'Grief and shock': Aussie Olympians expose Tokyo 2020 'heartbreak'

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Pictured here, Aussie swimming champion Cate Campbell smiles at the end of a race.
Cate Campbell says the Tokyo 2020 postponement has thrown athletes' preparation into chaos. Pic: Getty

For Cate Campbell, it was akin to the seven stages of grief.

The Australian swimming star was in the best physical and mental shape of her career ahead of her fourth Olympic Games. Then came coronavirus.

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Instead of swimming at the Tokyo Games this weekend, Campbell has been forced to refocus on a postponed Olympics in a year's time.

"When I initially found out that the Olympics were postponed, there was grief and shock and loss and a bit of heartbreak," Campbell told AAP.

"I was preparing for my fourth Games and I felt like everything was on track. I was strong physically and mentally, I was motivated.

"I put myself in the best possible position to compete this July but unfortunately that got completely derailed.

"I definitely had a grieving period for what I feel like was a lost opportunity to have held it this July."

With shock came denial.

"At first, I resisted and I fought it," Campbell said.

"I was like 'no, I'm not going to lose any strength or any fitness'.

"For a swimmer to not lose any strength or any fitness when she was at the peak of her physical condition; when she doesn't have a swimming pool, a squad, a coach, a gym, is a completely unrealistic expectation."

Then, acceptance came for the dual Olympic gold medallist who during lockdown was out of the water for eight weeks - the longest dry stint in her esteemed career.

Returning to the pool in late May, Campbell was struck by the physical challenges.

"A general rule of thumb is for every week you spend out of the water, it takes two weeks to get it back," she said.

Seen here is Aussie surfer Owen Wright who is set to make his Olympic debut at Tokyo 2020.
Owen Wright was looking forward to making his Olympic Games debut this year. Pic: Getty

But the mental challenges were just as great.

Which is partly why Campbell and others including Paralympian Madison de Rozario and soon-to-be Olympic surfer Owen Wright joined a new initiative by Allianz Australia.

The trio are among ambassadors for Allianz, which has struck partnerships to support athlete wellbeing programs at Australia's Olympic and Paralympic committees.

Campbell and others have pledged to speak out regarding their mental struggles.

Athletes share their own mental health battles

"We are normalising it ... athletes are human, we don't turn into superheroes when we get behind the blocks," she said.

For surfer Wright, talking about his mental fears helped him achieve his dream - albeit now delayed - of becoming an Olympian.

In 2015, Wright suffered serious brain injury when dumped by a Hawaiian wave.

He had to learn to talk and walk again before even considering a return to his beloved sport.

"I got my Olympic spot," Wright told AAP.

"But to get there I had to surf the wave that almost put my lights out.

"There was a lot of fear going back to surf that wave. I had to embrace that, learn from that fear ... and not let it stop me.

"Hopefully young kids can hear that story and know that there are those fears at the top level and at the starting levels as well."

Wright would like nothing more than being in Tokyo now, preparing for surfing's debut at an Olympics.

But like Campbell, he gradually found acceptance of the postponement.

"I definitely went through the feelings of 'the dream is being dashed'," Wright said.

"When it (coronavirus) first went down, it was like 'do I break, do I continue, is it off, what's the go?

"Now, I feel like I'm ready to go. But it's a year to go still."

Triple Paralympic athlete de Rozario went through similar emotions to Campbell and Wright.

"We spend four years, in the case of the Paralympics, of planning for that moment," she told AAP.

"To be as close as we were to the Games and then have it all changed wasn't something I was used to.

"So much of what we do in sport is so structured. We function in a four-year cycle and everything works around that.

Paralympian Madison de Rozario is pictured here representing Australia.
Paralympian Madison de Rozario is keen to help remove the stigma around mental health. Pic: Getty

"It actually got quite tricky and I found motivation was a little bit more difficult."

During coronavirus lockdown, de Rozario also struggled with a lack of routine - and not being accountable.

Virus lockdown challenging for elite athletes

"I wasn't seeing my performance team all the time and that was quite challenging for me," she said.

"Finding motivation when I was the only one holding myself accountable was really tricky. It's not something I had to deal with before."

Swimmer Campbell related entirely.

"Probably the thing I struggled most with was the lack of accountability," she said.

"Usually when I turn up to training I have a coach and squad mates there to keep me accountable.

"I wish I was one of those athletes that is insanely self-motivated and doesn't need anyone.

"Definitely after the first couple of weeks, I felt that motivation begin to slip away.

"But these things happened so far out of my control, I can't dwell or worry about them because there's nothing I could have done to change it.

"I have had to learn to let those things go and to refocus on the things that I can control and work within that space."

That space included acknowledging the importance of mental health among elite athletes and general society.

"For more than half of my career it was all about being strong and resilient and pushing through those thoughts without any instruction on how to do that," de Rozario said.

"There is so much stigma that surrounds mental health.

"We're at a point now where we are really trying to shine a light on that and be more open and vulnerable.

"Right now, with the world being put on hold, is the perfect time to talk about it because everyone is dealing with so much."

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