A meditation on the highs and lows of elite sport performance
By Tamsin Cook OLY
2021 was golden a year for swimming in Australia, and for me, in a much less newsworthy sense, my year in swimming was golden too. In 2021 less than a year after returning to the sport from retirement, I achieved two life-best times in my key events, placed 2nd in Australia in the 400m Freestyle, and subsequently booked a ticket to Tokyo. At the Games I placed 9th in the 400 and swam in the heat team of the 4x200m freestyle – our girls went on to win bronze in the final. My performances were small contributions in the scheme of our great, history-making team, but they were golden for me.
Fast forward to May 2022 and I found myself hurtling towards the other end of the spectrum. A disappointing qualification trials left me with no best times, no goals achieved, and no team prospects for the World Championships and Commonwealth Games. The year before I explained away the Olympic disappointments of my peers with words of compassion, and an understanding that sometimes you can do everything right and the performance you worked for does not happen. However, when it came to my own disappointment, I did not treat myself with the same compassion I offered my friends. Instead, berating myself for what I did not achieve.
It is this intense brand of self-criticism that is at once the superpower and kryptonite of so many athletes. The voice inside our heads that urges us to the summit also buries us beneath the dirt. For me, it didn’t matter that my preparation had been mired by a host of problems – an interstate relocation, a bout of COVID isolation, and mental health stumbles – as elite athletes, we hold ourselves to the highest of standards. So, when the lows happen, and they always do happen eventually, we inevitably crucify ourselves in the process. In the moment the lows seem pointless, and it can be difficult to see a way forward in the sport. The lows reflect our weaknesses and nothing more. Hours of hard work, hundreds of kilometres, all risk for no reward. A season wasted.
But with distance comes perspective, and we know a low teaches us more than a high ever will. Humility, gratitude, and perspective among other things. This year at the forefront of those teachings for me was the rudimentary question of ‘why’. Why do I swim? Because despite the medals, travel, and accolades, the answer to that question has not changed since I stood on the blocks for the first time as a child. I swim because I know I never feel more alive, more human, than in that moment right before I finish a race when anything is possible. So, with that said, back to riding the highs and lows we go. I’ll see you next season where I’ll be chasing the why.