Weightlifting gave an asylum-seeker acceptability in his adopted land, lawn bowling gifted a failed jumper a second chance to be a national heroine, cricket brought home fame and fortune for a daughter of a Class 4 employee single mother from a remote village in the hills.
These Commonwealth Games reconfirmed that sport continues to be the preferred vehicle of those who are driven to commute from rags to riches. It also showcased a less-discussed pull. Birmingham showed sports can also attract those with global fame, super stardom and everything that money can buy.
This is the story of Australian swimmer Cody Simpson. He got a 4x100m relay gold and finished 5th in the 100m butterfly final.
Simpson, in an Aussie squad glittering with multiple swimming royalty with far more impressive medal stockpile – like his 11 Olympic medal-winning girlfriend Emma McKeon – is a pool plebeian of sorts. Beyond the water world, though, he is a List A celebrity.
A highly talented pre-teen swimmer, he drifted into showbiz because of a video he uploaded on YouTube. A song writer at 7, Simpson’s single ‘One’ caught the attention of an American producer when he was net-surfing. When discovered, the new kid on the block was barely 12.
This sudden interest from the US would put on hold the sporty kid’s boyhood dream. The young Gold Coaster wanted to be a Dolphin – the collective noun for Aussie swimmers like Kangaroos is for cricketers – just like his parents. Now, he was suddenly parachuted into a world he knew nothing about.
Hailed as an overnight music sensation, Simpson moved to America where he got an offer to sing with record-breaking rapper Flo Rida. The family – parents and two younger siblings – would move to Los Angeles. Atlantic Records came calling with contract papers. Stage shows, recording studios, parties would follow. The Aussie kid was on the road most days.
A decade ago, he was in Birmingham performing at the venue that is hosting gymnastics during these games. Back then, Simpson was on stage with global superstar Justin Bieber. Part of the Canadian pop icon’s ‘Believer’ tour of 2012, Simpson, with his boy band looks and voice suited for songs about love and longing, had it in him to send teenage girls into a screaming delirium.
The rookie singer was making heads turn. Producers and casting agents saw a crossover star in him. He featured in a lead role as Dimitri in the Broadway production Anastasia. In an ultimate endorsement of mass popularity in the US, he was on prime-time TV shows – Dancing with the Stars and chart-topping sitcom Cougar Town.
The Simpsons were even offered a show on the lines of Keeping up with the Kardashians. They weren’t that desperate. Young Cody was never out of the news. Dating Gigi Hadid and Miley Cyrus made him a favourite with tabloids.
Actually, even in Birmingham, he was chased by gossip columnists and Page 3 reporters. He featured in sports page reports that read like the script of a day-time soap. They said Simpson and his girlfriend McKeon were two vertices of a ‘love triangle’. The third wheel of this love story was Simpson’s bitter rival, Olympic champion and 100m freestyle gold medallist at Birmingham, Kyle Chalmers. Till Simpson came on the scene, McKeon and Chalmers were a pair.
Call of the water
Be it music or sports, the paparazzi chased Simpson but he didn’t allow attention or distractions to impact his focus.
His status as a showbiz celebrity, the acceptability by the tight coterie of the all-powerful American entertainment industry couldn’t devour the outdoor-loving Aussie boy. He loved the neon lights and flashbulbs, but the Queenslander couldn’t forget the sun, the beach and the swim. Simpson would not forget his free-spirited simple pre-teen life before the viral video had intervened.
About three years ago, when he was 22, he entered a swimming tournament in Southern California. He didn’t realise that it was to be a game-changing decision. The old flame was back in Simpson’s life. An expert at butterfly, the boy-band face with soft features was punishing his body again. He was back to the torture chamber – flapping the enormous wing span and kicking his legs behind with unflinching synchronicity. The fire was reignited, the call of the water was too hard to resist.
Simpson would put a detailed social media post that summed his move.
“I have had the chance to experience so much as a musician from touring in arenas around the world, releasing top-10 albums, playing a leading man on Broadway, publishing a work of poetry, travelling with and speaking at the United Nations on environmental and oceanic matters and much more,” read his Instagram entry. “For years, I had been fuelled by the silent fire in my stomach of returning to the sport of swimming, with the idea that 2020 would be the year I’d try training again.”
He did train hard and even went on to achieve what he longed for. Simpson had experienced the high of performing in front of a stadium full of die-hards swaying to his words as if in a trance. Still, he wanted the rush of going underwater, making a quick flip turn and letting the adrenaline flow one last time to touch the pool wall before anybody. And when the deafening roar from the stands would hit the ears when the head of the race-winner would pop out, it would give a singular heady feel. That’s what it was to be a Golden Dolphin. Simpson, at Birmingham, got to feel the best of both words – showbiz and swimming.
It’s a strange world where sports stars get called as rock stars and rock stars aspire to be sports stars.
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National Sports Editor