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After the heartache of Rio, a refreshed Cate Campbell can finally come up for air

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Even before she made a ripple in the pool at the Rio Olympic Games, there were signs Cate Campbell had given about all she could to an expectant public and media.

Sitting in front of hundreds of journalists just days before the flame was lit at the Maracana Stadium, flanked by Dolphins teammates, the usually effervescent Campbell was stony-faced, looking as if she'd rather be anywhere but the place that had been the singular focus of her entire career.

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She dead-batted yet another question about what it was like to race sister Bronte, as well as how she was handling the pressure of being a white-hot favourite in the 100-metres freestyle, an event in which she had just demolished a world record that for so long looked impervious to non-supersuited athletes.

"I gave a lot to Australia during the Olympics. I gave a lot of myself. I'm actually quite a private person, an introverted person. I'm quite shy. I think that Australia saw many sides of me, some of which I would have liked to keep more private," Campbell says. "I want to give people what they want, but it can be to the detriment of what I want."

What Campbell wanted was individual gold, to step up to the plate with the clinical zen of an Ian Thorpe, a Michael Phelps or a Katie Ledecky and leave the world in her wake. And for a while, everything went according to plan.

Her anchor leg in the 4x100m relay sealed team gold in record time, while her heat and semi-final swims leading up to the 100m finale pointed to the victory so many had predicted. It failed to materialise, with Campbell swimming almost a second outside her best to miss the medals.

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The response was raw and heartbreaking. When she said it was "the greatest choke in Olympic history", she was only half joking. Later, in Australia, Campbell would shed more tears and say she was "ashamed" of her efforts, despite a small army of friends, family, colleagues and supporters assuring her that the globe would still turn.

For someone so accustomed to being in command of her physical and mental output, the depths were real and worrying. Now, after months of contemplation, rehabilitation of the body and mind, the 24-year-old from Brisbane has emerged from the mist.

She has allowed herself to release the iron-grip on her professional life and indulge outside of the pool, something Campbell struggled to do amid the exclusive focus on the Games, which has consumed most of her adult life.

There were mountain hikes, snowfields, adrenalin rushes and a social calendar that included the Melbourne Cup and this week, the Australian Open. It has been imperative to her healing.

"I've enjoyed doing things I haven't been able to do in a decade. I went hiking, and skiing, and skydiving. I did all these things I've always wanted to do, things I never allowed myself to do because of my commitment to swimming.

"And if I injured myself, I've got four years to recover. I lived without limits for a little because swimming can have a lot of boundaries. I removed those and rediscovered who I was without swimming."

The changes to her life have been gradual but meaningful. For the first time, Cate and Bronte, always joined at the hip, will strike out on their own and move into separate houses. And Cate has pulled back mightily on social media, sharing less and retaining more for those that know her best.

"I've just decided to take a step back. One of the things is I always feel like I have to justify myself to people. And I feel like I do that on social media. When I post things, I always wonder how it would be received or viewed. I think I just got tired of thinking about that all the time.

"I want some time for myself. I was very public for a while. I'm honest, so I always want to answer honestly. In doing that, I always give a bit of myself. I gave a lot of really, honest, hard answers after Rio. I need to fill my own cup up a little bit."

Always overly obliging with fans, sponsors and media, Campbell has even discovered a new word, one that hasn't been as difficult to pronounce as she had previously imagined: NO.

"I'm a 'yes' person but I've started to get pretty good at saying 'no'. It's been quite liberating. People don't take it personally so for me that's been a big thing."

Campbell looked lean and relaxed as she helped launch Australia's new partnership with swimwear brand Arena in Melbourne this week. Now training in her world record pool at Chandler, she has nudged closer to a full program.

But the expectations she has placed on herself are no longer perched on her broad shoulders. She would like to swim in this year's FINA world championships in Hungary but won't obsess about her prospects.

"I want to go another four years. Lock it in. But I can't make it to Tokyo if I don't relax and enjoy life a little bit. I'll still train, I'll still swim ... but when opportunities come up, I'll enjoy it. And even if this year suffers a bit, I'll be better for it in 2020.

"If I'm not back to 100 per cent this year, not back to the world's best ... I'll cut myself some slack. I always expect to be at my best but that's not sustainable all the time."

Campbell has come to terms with what went down in Rio, not that it won't still itch from time to time. Mostly, she has become content with the idea of not being content, as well as a reality that for a time she refused to see.

"I realised I did achieve some things last year ... I broke a world record, a supersuit world record. I was part of a relay team that broke a world record. I swam well in a medley relay to help us win a medal.

"I held it together – I had a big meltdown afterwards – but I did my job first. It's not all doom and gloom.

"Cheer up, Campbell." 

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