It’s February 1, 2006. The Commonwealth Games Trials in Melbourne. Walking out onto the pool deck in her light blue Speedo Fastskin, Leisel Jones is the picture of ease, focus and determination. She flashes her trademark smile and waves to the crowd. On this day, Leisel will break her own world record, securing her place on another national team. “I’m actually loving the person I am now. People have their opinions and that’s fine. If I love myself, it doesn’t matter,” she said in her post race interview.
Fast-forward five years, 2011. Leisel is sitting on the bathroom floor of a Sierra Nevada hotel in Andalucia. Trembling and alone. She is planning her own suicide. She will leave in a body bag. She sees no other way out. There is a knock on the door. It’s her coach. “Leisel? Leisel! What’s going on in here?”
Leisel Jones is a four-time Australian Olympian, gold medallist, survivor and she didn’t hesitate to write about this low point in Body Lengths. It is her first book.
Body Lengths is a result of 18 months of conversations between Leisel and her ghostwriter, Felicity McLean. Leisel didn’t sugar coat her experience with mental health and her time as a swimmer, preferring a brutally honest approach. “I really wanted to be open, honest and really raw. I wanted to tell it how it is, rather than give people the perception of what it should be.” She is unapologetic when speaking out about bullying on the Olympic team and her experience with depression.
“Mental health issues are huge in our society and more people die from suicide every year than in car accidents and cancer combined.” Not concerned with selling 10 million copies, she spoke about mental health issues honestly with high school students in mind. “It was really crucial that young people could read the book and know you can still do wonderful things in life, even if you are suffering from mental illness.”
Her outwardly carefree persona is trumped only by her rock-solid strength, which shines through in interviews. “Yeah great holiday, it must be really nice to spend your holiday this way. It’s not tough at all,” she said in an interview on ABC News during the London Olympics in 2012. She is unapologetic when responding to criticism that she was out of shape and “taking a holiday” in London. With a cheeky glint in her eye, she dismisses comments that life on the Australian swimming team is a walk in the park.
This is the real Leisel. “The true me was actually dancing, being totally ridiculous singing and talking to anyone who would listen,” she said in her 2014 TEDx talk. Leisel’s sense of humour shines throughout Body Lengths, particularly when speaking about her family. “We are a funny family. We all like to have a laugh and it was fun to include the family side that you don’t often see from athletes.”
At the age of 14, Leisel flashed the universally accepted symbol for peace at the Olympic trials in 2000. She had just won a place on her first Olympic team. It was a joke with a boy she had a crush on, but was misinterpreted by the media as a V for victory. Ironically, her symbol of harmony turned into a sign of aggression, she writes in Body Lengths. This led to years of Leisel filtering herself in interviews. “You do become a bit jaded. You are watching what you say and what you do which is such a shame because it’s such a fun thing. I loved it and that was my personality. For it to be taken the wrong way was sad.”
These days Leisel is honest and relaxed when speaking publicly. “I only represent myself now. I’m allowed to say what I want and I am the only one who will cop backlash if I step out of line. So I guess now I’m much more free in interviews.”
Leisel now calls Sydney home after living between Brisbane and Melbourne throughout her swimming career. And although she is never too far from the water, these days she prefers to stay dry. “We often go down to the beach and I won’t get into the water. Now I just pick things where my hair doesn’t have to get wet.”
Even though the days of 4am wake up calls are behind her, Leisel still wakes up and heads straight to the gym. “Usually I exercise in the morning because I hate doing it in the afternoon. That is something that will always stick with me. I will always be at the gym or doing some sort of exercise. That’s the greatest thing swimming taught me.”
She describes her days as being varied, preferring to do work in “dribs and drabs”. Leisel admits that she enjoyed the strictly structured days of her swimming career: “I knew what I was doing and why I was doing it. I find without the structure, I get a bit lost.”
She schedules her days as though a coach is right there beside her cracking the whip. “You have to schedule things in even if they aren’t important, like from 10 to 12 I’ll do emails, even though I don’t really need to. I miss the structure very much.”
After years of being offered book deals, she decided to write Body Lengths after the dust had settled on her swimming career. “The timing was right and I wanted to write about stories and lessons I had learnt.”
She says her three biggest lessons are: people can smell authenticity from a mile away, always be true to yourself, and that anything is possible. “You don’t have to have the perfect background or be the richest family on the block. You just have to want what you are going for, to really live and breathe it and do it for the right reasons. That’s the big thing.”
Leisel Jones and her ghostwriter Felicity McLean how her life outside swimming did not go swimmingly in the session, Leisel Jones: Out of the Pool, at the Club Stage, and how they worked together to create her memoir. Pier 2/3 yesterday.