Cate Campbell conquers arch rival and her own fears in 100m triumph
After two years of anguish and soul-searching and doubt and disappointment, Cate Campbell needed just over 52 seconds of virtual swimming perfection to banish the ghosts of Rio, hopefully for good.
Campbell's brilliant win in the 100m freestyle at the Pan Pacs meet in Tokyo can't erase what happened at the Olympics of 2016. Nothing will. But it was a hugely signficant moment for the sprint star, whose natural gifts in the water haven't always aligned with her ability to master the mental aspect of the sport.
Rising to the occasion: Cate Campbell reacts after winning the women’s 100m freestyle final at the Pan Pacs in Tokyo.
After a new personal best of 52.03s – that's the second fastest time in history outside of Sarah Sjostrom's world mark of 51.71s – Campbell reminded herself that the big occasion was her friend, not her foe.
With America's world and Olympic champion Simone Manuel next to her in lane four, Campbell stepped up to the blocks and controlled the occasion with an iron fist, not letting it control her.
She took a slender lead at the turn and this time, there was no late fade, no pianos descending onto her broad shoulders. The world record line was right in play but it was the victory, not the time, that meant the most to the 26-year-old.
Crowning moment: Cate Campbell on the podium with second-placed Simone Manuel, left of the US, and third-placed Ruck Taylor of Canada.
"I can put that one to bed. I can put to bed all the nightmares and thoughts that come creeping in when you're lying awake, stewing over past performances," Campbell said after the race.
"I'm thrilled with that. I executed a smart race, which is what I wanted to do. I swam a personal best, these don't come around very often at my age. I couldn't be happier."
Campbell never seriously thought of quitting the sport after Rio, where she missed medals in the 100m and 50m freestyle after being heavy favourite in both. But she wondered if she could ever rediscover how to conquer the moment, to put the pieces of the puzzle together under the glare of the lights.
That, more than anything, was what this week was about for Campbell. Manuel is a fierce racer, who finds a way to win no matter the times that her rivals are swimming. This time, Campbell never gave her so much as a sniff.
"I came to peace with whatever the outcome was going to be. Win, lose… I can live with whatever it is. This is what it's all about. Moments like that make you love the sport and it makes all the sacrifices worthwhile.
"It shows I can stand up when it counts and perform when it counts. I can execute a good race under pressure and all of those things I've been working on have finally come to fruition in 52 seconds."
Campbell had played down the significance of this meet at times but it was clear what it meant when she emerged from the water, lifting her long arms in the air. You could almost see the tension evaporate.
She had beaten Manuel, one of her great foes. More importantly, she had won an internal battle that had taken such a heavy toll after 2016, leading to a sabbatical from the sport and a new outlook on the role it has in her life.
Sprint champ: Kyle Chalmers wins the men’s 100m freestyle final.
Campbell's win was the first on a strong night for the Australians. Kyle Chalmers repeated the dose in the men's 100m, with his customary surge from the back of the pack too much for American star Caeleb Dressel and Dolphins teammate Jack Cartwright, who tied for silver.
Chalmers was last at the turn but motored home in lane three to salute in 48s flat, with Dressel and Cartwright hitting the wall in 48.22s.
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