Farewell, Swimming. It's Time For Me To Fly

14/04/2016 10:10 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
Warren Little via Getty Images
DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - AUGUST 31: Marieke D'Cruz of Australia competes in the Women's 100m Butterfly heats during the FINA Swimming World Cup at Hamdan Sports Complex on August 31, 2014 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

Twenty-eight years ago my mum took me to a learn to swim school a stone's throw from the Adelaide Aquatic Centre at Marion, where this year's Australian Olympic Swimming Trials are taking place. The two busty old women who ran the school apparently told my surprised mother that she should never let me stop swimming. Over the years, mum realised she had little choice in the matter.

Swimming has been my life, my identity, my friendship base, my second family, my joy, my solace, my love. And this week, a career that has spanned 21 years, over two-thirds of my life, is coming to an end.

I remember watching Kieren Perkins win gold for Australia at the 1992 Atlanta Olympics in the 1500m freestyle. And again in 1996. It was a Saturday morning and we were late to my basketball game. But that didn't matter because the rest of the team was as well.

My role models back then were Kieren, Susie O'Neill, Sam Reilly, Daniel Kowalski, Ellie Overton. Later down the track I was lucky enough to train alongside Susie and Sam leading into the Sydney Olympics -- two women who taught me what it really meant to be a high-performance athlete. Nowadays I'm lucky to work closely with Daniel at the Australian Swimmers' Association, and he is a man who continues to inspire me.

In the late '90s I won at a couple of local Gold Coast meets, and the local paper asked me where I saw myself in the future. I replied that I would be too young to swim at the Sydney Olympics, being only 14 then. I thought that the 2004 Athens Olympics would be my chance to shine, and that was what I was aiming for.

In 2004, from lane 8 in the final of the 100m backstroke at the Olympic trials, I achieved my lifelong dream. My parents, who were the perfect swimming parents -- always supportive but never pushy -- were there to celebrate with me. It was our dream after all.

Later I hit the post-Olympic blues and started to put too much pressure on myself to make more teams. I became anxious and unhappy, and I retired after a most unsuccessful 2006 Commonwealth Games trials.

But a year later, I was back, moving to Melbourne and training for the 2008 Beijing Olympic trials. Alas I contracted salmonella about a month out from trials and lost 5 kilos. At that meet I won my first national title in the 50m butterfly, but it wasn't an Olympic event.

I hit my stride at the end of that year though, and went to the FINA World Cup Series. I won a lot of races, and in the final race, the event that would decide the overall world cup winner, I broke the world record in the 50m butterfly. I was the first woman to break 25 seconds for that event short course. I rang my parents and then-boyfriend Jason, and we cried together.

The following year I won again, this time the world championship, and a couple of days later Jason and I were engaged at Rome's Spanish Steps.

Lots of laps, a fair bit of travel, and many laughs later I found myself at the 2012 Olympic Trials, here in Adelaide. I'd been on the Australian Swim Team freestyle relay for the past three years, and I wanted to make the team again. But the day of the 100m freestyle came, and something was wrong. I swam reactively, and missed the semis. With that, my Olympic dream was over. I watched from home as the girls took out the gold medal in London.

After that, I picked up my shattered confidence and Jason and I, newly married, moved to Sydney to give swimming one last shot.

About 6 months ago some flick within me switched. I realised that I am proud of my achievements in the pool. More importantly, I realised that my life has been enriched immeasurably by swimming, and I don't regret one moment. The blood, sweat and tears have all been worth it, even though I couldn't achieve another fairy tale moment and qualify for my second Olympics as a 30-year-old.

My swan-song swim will be the 50m freestyle at the Adelaide Aquatic Centre, hopefully during the final on Thursday night. I've swum in 14 open national long course championships, four world championships, an Olympics, a Commonwealth Games, a Pan Pacific Games, and countless world cup and grand prix meets. I've travelled the world, made friends everywhere, met the love of my life, and had a blast the whole way. I found my dreams in the pool, and I achieved them. Swimming has given me so much, and I feel so privileged to have had such a wonderful life.

When people ask me how I can stand the boredom of swimming up and down a black line, I smile to myself. Because that is not what swimming is. Swimming is a team sport, a family. Like we say as Olympians -- once an Olympian, always an Olympian -- the same is true for swimming. When you're a swimmer, the black line is the last thing on your mind.

So thank you, swimming. You were my first love, and you'll always hold a special place in my heart.

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