The Quest Apartment Hotels ambassador, Olympic swimmer and guest speaker at Quest’s International Women’s Day lunch opens up on the three women that inspire her, what she’d tell her younger self, what she’d ask her older self, and the change she’d love to see for women in sport.
Who are three women that inspire you?
My mother, Jenny. I've learned so much from watching her; she has modelled the different sides of being a woman to me – the strengths and also the sacrifices that often go along with it. She is the mother of five children and a carer for my brother who is profoundly disabled [Cate’s brother, Hamish, has cerebral palsy]. She loved her job as a midwife before she had children and then decided to take on that full-time carer role. And within that role, she donated so much of her time and energy to the community – she volunteered at my swim club, taught Sunday school, ran a daycare. And I think that often those acts of service get lost in the conversation around caregiving. And then she decided to go back and retrain as a midwife while still being the full-time carer for my brother. She is now working as a midwife and loving it.
Jacinda Ardern [former Prime Minister of NZ] strikes me as redefining how we view strength. Often in society, strength is viewed through a very male lens -– the gritted teeth, the pushing through, the determination. And Jacinda Ardern redefined strength and leadership in a way that resonated with women everywhere. There is strength in compassion and vulnerability and empathy. She's put a female lens on what has traditionally been a very male-dominated industry.
Lauren Jackson [professional basketballer] stands out for her performances, yes, but there’s also the way that she conducts herself and her ability to bring the best out in people. She stepped away from the sport, came back and it’s all on her terms. She's a single mother to two beautiful boys and has walked to the beat of her own drum at every stage, overcoming injuries and setbacks. And she's been open about [her former dependence on] pain medication. I appreciate how open and honest she's been. When I look at powerful women who keep that side of themselves private – and of course they have every right to – I don't relate to them as much because my life is much more messy!
Who's the first woman you call when you need some advice?
My sister Bronte. She is very much my sounding board. I know that I'm going to get the unvarnished truth, which sometimes I don't like, but everyone needs that. That's a real testament to the strength of our relationship; we have that candour with each other.
How do you hope to inspire the women that follow you?
I still struggle with the idea that people look up to me. When I look at how I conduct myself, I want it to be with authenticity. When I look at the people who I admire, there's a sense of authenticity about them. I have been lucky enough to be on the Australian swim team for a very long time, and some of the people who mentored me when I was first on the team weren't the highest profile athletes, but they were the kindest and most empathetic. And that’s a legacy that I want to leave behind. It's how you conduct yourself that will be remembered more than just your achievements.
What changes would you like to see for women in sport in the years to come?
To stop comparing men and women's sport; to celebrate women's sport as its own entity, its own product. It’s not helpful when we compare what women do on a sporting field and what men do on a sporting field. They look different, but they are of equal value. We need to start celebrating the women in sport. There are so many women out there who are phenomenal athletes and who just aren't given the opportunities to showcase what they can do.
What's a challenge women face that we don't talk about enough?
I think it's the idea that for women to succeed in this world, they need to adhere to the male standard – that we need to be like men, lead like men, live like men… [There’s] a silencing broadly across society of the differences that exist between men and women and the issues that are faced by women. I think of my mother's generation and how you don't talk about your periods or menopause or perimenopause. There are statistics on women who reach those senior leadership roles in their companies around the time that they hit menopause and perimenopause and the symptoms become so intense that they're having to take a step back from that role, instead of being equipped to deal with those symptoms and lean into those roles and educating the men on why a woman might be experiencing brain fog.
What's one great lesson you’ve learned?
It's really simple: to be brave. And what I love about this idea of bravery is that it acknowledges the presence of fear and discomfort, but it empowers you to take control of that. All of the best things in my life have happened so far out of my comfort zone; I know that that's where I'm going to grow.
You've spoken in the past about body image, the pressure to look a certain way in your work. Do you think the needle is moving much?
I think it is, within Swimming Australia and within the broader realm of sport. It's come a long way from 15 years ago when I was a teenager. Do I still think it has room to move? Yes. As a society, we are getting better at recognising that it's not okay to comment on a woman's physique, their size and body composition. We all have a really important role to play. We all should be calling out behaviours or even just little comments.
What piece of advice would you want to give your younger self?
Well, I'd definitely say "Dye your eyebrows." [Laughs] I remember I'd put on mascara and look in the mirror and be like, "It's not helping." But also, “Try and be less self-conscious of who you are; take control of your narrative.” It's taken me a long time to be able to own who I am, the good and the bad qualities of myself. I'm incredibly introverted. I feel like I'm not a go-with- the-flow person. And for a long time, I was very ashamed of those things. I tried hard to fit into a different mould instead of recognising that there are some real strengths that come with those qualities.
And what is something you'd want to ask your older self?
[Laughs] “Should I have children?” I'm looking at the people around me and I'm like, "Parenthood isn't being sold to me."
How important is female friendship to your success and wellbeing?
Female friendships have been the cornerstone relationships of my life. I am still friends with a group of girls who I went to high school with, and it is incredibly unique and fulfilling. They are the relationships I can lean on during really tough times, but we also just get together and talk absolute rubbish. We're learning more and more about the importance of having good, stable relationships and the impact that has on your health.
Last question: what's the first thing you do when you walk into a hotel room?
I look at the view. Oh, and if I had one true talent, it would be that I can walk into a hotel room, open my bag and within 30 seconds it looks like I've lived there for a week.