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Rio Olympics 2016: Cate and Bronte Campbell, from Malawi to world domination | One Herald
Home / Health / Rio Olympics 2016: Cate and Bronte Campbell, from Malawi to world domination

Rio Olympics 2016: Cate and Bronte Campbell, from Malawi to world domination


From humble beginnings in Malawi, to the Olympic stage in Rio, the Campbell sisters are used to multicultural experiences, specialising in world domination. With Cate recently putting her name in the history book with a 100m World Record and Bronte biting at her heels, Rio may well be the Campbell show. 

Already they have set the benchmark for the Australian swimming team, leading the 4 by 100m freestyle relay team to world record-breaking gold.

Emma McKeon, Brittany Elmslie, Bronte Campbell and Cate Campbell on the podium in Rio.
Emma McKeon, Brittany Elmslie, Bronte Campbell and Cate Campbell on the podium in Rio. Photo: Getty Images

Malawi was where it began for the champion sisters. The constant heat of the African summer meant the girls were always in some form of water.

“We don’t actually remember learning how to swim. Mum was a synchronised swimmer and our grandma was a swim teacher, but the heat had a massive impact,” Cate recalled. 

The girls were your typical sisters growing up; best friends one minute, feuding the next. One memory stands out, a parenting blunder their mother Jenny now laughs about.

“One day, when she was 5 years old, Cate decided she would cut her hair,” Jenny said.

“When I asked her about it, she blamed Bronte. Poor Bronte copped getting in trouble for cutting Cate’s hair and also for lying about it when she denied it!” 

A few years later, the Campbell family made the move to Australia, one that came with a few cultural shocks.

Australia's Cate Campbell, Bronte Campbell, Emma McKeon and Brittany Elmslie, from left, hold their gold medals after ...
Australia’s Cate Campbell, Bronte Campbell, Emma McKeon and Brittany Elmslie, from left, hold their gold medals after winning the women’s 4×100-meter freestyle final setting a new world record during the swimming competitions at the 2016 Summer Olympics, Saturday, Aug. 6, 2016, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man) Photo: Lee Jin-man

Cate and Bronte recall waking up before 6am every week with their younger sister Jess to watch the garbage truck collect their rubbish – something they never had in Malawi.

To them Australia felt very safe, no fences around houses to be seen apart from the ones keeping the family pet in its own yard. This country was one that was a whole world away from their country of birth, but Australia already felt like home.

Australia's Emma McKeon, Brittany Elmslie and Bronte Campbell celebrate gold in the 4 by 100m freestyle relay at the Rio ...
Australia’s Emma McKeon, Brittany Elmslie and Bronte Campbell celebrate gold in the 4 by 100m freestyle relay at the Rio Olympics. Photo: AP

The girls enrolled at a swimming club in Indooroopilly in order to make friends before the upcoming school year. One sister, however, took it more seriously than the other. Bronte, as a 7-year-old, would walk to training an hour early to watch the ‘big kids’ train to try and gain an edge.

She was also caught in negotiations with her coach attempting to organise extra training outside of the designated six sessions a week, which of course was met with resistance. The only way Bronte would miss training was if she was grounded.

“Bronte was always motivated so the only way Mum and Dad could properly punish her as a kid growing up was grounding her from swim training,” Cate laughs.

At only 7 Bronte had the mentality of a champion, the burning desire to not only win but also be the best. Bronte had an Olympic dream.

This is not, however, how Cate was originally wired. As a 9-year-old she loved swimming but did not have the determined attitude back then. That was until Bronte began parading her medals around the house, showing off.

“I actually remember Bronte sitting at the dining table about to eat dinner, with her big age champion trophy sitting next to her,” Cate said. “I was sick of it!”

And so from that moment forward the two girls trained competitively under Simon Cusack, who is still their coach. An innovative approach by Cusack saw the girls develop speed before developing any sort of endurance, going against every training theory in swimming.

“He was the laughing stock of the coaching world for a little while as he was the first person to turn that model on its head, but now he has three world champions.”

While Bronte had the drive to succeed, Cate was motivated by putting in the hard work with coach Cusack then coming out of the training block with an achievement –  a cycle that would keep one motivated to follow a black line both before and after school every day. They claim that their high performance childhood was one that they wouldn’t trade for anything. 

“Swimming, for me, was fun,” Bronte said. “It was the one thing that I wanted to do. I’d hate to know the trouble I would have got myself into if I had more time to myself!”

They both admit that school was a bit of an afterthought, with swimming being at the forefront of their minds. It’s not hard to see why, with Cate competing in the Beijing Olympics when she was just 16. 

“We actually found that we completed all of our homework during school time… we weren’t allowed to train so we may as well have been productive… there was nothing else to do,” Cate said. 

What the sisters call an afterthought, others would call a huge success with the sisters achieving an OP2 and OP5 between them. 

Whilst at school, the girls did find time to try their hand at a couple team sports, such as touch football. However an ultra-competitive ego, and teammates that weren’t as motivated to win, ensured that their careers in those types of sports were short-lived.

“I hated not having full control of the result, and despite giving my all my team may lose because someone else didn’t have a good game,” Bronte laughs. 

As swimmers, the girls love the thrill of the race, the one opportunity to show everyone what you’ve got. No matter what, at the end of the day, it is 100 per cent on them.

Their coach started their preparation for Rio four years ago. But to them it wasn’t until the World Championships were finished in August 2015 that they even allowed themselves the luxury of thinking about another Olympic Games.

“We just take it one step at a time, building through each competition,” Bronte said. 

While the girls are both World Champions, there was never any guarantee that they would be back in Australian colours at the Olympics.

“We never took the Games for granted. We still had to qualify at nationals like every other swimmer. Your past performances mean nothing unless you swim the qualifying time on that day,” Cate said. 

A camera in the marshalling area at Nationals revealed a Campbell tradition that had flown under the radar for some time.

“Bronte and I always share headphones and listen to music before we race. We haven’t picked a song yet but it will be the same throughout the whole Olympics so we have to make sure it’s a good one.”

The sisters are keenly aware that in order for a Campbell sister to win individual gold, the other will have to miss out. Rivalry aside, they are best friends in and out of the water, so whatever happens in Rio, Gold or not, their kinship will stay strong.



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