strength and innovative or creative ways to solve a problem. Resilience lies in the tears and the heartbreak and in those really low moments. We need to recognise them and celebrate them because the bad times are the ones that build you up and make you stronger…you are stronger than you think.”

Does Cate Campbell have melanoma?

Outside of the pool, Cate’s strength has been tested in other ways. Diagnosed with a stage 1 melanoma in 2018, she was left in shock at the news. “I had had that mole my whole life and it didn’t look any different so to suddenly to hear the words melanoma…it was really scary. In that split second, your mind can speed up to a million miles per hour. I was already thinking about chemo and radiation and, because my arm is so integral to what I do, I was just thinking, oh no, where is this going to go.”

The resulting passion for spreading the word about getting skin checks regularly did bring one new win – the ambassadorship for Eau Thermale Avène , who have a long history of sun safety advocacy and who offer the highest level of skin support for Cate’s Scottish heritage complexion. “I’m in the pool for 2 hours every morning and by the time I come out I look like a raisin,” she laughs. “I have moisturisers stashed around the car and am reapplying three to four times a day just to try and keep my skin hydrated. I slather on Avène Cicalfate as soon as I get out of the pool.”

Wrestling with body image and learning bravery

While her skincare needs are well taken care of, getting back into shape for her return to professional sport was a challenge Cate Campbell had to find the motivation for of her own accord. Having trained at elite level since she was pre-teen, the long break after Tokyo was the first time Cate had experienced her adult body in its ‘natural’ shape. “It was the first time I had met my body outside of swimming so it was a bit confronting sometimes…I shrunk and spread at the same time. I lost muscle in my shoulders and my hips and stomach got bigger. But I was aware that this was very normal and it didn’t bother me.”

Once she returned to the pool, Cate describes watching her body change into its current sculpted state as a bit of a science experiment. “I recognise the shape I am currently in is not normal and is kind of unhealthy really as I am pushing my body to limits.”

Although she has felt intense pressure while at the top of her game in previous Olympics, Cate seems remarkably relaxed about Paris, particularly given that this will be her last one. “I can really soak up the experience, both the good and bad, at every stage because I am conscious I won’t be doing it again. I’m so tired and so sore all of the time but, at the same time, I also know this is the last time I will be this fit and strong so I am leaning into that as well.”

By her own admission, Cate has done a lot of growing and changing since her previous Olympic swims. “When I’m in Paris, I hope people see someone giving their best and appreciate how much time and effort has gone into that no matter the end result.”

Rather than focusing on winning, this is what Cate will be thinking about before she dives into the pool. “I will just remind myself to be brave. What I love about bravery is that it only exists in a place where there is fear and discomfort. You can’t be brave in your comfort zone.”

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