The golden girl of New Zealand swimming in the 1990s, Anna Simcic had moments of elation and regret in her career, but now she’s passing on her wisdom to the next generation of top Kiwi athletes.
In 1988, the Simcic family gathered around the radio in their Christchurch home, awaiting the announcement of the New Zealand team to compete at the Seoul Olympics.
When the aquatics team was read out, it did not contain the name ‘Anna Simcic’. And the 15-year-old swimmer was heartbroken.
“I remember being absolutely gutted, but it was a turning point in my life,” she says today.
Simcic missed selection by 0.2 of a second and resolved not to miss making the team again.
Weeks later, Simcic watched the Seoul opening ceremony with her parents and she realised hard work was ahead of her to reach her goals.
Two years later, she made her international debut, at the 1990 Commonwealth Games in Auckland. But it would be a bittersweet moment for Simcic, and one she would learn so much from.
Today, double Olympian Simcic uses her valuable insights into elite sport to help the next generation of sports stars, as an athlete life advisor with High Performance Sport NZ.
“I feel I have good empathy with today’s athletes and I understand the angst of finding balance while pursuing your passions,” says the 48-year-old proud mum of three, who’s also a consultant in high performance wellbeing.
“I particularly love working with the developing athletes and seeing their thirst for wanting to better themselves.”
Simcic remembers that thirst well. Swimming at a home Games in 1990, with her family in the stands, was a career highlight.
“I’d just finished high school and I couldn’t think of a better debut as a Kiwi teenager,” she remembers.
However, the Auckland experience for Simcic was mixed.
Narrowly out-touched by Australian rival Nicole Livingstone in her first event, the 100m backstroke, Simcic says she lost the race when she came off the wall at the turn and looked up at the scoreboard to see herself in first position, and in a fast time.
“I was really pissed at myself getting distracted and it showed my inexperience,” she says.
After claiming the silver medal, Simcic reflects on one newspaper headline labelling her performance “silver sadness”.
Her disappointment was in the way she swam her race, but she was devastated by some of the media commentary. “I did a personal best, got a silver medal and I’m 18 at my first Games,” she says.
Her support team in Auckland, including coach Brett Naylor and her parents, rallied around her, and she was determined to stick to her race plan in the 200m backstroke a few days later.
In that swim she claimed gold, inspiring the nation and in the process became the golden girl of New Zealand swimming in the 1990s.
Leading into her first Olympics in 1992, Simcic was in career-best form – a world short course record to her name in the final World Cup meets, and she was heading into the Barcelona Olympics in “the shape of her life”.
What transpired for Simcic was a nightmare.
“I was the hardest trainer in the world, but I didn’t train smart. I thought missing a training session was weak,” she recalls.
In the final altitude training camp before heading to Barcelona, Simcic got sick and was unable to get out of bed for a few days.
She never fully recovered before the Games, and on the day of her 200m backstroke, she woke up with a bad ear infection.
That made her unable to balance properly, and she was advised by doctors not to swim.
The determined Simcic chose not to listen to this advice and got through her heat to finish a remarkable fifth in her first Olympic final. It’s a result she views as the biggest regret of her career.
“I have always viewed fifth as an absolute failure because I was on fire to do some serious damage in Barcelona,” she says.
Her high standards and work ethic were both a blessing and a curse, she now realises.
“Everyone was congratulating me, but it cut me deep for a long time.” The bug she caught at altitude affected her for a long time too – for the next four years she suffered from chronic fatigue, which she thinks came from that illness.
Nevertheless, she kept swimming competitively, winning another silver medal at the 1994 Commonwealth Games, and finishing sixth in the 200m backstroke at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
Brett Naylor, Simcic’s former coach and now director of coaching at Aqua Gym Swimming School in Christchurch, says we never saw the best of Simcic’s ability.
“She was definitely a medallist in ‘92. On paper we should have done better,” he says. “I look at myself and think I could have done a better job. We were too anxious to get her back in the water and that was a mistake.”
Raised at Sumner Beach, where she still lives today, Simcic was naturally draw to swimming living by the ocean and holidaying in the Marlborough Sounds.
Her Austrian father, who met her mother in the Kenepuru Sounds, had a background in water polo which influenced Simcic’s natural swimming ability.
She began swimming in primary school at her local Sumner swimming club but in high school shifted to the former Avon Aquatics Club run out of the QEII pool (now Taiora).
“Swimming for me grew from going once a week after school to twice a week, and then I got the competitive bug,” she says.
Simcic found herself in former national swimming coach Naylor’s squad at QEII.
“We had a great team culture in our club and combined with Brett’s incredible coaching I thrived,” she says.
Describing Naylor as “ahead of his time”, Simcic says there was also a great vibe throughout New Zealand.
“I remember Brett collaborating with other top coaches like Hilton Brown and Mark Bone – everyone shared information and wanted others to do their best,” she says.
Naylor was instrumental in her mental skills preparation – introducing her at a young age to visualisation and positive self-affirmations. “Brett really shaped me as a person – he was a special unique coach.”
He says Simcic was an extremely determined swimmer who had high standards and was very tough on herself.
“She also had a very good feel for the water and could travel the length of a 25m pool in 12 or 13 strokes which is impressive,” Naylor says. “She was devoted to self-mastery – and still is today.”
Aside from Naylor, Simcic is quick to point out the influence of her parents and brothers throughout her swimming career and her training partners, particularly her great friend Olympian Phillipa Langrell.
Outside of swimming Erin Baker and Dame Susan Devoy provided inspiration as pioneer Kiwi women leading the way as the best in their sporting worlds.
“I knew Erin and Susan worked really hard and I aspired to be like them,” Simcic says.
As well as her work with New Zealand’s elite and developing athletes, Simcic is a consultant to the Performance Wellbeing Group – alongside directors Gemma McCaw, John Quinn and Dr Sarah Anticich. The specialists work with both athletes and corporates to accelerate performance and wellbeing.
The balance between both organisations suits Simcic, who admits she is fascinated with resilience and wellbeing.
“It blows me away how much people can take,” she says. “That’s why I feel we can get through whatever Covid-19 brings at us.”
For her own wellbeing, Simcic starts the day with a 5.30am run on her beloved Sumner Beach with her dog, Jess.
She does not swim for fitness and says she’s had enough time in chlorine in her lifetime.
“I count my blessings where I am and with my kids.” Jack is 17, Emily, 15, and Alice, 12.
Simcic’s influence on swimming extends far beyond what she achieved in the pool and continues to do in her legacy.
Naylor reflects on the influence of Simcic alongside other swimmers in her era, saying the way she conducted herself in her approach to training and competition set the standard.
“She was a great role model and very down-to-earth,” he says. “We could have done a better job to her as a sport and as a coach.
“Anna never got over that bug [she caught at altitude]. But she is a wonderful person and very underrated in my opinion.”