Hide This WindowThis interview took place on June 14th, 2013.Hi, Michelle where are you currently living?
I live in Sydney, Australia, with my fiancé Britt and our three kittens. I've been living in Australia mainly since 1999, although I've spent a few months here and there in the USA, Italy, Scotland and England.
How did your formative years in ASIZ (ZIS) shape you as a person, as an athlete?
AISZ was an amazing place to spend years 8-12. Back then we had only about 35 students per graduating class, and we were all close. For me, that closeness created an environment where I felt safe and empowered to explore myself, who I am, and what makes me tick. I also felt extremely lucky to have experienced a high school that didn't have clear definitions of what "cool" was, and I felt totally accepted and supported by my classmates. My year 9 was a real stand out because we were in the temporary housing constructed on the fields during the renovation of the villa. The temporary housing (lovingly known as the "Dorfs") was special in that all the school years were brought closer together. That year I became friends with students in years above and below me that I hadn't met before, and we all felt linked through a joint experience of being dripped on through the roof during heavy rain, freezing in winter, and overheating on hot days. It was brilliant.
I can't say AISZ necessarily shaped me as an athlete from a skills perspective, but it certainly shaped me as a team member. During my years I played soccer, swam and ran track and field each year. One year I think I even played softball. Again, back to the closeness of the school and my year group, when travelling or training for sport we supported each other unconditionally. Travelling around Europe for competitions was a pretty amazing experience, and something many of my friends since have been fascinated by. I remember one year for the International Schools Sports Tournaments (ISST) heaps of team member dyed their hair and wore crazy clothes to the airport as a mark of solidarity and confidence boosting. We got into quite a bit of trouble from the school for doing it, but we had a laugh and it's an experience I'll always remember.
Sappy as it may sound, AISZ helped me develop into the person I am today. I went on to study at Kenyon College for two years before moving to Australia, and AISZ combined with my years at Kenyon gave me the tools I needed to lead the Australian team as Captain on two separate occasions during World University Games, and be a highly motivated team member on all the other competitions I swam at.
Any advice you wish to tell yourself when you were 16?
No hurdle is insurmountable, but some take longer than others. As a 16 year old I was beginning to feel extreme back pain, and wondered if I'd ever make it as a swimmer. I wasn't hugely motivated to train and also found it painful. At that time I was recently found to be dyslexic and was struggling somewhat to keep up with the vast amounts of reading required for Advanced Placement subjects. Although there was a process involved, I overcame both.
I was able to graduate from AISZ with Honours, and have since completed an Honours Degree in Chemistry and a Masters in International Studies. Both of which were made possible by the high level of education I received as a high school student. My back issues took a little longer to overcome, but I did. When I was 18 I had spinal fusion surgery, and thought my swimming career was over. Through discipline and focus (and a lot of emotional support), five months later I won the US College Nationals (Division III). Two years later I made my first Australian team. Six years later I was ranked 1st in the world and competed at the Olympics.
Not only are you a world-class athlete but you are an amazing philanthropist. Could you briefly talk about the transition from your athletic career to your humanitarian activism?
Transitioning from a career as a professional athlete into campaigning for human rights and social justice was fairly smooth for me. In May 2007 (I was training and preparing for the 2008 Olympic trials) I sat in on a presentation by a now friend, Sophie Peer, who was working at Amnesty International. She was presenting on the human rights abuses by China leading into the Olympic Games, and I was horrified. I had a history of connection to Amnesty International from my AISZ days, and was appalled to learn that an event that was meant to promote hope, security and positivity was depriving 41 classes of "undesirables" from the freedom to live in their home city of Beijing. I have since learnt about how "undesirables" have been removed from other countries showcasing the Olympics, Australia having done something similar, so I'm not saying this as a China bash at all.
The result it had on me was to think more deeply about human rights issues, and the role I could play in supporting equality. Over the 8 months following that presentation I delved further into human rights, and felt myself naturally transitioning into a new life and career direction. I ended up not qualifying for the Olympics, my heart wasn't in it at all. I did qualify for the World Short Course Championships in Manchester in April of 2008, and after competing there I handed in my retirement papers.
Fast forwarding a little, for the past 2.5 years I've been working for an amazing non-profit organisation called the National Aboriginal Sporting Chance Academy (NASCA). We are an Aboriginal governed organisation supporting Aboriginal young people and enabling Aboriginal equality and cultural pride. I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to work here, to learn so much, and to support Australia's First People. If you're interested, check NASCA out Hide This Window