April 21, 2023
People & Places

Making a splash

You may not know her name but Madi Wilson is a leader and lynch pin in Australia’s Olympic swimming team. Here’s how this humble 28-year-old dual Olympian overcame personal battles and setbacks to earn her place on the podium, and why her star continues to rise.

Madi has faced many ups and downs during her swimming career, but has risen to be a leader and mentor in the Australian Olympic team.

The first thing that stands out about Olympic swimmer Madi Wilson is her height. At 1.79 metres, she is statuesque and athletic, effortlessly commanding.

The next thing is how comfortable this sports star is in her own skin.

Sitting in her local haunt, a cafe in Glenelg, Madi is confident and chatty, sipping an almond latte as she discusses her remarkable life in and out of the pool.

While she may not necessarily be a household name like fellow Australian Olympic swimmers Kyle Chalmers or Cate Campbell, Madi’s story embodies everything that’s inspiring about Australian sporting success: determination, resilience and hard work.

As a sporty kid growing up in the small coastal Queensland town of Yeppoon, Madi dreamt of Olympic glory and her laser focus and talent were obvious from an early age.

At 14, she watched Stephanie Rice win three gold medals in the pool at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and decided, “I want to be just like her”.

“I even researched who she was coached by and I wrote a letter to my parents asking if I could go to that same school and have that same coach,” Madi says.

Her love of the water had started years earlier: she remembers being three years old hanging around her mum Trish’s neck as she did aqua aerobics classes.

The family, older sister Sophie and younger sister Gabbie, had a backyard pool where Madi would spend hours doing laps.

“I don’t remember specifically learning how to swim, but the words are etched into my brain, like when the swimming teacher used to say, ‘bubble, bubble, breathe’,” she says.

Sporty and confident, Madi thrived at Sacred Heart Catholic Primary School and swam for the local Yeppoon Sharks.

It was when she beat older sister Sophie in a race that the then-nine-year-old Madi thought, “I’m really good at this”.

A junior star on the rise, she was chosen for her first Queensland team at age 11 and by 14, had sights set on attending St Peter’s Lutheran College in Brisbane and training under coach Michael Bohl, just like Stephanie Rice.

But moving would mean leaving Yeppoon to attend boarding school away from her family and friends. “My parents said no at first but I was this crazy little kid, I was pretty persistent with what I wanted to do and where I wanted to be,” Madi says.

Trish, a support worker for victims of domestic violence, and Madi’s father Andy, a transport inspector, eventually agreed, taking on extra shifts to help finance the move in 2009.

“When you’re a kid, you just ask for things, you don’t really realise the impact that it has on your parents’ lifestyle. So, they worked their butts off to put me through that school. I am really grateful for that.”

Madi landed in Brisbane at age 15 and her talents in backstroke and freestyle were nurtured. She flourished and began making national squads.

Ariarne Titmus, Mollie O’Callaghan, Kiah Melverton and Madi after winning gold in the 4×100 metre women’s relay at the 2022 Commonwealth Games.

But what makes Madi’s story all the more remarkable is her ability to reset and refocus when things go wrong.

Things went badly wrong in 2014, when, aged 20, she was celebrating the success of making her first Commonwealth Games team only to go through the despair of major injury a fortnight out from the Glasgow event: falling backwards in the gym and breaking her wrist.

It was a major setback, yet she remarkably went on to compete, placing fourth in the 50 metres backstroke.

“I was just heartbroken,” she says. “I knew it was my year and my time. I think that was really my turning point. It made me really determined going into the next 2015 World Championships and that’s where I won my first individual world championship medal.”

Those world championships, in Kazan, Russia, finally placed Madi on the world stage – she took home three medals – silver in the 100 metres backstroke, gold in the women’s 4×100 metre freestyle relay and bronze in the women’s 4×100 metre relay medley.

“That really lit the fire in me and I knew that what I thought it took wasn’t actually what it took. It was a lot more than that,” she says.

More success followed at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio with gold and silver in the 4×100 metre relay and relay medley respectively, but Madi placed eighth in her individual event, 100 metres backstroke.

After that, she admits she got complacent “with training and life”.

Madi in action in the pool during the 2022 Commonwealth Games.

That complacency resulted in missing out on selection for the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Queensland. It was the lowest point in her career, rocking her confidence and self-belief and she spent the Gold Coast Games cheering on her teammates from the grandstands. It was gut-wrenching.

“It was just devastating because it was a home Commonwealth Games,” she says.

“I would say that from my late teens to mid-20s, whether I liked it or not, I identified myself as a swimmer. So, when your identity is ripped from you, it’s really hard to find where you belong.

“I think it’s really important for people to know that, one, this can make you or break you, and two, this can transfer you into someone who’s so much tougher and so much more resilient. I think this kind of adversity can be really helpful in finding an identity that’s not just the swimmer that you are, but someone that’s bigger than that.

“I knew if I wanted to keep making this my life and to keep being successful, then something had to change.”

That change came in 2018 when Madi left Queensland and relocated to Adelaide to train under revered and successful coach Peter Bishop at the South Australian Sports Institute’s innovative swimming program run out of the SA Aquatic and Leisure Centre at Marion. Peter set about building Madi’s confidence and correcting the negative self-talk.

“He knew if he could shift that then the rest of the stuff would be easy,” she says.

Madi embraced life in Adelaide, moving into a share house with fellow swimmers Matt Temple and Meg Harris – who is now her best friend and training partner.

Madi, wearing her activewear label Dally & Co, works hard at maintaing her physical and mental wellbeing. The beach, yoga and gym workouts all form part of her regular routine.

She bonded with both Peter Bishop and her new skills coach Sian Barris.

“I have beautiful friends here and I have a mother figure in my skills coach and a father figure in my coach and just everything I could possibly need at arm’s reach, they will do anything to help you succeed,” she says.

“Just the amount of help and love that I received when I got here and now, I can’t even describe it. I couldn’t have asked for a better transition into this part of my life.”

Today, the 28-year-old draws on all of her experiences in her role as team leader at the SASI, where she trains alongside not just the junior Dolphins, but other mainstays of the Australian team, including Kyle Chalmers and Meg Harris.

Over her decade-long professional swimming career, Madi has overcome self-doubt and demons, setbacks and illness to stand on the podium, holding aloft her haul of medals for Australia – 14 gold, nine silver and seven bronze across Olympic and Commonwealth Games and multiple world championships.

Perhaps the hardest of those times came when the calendar ticked over to 2020, an Olympic year meant for Tokyo.

Madi had had a solid training base and positive mindset, perfectly prepared for trials leading into the Tokyo Olympic Games.

Then the global Covid pandemic hit. And the world stopped.

“I’d had my heart set on this Tokyo Olympics since 2016; it was what I wanted to do,” she says. “I remember we trained the Monday morning and worked hard like we always do, and at this point, I’d been in the best shape of my life and I was very focused.

Despite some setbacks during her career Madi has always loved competing for her country. She’s pictured here at the 2022 Commonwealth Games with teammate Zac Incerti in the background.

“Then, within a matter of hours, I can still hear the news saying Australia was pulling its team from the Olympics. That was a really, really tough thing, but within hours, everything began shutting down including our institute.”

Shaken and unsure of what lay ahead, Madi packed her life, including her beloved dogs Dallas and Cocoa, into her car and drove 18 hours to the Gold Coast, where her parents are now based.

Then there was silence.

Madi admits the drastic turn of events and sudden lack of support around her led to a very unhealthy time, mentally and physically.

“After being so busy and having all these people around, it’s hard to explain, but just the energy and the anxiety and everything that you have leading into the Olympics, and we were only a few weeks out from the trials,” she says.

“I felt like I had no control over my life and my body, so a way to get that was to start controlling what I was eating, and that was just not eating.

“I thought in my mind if I eat a very, very small amount and I exercised a lot I would come back and it would be like nothing happened. I would just be in the best shape of my life again and I would be ready to go.”

The swimmer says she can still envisage her coach’s face when she finally returned to the pool in Adelaide some five months later.

Madi has huge respect for her coach Peter Bishop who has become a father figure in her life.

“I remember my coach just looked at me and said, ‘what have you done?,” she says. “And I was just like, ‘what do you mean? Look at me, I’m ready’. In my head I didn’t think what I had done was wrong. I just didn’t realise that my body wasn’t just eating away at fat, it was eating away all my muscle as well.

“Even now I look back and think, wow, it’s so easy to fall into that sort of habit. It’s like a demon that grabs the whole of you and there’s nothing you can do.”

Displaying her trademark grit and determination, Madi set her mind to recovery, soon returning to a healthy weight and fitness level. She has since used her experience to help other young athletes remain healthy and focused.

The Tokyo Olympics went ahead in 2021; postponed by a year and Madi tasted ultimate success, winning gold in the 4×100 metre relay, as well as bronze in the 4×200 metre relay.

Then, less than two months later, another setback – she was struck down with Covid during an international swimming event in Italy, being admitted to hospital. She made a full recovery and since then, has contracted Covid three more times (it’s the travel for competitions, she explains), but has always bounced back.

Madi is fiercely protective of her younger teammates and is acutely aware of the pressures they face as competitive swimmers on the world stage and it’s why she was appointed as an official team leader of the Australian Dolphins last year.

“In the past year I have taken a lot of the girls under my wing and I try to protect the babies of our sport as much as I can,” Madi explains.

Those protective instincts played out publicly in 2022 during the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.

These were the Games where the infamous “love triangle” – supposed friction between swimming couple Emma McKeon and former pop star Cody Simpson and Emma’s ex-boyfriend Kyle Chalmers – hogged the headlines, overshadowing golden performances in the pool and threatened to destabilise the Dolphins’ morale.

Madi, after having earned her ticket to the Tokyo Olympics, is mindful of the sacrifices made by her parents Andy and Trish to support her swimming career.

Madi recalls the first night of the Games, when teenage swimmer Flynn Southam had just won gold in the men’s 4×100 metres freestyle relay alongside Chalmers, while young swimmer Mollie O’Callaghan had spectacularly placed second to Ariane Titmus in the 200 metres freestyle, with Madi coming in third.

Madi says the Aussie swimmers were buzzing as they headed into the “Mixed Zone” for their post-race media conference.

“I just remember Flynn’s face when he finished his race and won gold it was just the most special thing, he was so happy, and it was beautiful to see,” Madi says. But then, the mood suddenly changed when journalists’ questions were skewed away from the pool and toward the McKeon-Simpson-Chalmers situation.

“When Kyle was being interrogated about the love triangle, it was really hard for Flynn to watch,” Madi says. “I think people don’t realise, here’s Flynn, this baby, sitting there watching one of his idols just being upset and having anxiety about going into this Mixed Zone (press conference).

“We all just sat on the bus afterwards and we had Mollie in tears and Flynn really down and then I was just like, enough is enough. These are the future of our sport, the ones who will go on to win medals for our country and break world records, they can’t think the sport is like this or they’ll think, ‘what’s the point?’.”

Infuriated, Madi took to her social media with a message for her 56,000 Instagram followers: “Tonight I sat on the bus with five other Commonwealth Games gold medallists all deflated … some of the lines of questioning are hurting my teammates and enough is enough. As a leader of this team, I want my teammates incredibly proud of these achievements not in tears about what story or comment will be written about them.”

It was a strong stance from Madi who has been dubbed by commentators as Australian swimming’s “unsung hero”.

For someone who chose as individual a sport as swimming, Madi is renowned for her humility and sense of team.

A young Madi, centre, with sisters Sophie, left, and Gabbie, right.

“I think maybe it’s more of a rare thing in sport to think of others before yourself, especially an individual sport,” says Madi, who was awarded an Order of Australia in 2017 for her service to swimming.

“Whereas I would like to see the success of my teammates and the people around me just as much as I like my own success. I see my coaches and they are so caring and go so far above and beyond what I need them to do. They taught me about leadership and I try and put a bit of every person that I have in my team into my personality.”

As Madi now turns her laser focus to 2023, life continues to centre around a gruelling, six-day-a-week training routine. For four days, she’s is in the Marion pool by 5.30am, training for three hours, which is then followed by another three-hour block in the afternoon. Then there’s solid gym work, as well as yoga. On the other two days, training finishes at 11am, leaving time for Madi to concentrate on her other favourite things – walking her dogs at Henley Beach and jet skiing off West Beach, all with best mate Meg, with whom she’s launched a new activewear label, Dally & Co.

“I had always wanted to do a range of activewear since I live in it,” Madi says. “I’m also really passionate about a healthy lifestyle, but not healthy as in I want you to run 10 kilometres, I’m passionate about being healthy and happy in your skin, comfortable in what you’re wearing and confident.

“Being healthy isn’t how skinny you are or how many abs you have. I’ve seen so many amazing people, in all shapes and sizes. I think that if you’re happy and healthy in your head, then you’re happy and healthy in your body.”

Madi is also an adoring aunty to her young nieces and nephews, Ava, Sailor, Meilani and Valentine, and she tries to return to Queensland to see them whenever possible.

Former boyfriends include fellow swimmer Kyle Chalmers and the two remain close friends. Madi says she is currently single and admits that the lifestyle of an elite athlete makes it difficult to meet someone and maintain a relationship. However, she’s keen to one day have a large family.

“I’d like four or five children,” she says. “I love kids.”

Madi has embraced life in South Australia and continues to focus on being the best she can be in and out of the pool.

Which is why she’s taken on an ambassador role with Swimming Australia’s ground-breaking educational program, the Ignite Athlete Female Health and Wellbeing program presented by Adelaide’s reproductive clinic, City Fertility.

The program’s aim is to help female athletes reach their full potential by covering important, but typically taboo topics, such as the impact of menstrual cycles on performance and fertility, as well as contraception for athletes.

“I think it will all be very insightful for me because I do want to have a family one day and it’s important to know if there are things I can do to help prepare my body for that, because as elite athletes we do put our bodies under a lot of stress,” Madi says.

In late 2022, Madi’s years of hard work were formally recognised – she took home two prestigious awards: SASI’s Amy Gillett-Safe Award, which recognises an athlete’s commitment to sport through passion and persistence and was then named SA’s Athlete of the Year at the South Australian Sport Awards, alongside fellow Commonwealth Games gold medallist and marathon runner, Jessica Stenson. “The Amy Gillett-Safe award was really special because it’s an award not just for your achievements, but for your personality and your values,” Madi says. “That’s really important to me.”

In the pool, 2022 also finished on a high for Madi at the FINA short-course World Championships in Melbourne, where she was part of the gold medal-winning relay teams in the 4×200 metres freestyle, 4×100 metres freestyle and 4×50 metre medley; two of those gold-medal performances set new world records, too.

And the accolades just keep coming. In January this year Madi was inducted into Swimming SA’s Hall of Fame, as well as taking out the honour of SA’s Best Individual Performance at the 2022 Australian Championships.

Now, Madi’s focus turns to Paris and the 2024 Olympic Games, which she admits could be her last. Or maybe not?

“You just don’t know. At the moment I’m still improving and I couldn’t imagine stopping,” she says. “I can’t speak for what might happen in two years, but I’m definitely at an age where my body should start to get a bit more tired than what it does. But it doesn’t seem to be getting there yet, so maybe I can keep pushing that out.”

She is passionate about remaining in South Australia and is currently on the house-hunt.

As she stands to leave the Glenelg cafe, it’s clear Madi is in a happy, healthy place and perfectly placed to tackle whatever comes next; both in and out of the water. A humble hero who knows how to stay afloat.

“I don’t want to put pressure on myself when I finish to be someone that I’m not. I want to take time to realise who I am away from the pool and where I’m going to be the happiest.”



This article first appeared in the February 2023 issue of SALIFE magazine.

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