As Cody Simpson stood behind the starting blocks at his first Olympic swimming trials last year, the experience felt completely new but also eerily familiar.
With large crowds watching and fans chanting his name, it brought him back to the heart of his music as he regularly performed in front of thousands of people and made live appearances on television.
“I had the experience of having to get up and do things in front of a lot of people that I cared about the outcome,” Simpson says. “I knew how to deal with it rather than letting it ruin me then, I guess.”
It’s been nearly three years since Simpson turned his back on music to competitive swimming.
During this time, his progress was rapid. He hadn’t expected to qualify for the final Olympic Trials for the Tokyo Games, nor had he considered earning a place in the Australian squad after two years of training.
“I didn’t really slack off, we weren’t careful trying to build slowly,” Simpson told CNN Sport. “My coach made me do things that I definitely wasn’t ready to do when I was doing them, but I loved this grind.
“It put me on a trajectory of rapid improvement because I just had to learn to deal with it – whether it was throwing up at least twice a week for the first six months, just adapting to what I was trying to put my body through.”
Earning a place on the Australian team for the Paris Olympics has been Simpson’s goal since returning to swimming, but right now he’s preparing to compete in his first international event at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, England, with his 50 meters. butterfly playoffs scheduled for Friday.
The brutal training schedule and hours spent staring at the bottom of a swimming pool seem a far cry from Simpson’s life as a pop star, which began when he started covering songs and posting videos on YouTube at the age of 12.
As his music began to gain traction and his online following grew, he was “given opportunities I couldn’t turn down” and within a year he moved on. in the United States with his family.
Since then, he’s recorded four studio albums, performed in venues around the world, collaborated with Justin Bieber and Flo Rida, met high-profile celebrities – including Miley Cyrus and Gigi Hadid – performed on Broadway and appeared on TV shows. of TV. Dancing with the Stars and The Masked Singer Australia.
But throughout this whirlwind time, Simpson’s desire to return to swimming never left him. He had competed at a high level as a junior in Australia and had even started looking for teams to join when he first moved to the United States.
“I think because I left it in a good place in my mind, the desire to swim again never faded,” he says. “The fire remained gently lit within me until I had to pick it up.”
Simpson, 25, was born into a family of swimmers, with his parents, Brad and Angie, both competing for Australia. He jokes that he could swim before he could walk and always considered a career in the pool before his music career took off sooner than expected.
“I think everyone in their life has that moment when they realize they have a capacity for something or an affinity for something that they maybe don’t have for other things,” Simpson says. , “and for me, it was swimming.
“It was my first love, the first thing I remember enjoying doing. And that hasn’t changed, I guess, to this day.
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Simpson says his parents never pushed him to take up swimming and admits his mum, having experienced the demanding nature of the sport firsthand, even tried to talk him out of returning in 2019.
But in the end, the attraction of the swimming pool proved to be too strong.
“It was a matter of not wanting to deal with assumptions in my life and having no regrets,” Simpson says, “and kind of having to do myself to try and fill in this unfinished business that I thought I had. in the pool – that total untapped or unrealized potential that I thought I had.
“And just to scratch the itch, really – it was getting too much to bear… I knew the music would always be there for me, and I can tour and I can do all these things until I was an old man. man, but you can only swim for so many years. I wanted to see what I could do. »
Among those who have supported Simpson since his return to the sport are Australian swimming legend Ian Thorpe and 23-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps.
“Having people like that in my corner and being able to call or text them and ask for things or advice is very special,” Simpson says, “especially because they’re the guys I had on my wall and on my computer screen saver and things growing up – Ian being one of them and Michael being another.
Being able to turn to Phelps for advice comes full circle on Simpson’s swimming journey: On his first trip to the United States, he had his father drive from New York to Baltimore to try to meet Phelps at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club .
“We went around when we thought he might be training,” Simpson recalled, “and the next thing you know, he shows up.
“I got him to sign like 20 bathing caps; my father took our picture together and I met his trainer. I ended up going in and doing a few sessions with the junior team.
Simpson’s late arrival in professional swimming makes him an anomaly in a sport where most elite athletes train and compete intensely from a young age. He hopes to show people that it is possible to thrive in the pool without having trained rigorously throughout his teenage years.
And with a total of 17.4 million followers across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, he’s likely to bring more attention to the sport by documenting his swimming career on social media.
“I would love to inspire more kids to get into it and show that it’s cool,” Simpson says. “I love the sport, so if that’s all I do for swimming is try to get more attention in it, so I feel like I’ve done part of my work because I like it and I want more people to like it.”
Simpson is due to compete in the 50m and 100m butterfly at the Commonwealth Games; Reaching the final of any of those events, he says, would be “pretty special”.
For now, her musical career is on hold, but she continues to play an important role in her life. Late last year, he took advantage of a lighter training week to record his fourth studio album, “Cody Simpson”, which was released in April.
“I play guitar all the time,” Simpson says, “that’s one of the things that’s kind of cathartic at this point. It’s something I do to relax and it’s really nice to have something that I enjoy like that outside of the pool.
He plans to return to music full-time when his love for swimming starts to wane – but not anytime soon.
“I’m going to keep writing and cultivating my guitar playing and stuff and I’m definitely going to get back to it after the swim,” Simpson says. “My mind’s priority is on what I’m doing in the pool now.”