“Burn baby burn, and metronomically, they burned out.” International New Zealand swimmer Jane Copland tells of the ridicule, pressures and mismanagement of young people’s lives rampant within competitive sport in this country.
‘Tiramisu,’ the swimmer said, pinching the skin below her hip and above the hem of her loosely-fitting tracksuit bottoms. ‘That’s what this is.’
She pushed her fork away and looked at me pointedly. Above the white tablecloths, my face flushed, regret for my softer skin turning me highlighter pink in the winter sun from the windows that looked over the Ligurian Sea. She’d saved her drop of poison for the moment I’d finished mine, and she smirked. Her head game was honed, as much a matter of muscle memory as the ability to vacate a starting block in half a second. An old hand, a master. A pro.
I tell people I learned to swim in the diving well at Moana pool in Dunedin, which is a lie (I learned at the physiotherapy pool in town) but swimming at Moana was the beginning of my love of the sport. Aged four, I leapt off the springboards, terrifying the lifeguards, and it was at Moana aged sixteen that I won my first New Zealand national medal: a silver in the 100 metres individual medley. At the time, I believed that my ambitions hurt no one. It was fine that I had snuck my hand onto the wall in a top-three position at the nationals, allowed to wobble up onto the podium for an official to drape a medal around my neck. Wasn’t it? I would come to learn that it wasn’t. I didn’t appreciate how I fit into an ecosystem of politics, grudges and presumed natural order that my existence upset. Tiramisu, the swimmer had said. Now in my thirties, I try to imagine pinching my hip and telling a sixteen year old, this is because I had dessert two days ago.
I would spend twelve years of my life a competitive swimmer, collecting three national titles, one open national record and a free university education along the way. It isn’t the curriculum vitae of an outsider, but my sporting life was nothing if not fraught with contradictions. I had no context for what was happening to me, so it just happened. Swimming certainly didn’t choose me. It didn’t want any bit of me. We happened to each other.
By the time I was eleven, my father was coaching swimmers in Wellington and during the school holidays, I’d be taken to the pool twice a day. Sometimes I’d join in with training sessions and races. Having never left New Zealand, I began a campaign to be brought along as a passenger to the New South Wales championships in the summer of 1996. My father was nonplussed about shelling out for a holiday, so he concocted a foolproof plan.
‘You can come if you qualify for an event,’ he said, confident that I wouldn’t.
It took me three months to achieve the qualifying time in the 100 metres breaststroke, and my father had to find the money to fly me to Sydney for my twelfth birthday. When we arrived for the first morning of competition however, Dad was perplexed to find that my name wasn’t in the entry list. He knew the meet director personally, so we took a trip around Sydney’s expansive Olympic aquatic centre to correct the issue. Upon looking at the entries and at me, the meet director asked, how old is she?
‘Eleven,’ Dad said. ‘She was entered in the Thirteen & Under races.’
‘It’s not “Thirteen & Under”,’ the director replied. ‘It’s just Thirteen. How old is she?’
Over and over again, my peers met their ends. Shoulders gave way. Anaemia’s icy grip wiped out a few more. Weight gain was blamed on lack of self control instead of natural puberty. Depression, anxiety, confusion.
Dad balked. ‘Eleven,’ he said.
‘No, David,’ the meet director said, eyes wide and trying again. ‘How old is she?’
‘Oh! She’s thirteen!’ Dad confirmed, and I swam as a thirteen year old in the New South Wales age group championships for three years. Sometimes, politics and relationships worked out in my favour. Sometimes they did not.
My father was, and still is, well-known in New Zealand swimming. The most accurate adjective might be notorious. He has run a blog since 2002 whose content has always been critical of swimming administration, and in some quarters he is vehemently disliked. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin.
Not scholars of the Old Testament, the swimming community. My sin was my parentage.
When track and field met its reckoning with bullying in 2019, the sudden outpouring of stories from runners was a cultural dam bursting. Former high school star Mary Cain went on record with the New York Times to accuse her coach of weight-shaming and bullying, which would have been bad enough, but was made much more shocking with how many runners from all over the world said, me too. Me, too. The first thing I ever knew about myself as a swimmer was that I was useless.
In the throes of puberty, my years between fourteen and sixteen had been spent navigating a changing body whose thighs and hips suddenly slowed me down before their distribution into adulthood. I found myself devoid of stamina and speed while I trained even harder. My body was melting: the wiry limbs and broad shoulders of childhood drifting downwards. For over a year, I’d felt swollen and lethargic but my skin was starting to feel like mine again, and my swimming results were improving by the time I sat in a dining room serving tiramisu. I had just taken another whopping two seconds off my best 200 breaststroke time. I can never prove what the swimmer was trying to do as she delivered her sugar-sweet rebuke of Italy’s most famous dessert, but the benefit of the doubt is not on her side. Psychological games were common, a velvet hammer check on the presumed natural order, a tool to correct situations that were seen to be getting out of hand, and I was on the cusp of becoming a very bad situation.
My father’s swimmers were viewed as flukes when and if they were successful, and the narrative was that he could only coach female sprinters. It was said that he was simply lucky: absurdly talented athletes just happened to cross his path, and those women would have been successful no matter who had been their coach. I was different. It was more personal with me, partly because I was his daughter, but I also wasn’t the typical tall sprinter for which he was known. At five foot four, I am short for a competitive swimmer. I am a breaststroke specialist, and I am not a sprinter. If I managed to drag myself into adult form and achieve something, the narrative would be under threat.
At a different competition earlier that summer, I withstood a midnight diatribe in a Sydney hotel from a New Zealand official about how I, in his words, was an embarrassment to my country. He spent over an hour labouring the point, finishing with the directive that I should go home. I wasn’t welcome at the competition, beginning the next morning. You, so it went, are useless. A truism, but one that was being threatened by evidence. They were losing control of a story almost as old as me. As hard and fast as possible, I had to be dispensed with.
When I read about Mary Cain, I immediately thought of Italy, but I’d thinned out in my late teens and no one ever weight-shamed me again. It was the theme of ridicule and unworthiness that caught my attention. People shared stories of bullying and disregard when they were predetermined to be unsuccessful. On the last point, my attention was piqued by Lauren Fleshman, U.S. 5,000m champion twice over, who wrote an article in Runners’ World about how she was put through a series of tests and deemed to have limited potential. Already one of the top teenage runners in the United States, she was the second-fastest girl chosen to take part in the tests. ‘Science,’ Fleshman writes, ‘took a big steamy one on my dreams’. Everything from her body composition to maximum oxygen uptake placed her as the “worst” athlete at the camp. She was devastated. Her national victories came nine and thirteen years later.
Useless. It got really old, performing well and having people express shock. You? But you’re no good? Fleshman’s “limited potential” was predicted by tests, none of which took into account the fact they were being administered to girls in the middle of enormous physical changes that wouldn’t settle for years to come. Mine was the result of politics. But the results were largely the same: two sixteen year olds dejected and confused that our realities were dismissed by experts. An accusation of mediocrity was irredeemable, no matter how hard the subject worked. It was an infinite sentence, and it implied moral disgust as much as physical. Mediocrity was not just a reason to ignore an athlete; it was a reason to treat them like shit.
‘You weren’t good enough young enough,’ the New Zealand official had bellowed at me, alone in the Novotel in the Sydney Olympic park, five years after I’d been allowed to race in the New South Wales State championships across the road as an eleven year old because I’d achieved the thirteen year olds’ qualifying time. ‘You have no potential. You’re a national embarrassment.’
Within two years, I’d broken the national open short course 200 breaststroke record. I swam my fastest 200 breaststroke at the University of Minnesota’s winter invitational six years later. In Sydney at midnight, I didn’t know this would happen. I sat crying in a bus shelter on Olympic Boulevard. Lauren Fleshman’s coach told her ‘(The tests) are useful, but they don’t mean everything. Life is not a math equation. Neither is running.’ My coach told me to go to the pool the next day and swim my heart out, and I did. But how many of us did they destroy with their treadmill tests or midnight admonishments?
Of those who showed ability at a young age, many were over-trained, over-raced and over-hyped until physical and mental exhaustion, not to mention injury, saw them quit before their twentieth birthdays. One or two survive it.
And the damaging effects of favouritism go beyond those of us deemed stunted. The treatment of our supposedly more talented peers was troublesome, and often easier to ignore. Of those who showed ability at a young age, many were over-trained, over-raced and over-hyped until physical and mental exhaustion, not to mention injury, saw them quit before their twentieth birthdays. One or two survive it. They are held up as reason for more government funding and proof that the system works.
But of the collateral: speak to people who watched them fail, and it was always the swimmer’s fault. Nobody ever seemed to wonder what it was like for a thirteen year old to be shouldered with the expectation of elite success, to be aware of how many people were placing their bets on her. Just as I knew from a young age that I was a lowlife, my peers knew when the hopes of the national swimming administrative body were riding on them. None of them were lazy. For many, their dogged commitment was damaging: they sprinted through training session after training session with the desperate goal of fulfilling their predetermined destinies. Burn baby burn, and metronomically, they burned out.
Over and over again, my peers met their ends. Shoulders gave way. Anaemia’s icy grip wiped out a few more. Weight gain was blamed on lack of self control instead of natural puberty. Depression, anxiety, confusion. Why are all the also-rans getting away from me? I added to the psychological torment for many of them because suddenly our roles were reversing. Imagine being beaten by a national embarrassment. You may as well quit on the spot, and several of them did.
Sports like swimming are very tough but abuse and bullying are not inherent. We didn’t deserve to be pawns in adult power games, often left over from grudges founded before we were out of the learners’ pool. Young athletes enter sport deserving absolutely nothing besides a clear shot at reaching their potential. And part of realising potential is developing an honest appraisal of exactly what that is. By the time I was eighteen, I held a New Zealand record, but the gap between me at my best, and how good a swimmer has to be to profitably “go pro” was too much. However, during my last year of school, I was offered three full scholarships at Division I American universities. This was my best case scenario. Leaving New Zealand meant leaving the preconceptions about me behind. America was a blank slate. For me, “making it” was a fairly calculated return on my investment. I would pay for that “free” education with time served, and I would swim in the NCAA Championships, where only the top thirty swimmers per event from across the U.S. system take part.
Shortly before I left, another swimmer laughed at me and expressed that she doubted I’d ever make it to the Championships. After all, the subtext went, you’re useless. By that point, I no longer believed it. I was right too: the last race of my swimming career was the 200 breaststroke at NCAAs in Athens, Georgia in 2006.
Several months after my seventeenth birthday, puberty declared that it was finished with me, dropping me into an adult body. After I took the national open women’s short course 200 breaststroke record as my own, I assumed that closed the case on my othering, my lifelong rejection. How could they deny me now?
Oh, naivety. The bullying got worse.
Rumours began circulating that I was promiscuous. We had moved away from Wellington, and my results had attracted the attention of the local newspaper who wrote about my swimming and published my photograph. This displeased two administrators enough that they apparently sowed the seeds of a story of their own: that I was a tart and this appealed to the staff at the paper. So disgusted by her own fantasy, one of these creative officials saw fit to tear the offending photograph off the noticeboard in the reception area of our swimming pool, scraping it with her fingernails to free it. My father saw this take place from the opposite side of the pool, and waited until the official had walked out of the complex. Following her outside, he found the photograph in the bin at the entrance, white strips from her fingernails slashing down my face.
One rainy Saturday night, my mother opened the door to the police, who recited our car’s number plate and asked if it was hers, and with that confirmed, asked if she knew where the car was.
‘It should be at the Onekawa aquatic centre,’ she said with a degree of terror. My father and I had left the house in the car an hour earlier.
‘Oh, that’s fine,’ the officer said. ‘It was reported as abandoned in the car park. The guy wanted us to have it towed away.’
We only had one car, and it was certainly a wreck, but a four kilometre journey home after a three hour session on a winter’s night would have been much worse on foot. Abandoned. We were suspicious, driving our shameful car to the police station after training to make some enquiries.
In truth, it’s never been about the skating, nor the swimming. It was about power and control, and we were meant to fit into the assumed order of politics and predetermination. We were not meant to jump off the high dive.
The police confirmed that an administrator from a local swim team had phoned it in. I remember the astonished resignation of intense fatigue meeting red-hot rage as this was revealed, needing to sit down, pins and needles in my hands and feet, and feeling like my jaw was making a break from my face. My first tussle with pathological panic.
‘We’ll speak to him,’ the police said, and that was that. They might have. I have no idea if they did. Nothing changed. There are no consequences. This is the lesson.
More followed: aggression from adults who turned out to be parents of children in the other team who used our pool. Lies told to pool staff about things we had supposedly done and said. I knew with certainty that I was quite literally hated, and there was nothing I could do about it. But I also had a countdown for when my flight would leave for Auckland, then Yokohama for the Pan Pacific Championships, then Seattle, Spokane, the future, the end. I knew the days and weeks; towards the end, I knew the hours. I knew I would never come back.
The spotlight of public scrutiny gets cast on scandals but never on the outwardly mundane: the day-to-day mismanagement of young lives. I still suffer the consequences of the mismanagement of mine: I am suspicious and defensive. I fight too hard for my right to exist, and snap too easily when I perceive a threat. Almost by accident, I found myself watching I, Tonya whilst on holiday in New Zealand in 2019. TVNZ played it as the Saturday night film. My husband had gone to sleep on the sofa of our Dunedin Airbnb after seventeen trips up and down Moana’s imposing hydroslide that afternoon and I began watching it by myself. A starry-eyed Nancy Kerrigan fan as a child, I thought I didn’t like Tonya Harding, but I had no idea about the domestic abuse or the maligning from the figure skating industry that she’d endured. Swimming, at least, is objective. She who finishes first, wins. A sympathetic portrayal or not, I was transfixed by a scene in which an angry Tonya confronts a judge in a parking garage and demands to know why her performances are so obviously scored much lower than they should be. She tells him, I know that you guys don’t like me.
‘It’s never been entirely about the skating. I’ll deny I ever said it honey, but you’re just not the image that we want to portray. You’re representing our country, for fuck’s sake. We need to see a wholesome American family. And you… you just refuse to play along.’
Play along. Play their game. Represent their country in their sport.
‘I don’t have a wholesome American family.’ she said. ‘Why can’t it just be about the skating?’
Why can’t it just be about the skating? I thought about it for weeks. I thought about it as friends asked if I would be visiting the town in which our car was reported abandoned, where I was branded a degenerate. I thought about it the next day on the slides at Moana, my hands propelling us ever-faster down the tube as my son whooped on my lap and my palms stung red hot against the fibreglass. I thought about it as I looked at the springboards I’d leapt off and at the lane in which I’d won that first silver medal. In truth, it’s never been about the skating, nor the swimming. It was about power and control, and we were meant to fit into the assumed order of politics and predetermination. We were not meant to jump off the high dive.
We were not meant to take what was theirs and make it our own.