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Cate Campbell wants to tell you the true story about what happened before the Tokyo Olympics.

The fluorescent light above my head flickers momentarily, emitting a faint buzz. I shift in my seat, tucking my feet under the chair, hug my arms across my chest and hunch my shoulders around my ears. Collapsing in on myself, shrivelling down my six-foot-one frame so I inhabit as little space as possible. 

I glance up and can barely meet the round, blue-eyed gaze of my GP. She emanates an aura of kindness and compassion that’s almost too much to bear. It glides past my protective barriers of self-recrimination and stoicism, piercing my heart. I feel tears well in my eyes. It’s June 2021, just four weeks until the start of the postponed 2020 Olympic Games, yet rather than feeling excited and motivated, I am more frightened and ashamed than I have ever been. 

My GP leans forward, interlacing her fingers on the desk, her face alight with genuine concern and curiosity. “Why don’t you tell me why you’re here” she says gently. I blink back the tears, square my shoulders, take a shaky breath and begin.


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In July of 2020, I was sitting in a different health-care professional’s office when I was diagnosed with depression. The catalyst for seeking help came when I had a meltdown over a microwave. It was 9pm at night, and all I wanted was a cup of hot chocolate. I pushed the “START” button of the microwave to heat up some milk and half a second later, instead of the reassuring hum of the microwave, there was deafening silence. The power had tripped. And just like that, as the switch flipped off – protecting the electrical circuits of the house from potential damage – a different switch flipped in my brain – except this switch flooded my circuits and opened the flood gates. 

I was plunged into darkness as the lights in the house flickered off; I felt my last finger slip off the cliff I didn’t even know I was clinging to - and was flung into a freefall of emotions. I knew I had been feeling down for the previous few months, a heaviness had settled over my heart, yet the intensity of the sobs that now wracked my body surprised and frightened me. The tiny remaining rational part of my mind knew this was not a reasonable reaction to tripping the power and something deeper was wrong.

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I have always thought of myself as a tough person; someone who doesn’t shy away from hard work. When I encounter an obstacle, I push through. When faced with pain, I grit my teeth and keep going. When tired, I get out of bed anyway. When unmotivated, I shake it off and try harder. Yet something had changed.

Cate Campbell. Image supplied.  

It was like my brain transformed into a dark vortex, sucking me in. While I was trapped in the deep, inky well, neon words flashed before my eyes. They said: "You're weak". "You should be able to get over this". "You're pathetic". "You're better than this". "Your life is good". "What's wrong with you?" 

I would try and drag myself back to the present. Feel my hands on the gym wall. The water gliding over my skin. Try to slow my breathing; escape the thoughts. But I would open my eyes and all I could see were the imprints of those words behind my eyelids every time I blinked. My brain had never betrayed me like this before.

It was a deep, unending, unbearable sadness. On a scale I had not experienced previously - and one which I would have scorned prior to my diagnosis. The weight of it crushed me. Pushing the air out of my lungs and extinguishing the fire in my heart. My eyes glazed over, and I stared at the world through a blank, milky film, as if I had cataracts not depression.

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The hardest part was the feeling of isolation. I felt like an old stray dog on the street. Malnourished, starved of human contact. Craving interaction yet repelling those who got close to me; emitting a musty, wet dog odour, warning incomers of underlying decay and disease. I was too tired and downtrodden to even give an encouraging wag of the tail, to let people know that their attention was welcome. I would simply sit there, greasy-haired and foul-breathed and retreat deeper into my own misery. 

After the microwave incident, I started seeing a clinical psychologist regularly, doing the exercises, doing the work. Trying to think of them as physio exercises for my brain. And gradually I started to improve. Little by little I caught glimpses of my old self. I had more energy, could see more clearly, yet my sense of self-confidence and assurance – the thing I rely on to compete on the world stage, to back myself going into a tough race – had suffered a damaging blow.

Cate Campbell. Image supplied.  

I never viewed mental illness as a weakness, until it happened to me. I never judged anyone for suffering from it, until I judged myself. Never thought it changed my opinion of someone, until it changed my opinion of myself. Never thought that I thought less of someone suffering from depression, until I thought less of myself.

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As the 2021 calendar year ticked over, I moved back to Brisbane from Sydney and focused all my energy on being at my best for the Olympics. I pushed my body to its limit – sometimes past its limit; attended meditation training, worked with psychologists, sports psychologists and mind coaches. So single-minded, and so convinced that I was doing everything I possibly could to help myself, that I wilfully ignored the warning signs that things weren’t quite back to normal.

Racing has always been the best part of swimming; it's why I swim. Nerve-wracking, yes. Mildly terrifying, yes. But by far the most exciting, invigorating, life-affirming thing I've ever done. Yet heading into the Olympic Trials, our one and only chance to qualify for the Olympic team, I was paralysed by an overwhelming sense of impending doom. The air was thick with dread, like humidity on a hot summer’s day. It clung to my skin and seeped out my pores. I fantasised about being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness so that I could bow out of the Olympics and still save face. While I was driving, I had visions of crashing my car into a telegraph pole so I would be too injured to race.

Cate Campbell. Image supplied.

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The closer I got to competition, the larger the spectre loomed. By the time I got to race day, I was almost catatonic with fear. I mechanically went through all the techniques I’d learned from the psychologist, sports psych, mind coach and meditation seminar. It took every skill I had acquired and decades of training and race practice to get me through; muscle memory kicked in, and carried me to the wall. I managed to qualify.

As I exited the pool after my last race, there was no joy. No elation. Not even relief. There was only terror. I was going to have to do this again in five weeks. Not only that, but it would be on a far bigger stage, with more pressure than I had been under for the Trials. "I never want to do this again", I said to my coach after my race, disguising the truth of the statement with a laugh. "I never want feel to like this again".

Listen to Mia Freedman interview Cate and Bronte Campbell on No Filter. Post continues below. 

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Despite my best efforts, a single tear escapes my eye and runs down my cheek, "I never want to feel like that again", I mumble, glancing up at my GP. "I think I need some medical help". Her smile is so kind it almost breaks my heart. "I think we can help you," she says. Her words wash over me like a cool breeze on a stifling summer’s day. For the first time in a long time, I feel hopeful.

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Four weeks before the 2021 Olympic Games I started taking medication to help treat my anxiety and depression. The reason I am sharing my story is not to invite pity nor apologise for my performances in Tokyo. I am sharing my story because I want to dispel the stigma surrounding mental health, particularly around seeking medical or pharmaceutical intervention. Before I experienced mental ill-health, and even while I was battling it, I believed it was something I could overcome through sheer willpower and determination. Opting for medication was the ‘easy way out’, and if you were strong, you could fix yourself with therapy, meditation, yoga, breathing and exercise. I refused to admit I couldn’t fix a chemical imbalance in my brain through something as simple as breathing – I just had to try harder. How naive, how ignorant, how arrogant. 

Cate Campbell. Image supplied.

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The medication I started takes two-to-three weeks to begin working. With four weeks before I was due to dive into that Olympic pool, we knew it was a risk and we didn’t have much room for error. Yet both my GP and I agreed it was our best course of action. 

About three weeks in, I started to notice some changes. Like the sun slowly clears fog out of a valley, I could feel the medication begin to clear the mist from my mind. And in the crisp, still morning air, I found myself again. I found the person who walks towards challenges, who backs herself when the chips are down, who laughs long and loudly, who is sure of who she is and where she is going.

When I look back on my performances in Tokyo, and all the things I had to overcome to even get there, I try to feel proud of the results and not ashamed of the struggles. I still struggle to not feel shame when I talk about my mental health. I’m trying to give the same kindness to myself as I give to others. I’m profoundly grateful I sought help when I did, and that I had a wonderful team to support and advise me. The outcome to my story could have been very different, but as it turns out, the result was golden. 

If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner or in Australia, contact Lifeline 13 11 14 for support or beyondblue 1300 22 4636.