Women and success across the generations

Elite Team
Written by: Elizabeth Byrnes at 5 April '14 0
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Australians Shane Gould and Cate Campbell may be divided by the generations but they are united in achieving success on the world stage.

Shane won three golds – all in world record time – a silver and a bronze at the 1972 Olympics in Munich to become the first swimmer to claim five individual medals at a single Olympics.

Now 57, she is also the only swimmer to have held every world record from 100m to 1500m freestyle as well as the 200m individual medley at the same time.

And all by the tender age of 15.

Cate CampbellFast forward to 2008 and Shane’s fellow Antipodean Cate also enjoyed teenage success, only 16 when she won double bronze in Beijing.

Illness and hip injuries, which eventually required surgery, threatened to derail the young swimmer whose misfortune was encapsulated when she was struck by pancreatitis during the 2012 Olympics.

She still won gold as part of the sprint freestyle relay in London and a stellar 2013 followed which saw Cate claim her first individual global title in the 100m freestyle at the World Championships in Barcelona as well as three silver medals.

Here the two talk about the women who have influenced their lives, the perception of females in sport, challenges they have faced and hair, beauty and diet.


Shane credits four women with having played a major role in her life as she grew up in the 1960s in Brisbane and Sydney – older sister Lynette, mother Shirley and Ursula Carlile, the wife of her coach Forbes.

Another was Pippi Longstocking, the character created by author Astrid Lindgren.

Shane explains: “Sisters can push each other and sometimes there is rivalry but Lynette was someone I could get brave with.

“So, things like riding a bike, climbing a tree a little bit higher, swimming in the deep end, catching the waves, going out beyond the breaking waves.

“I think there are images in literature and culture that girls aren’t physically active, that is a big thing that has changed in sport in Australia at least.

“Girls are allowed to be muscular and allowed to sweat from physical exertions.”

Shane’s mother Shirley guided her daughter through the consequences of her burgeoning success.

“She said there is this thing called noblesse oblige: because you are successful you have a responsibility to be gracious in your success and polite and obliging. That was very sobering and very helpful.”

Ursula Carlile was always there in the background for Shane, someone to relate to pre and post-race.

Longstocking may seem an unusual choice but not for an independent girl growing up in a male-dominated world.

“She would go against traditional norms, nothing was a hindrance to her, she would always find a way around problems,” explains Shane.

“I think as a child particularly I modelled myself on her. Breaking through the norms of the delicate girl, the compliant.

“Australia is still rather misogynistic but back in my day in swimming it was men first.”

Cate echoes Shane by choosing her mother and sister – fellow London Olympian Bronte – as the women who have had the greatest influence on her career.

She says: “My mum because of her constant support and her willingness to lose a lot of sleep in order to drive me to and from training.

“Bronte because she pushes me in training, supports me during competition and is a fun room-mate.”

The 21-year-old points to another Australian, eight-time Olympic medallist Susie O’Neill.

”I admire anyone who can swim a 200m butterfly but Susie did it with grace and sportsmanship.

“She is the complete package, a tough competitor and a great role model.”


In recent times communication has been transformed with social media ever more pervasive.

When Shane was growing up, there was no such instant access to news although she points to an ongoing imbalance in the reporting of men’s and women’s sport.

“It was hard to find stories in the newspaper – and still is – about women in sport.

“There was a certain way of reporting about what women did which was more about her beauty and grace rather than her grunt and musculature and energy output.

“There are less barriers to achieve but the way it is reported is still quite demeaning and very narrow.”

Cate believes swimming may be a sport where sex is less of an issue.

“In swimming I believe that female swimmers are pretty much equal with the men.

“In other sports this is not the case, but society is gradually changing and female teams sports are gaining more popularity and notoriety.”


When Shane competed in Munich, she was one of only 1,100 women alongside more than 6,000 men.

That went by unnoticed by the teenager.

Instead, the only sense of isolation came because of the attention she commanded.

“I was very much alone, that is how I felt trying to manage this and my parents were helpless because they weren’t around me all the time.

“When I got third in the 100m freestyle, the Australian press had their deadlines and they wanted to interview me but I had to go for a drug test and do a urine sample. I couldn’t pee and just had to sit around in the doping room.

“By that time the deadlines had gone and the newspapers were really off me because I didn’t appear and they thought I was sulking because I got third and not first and it was really bad PR.

“It probably would have continued but what happened was the (terrorist attack on the) Israelis. The focus then became quite different.”

A review following the London Olympics concluded there had been “culturally toxic incidents” among the Australia team.

While this would appear to be a difficult situation to contend with, Cate says: “I don’t believe that there was a toxic environment in London, there were some mis-handled situations, but I did not find the atmosphere toxic.

“There was more publicity surrounding the men’s relay team, but as we were in the Olympic Village, we were very sheltered from it.

“In the end we are the Australian swim team, bound together, despite our differences, by our love of swimming and our desire to represent our country.”

Cate has also had to contend with circumstances outside her control and she pays tribute to her family, friends and coach who kept her positive and motivated.

“I knew that they loved me whether or not I performed in the pool and that they would support me no matter what happened.”


There is a real contrast between the eras in which the pair competed with an ever-growing emphasis on appearance.

A swimming cap protected Shane’s hair which became thin and bleached in the chlorine but goggles were rarely used, necessitating the use of eye drops.

She used baby oil on her legs and arms and a small amount of face cream to counteract dryness.

Cate: “Because we are a much more image-conscious society than we used to be, hair and beauty have become defining factors in an athlete’s desirability.

“Fortunately in swimming, a cap and goggles are a great equaliser – I have yet to see anyone pull them off!


Shane: “I had a very good diet with lots of fresh vegetables and fruit and always had home-cooked meals with fresh ingredients and very little salt and sugar.

“I took Vitamin B and C and wheatgerm oil.

“We didn’t have drinks on the side of the pool.

“We had a drink when we got out and maybe a snack – that’s because we were hungry not because we had been recommended it for muscle recovery.”

Cate: “There is a much greater emphasis on diet and nutrition and therefore on your physique.

“Whilst this has had a positive effect in regards to an increase in knowledge, it has also had a negative effect; you are now judged on how you look and what you eat instead just on what you achieve.”


Written by:

Elizabeth Byrnes

Liz swam with a local club in Sheffield, England, as a child before retiring at the grand old age of 12. Her lifelong love of the water, combined with a passion for travel, has seen Liz plunge into pools across the world. Liz spent 12 years with the Press Association reporting on swimming and athletics at Olympic and World level but is now fulfilling a dream as a freelance writer. When not in or around the water, she can be found hiking, running and cycling.