How Cody Simpson ditched pop stardom for Olympic dream
About 10 years ago, Denis Cotterell, that legendary, sun-bronzed coach of the Miami Swim Club and the Surfers Paradise Life Saving Surf Club received a phone call at his Gold Coast home.
It was from one of the Miami Club's most talented young swimmers, 13-year-old Cody Simpson, already carving out a name in the highly competitive lanes of Australian junior swimming.
The tousle-haired teenager with the infectious grin was the national 12 and 13 year age champion in the 100m butterfly, and had taken out gold in every stroke at the National Schools and Pan Pac Schools Championships two years in a row.
But Cotterell's young charge didn't want to talk to his coach about split times or stroke counts - he wanted to play him a song on his guitar.
And when Cotterell (who, during his astonishing, 41-year career at the club produced 40 national and international representatives) cradled the phone to his ear, he heard the same sound famed music producer Shawn Campbell from Atlantic Records had heard thousands of kilometres away in Los Angeles, watching Simpson's homemade YouTube videos of his music.
It was the sound of a young man with a hard decision to make.
Simpson (like another young, tousle-haired teenager also discovered on YouTube, Justin Bieber) was about to wooed by the American music industry, a heady courtship promising fame, fortune and, most importantly to Simpson, the chance to share his songs with the world.
Ultimately, Simpson, now 24, chose music over swimming, signing with Atlantic Records on his 13th birthday, and packed away the red and white bathing cap of the Miami team to move to Los Angeles in 2010 with his entire family: mum Angela, dad Brad, and younger siblings Alli and Tom.
And what Brad and Angela Simpson thought might be "maybe a one or two year adventure" turned into an almost decade-long odyssey that saw their son release three Billboard-charted, best-selling albums Paradise (2012), Surfers Paradise (2013), Free (2015), and collaborate on singles with everyone from Flo Rida and Ziggy Marley to Justin Bieber himself (their single, 2015's Home to Mama was streamed more than 100 million times).
Simpson also supported Bieber in his 2012/13 Believe Tour, and in 2014 started his own label Coast House Records.
He also became a bona-fide Broadway leading man, debuting as Dimitri in Anastasia in 2019, and in the same year won the first season of the Australian version of the popular Masked Singer television show (as the robot, if you're wondering).
Simpson also made his film debut in the Brett Easton Ellis thriller Smiley Faced Killers last year, alongside the chameleonic actor Crispin Glover, and became the United Nations first Ocean Advocate, a global role that sees Simpson speak at key events on behalf of the UN's Development Programme.
Along the way, he dated two of the world's most recognisable women - supermodel Gigi Hadid from 2013 to 2015 and, until August last year, enjoying an almost year-long, rather charming romance (judging by their Instagram accounts) with a post-Liam Hemsworth break-up Miley Cyrus.
He is currently in a relationship with the model Marloes Stevens, who is signed with the United States' uber agency, Elite Models.
All of which is to say that the last decade of Cody Simpson's still young life has been a giddy extravaganza of creativity, success, accolades, A- list parties (think the Vanity Fair Oscars shindig), supermodel girlfriends, and shimmering stardom, with six million Twitter and four million Instagram followers, the stuff of the wildest of dreams.
Which is why Simpson's appearance on the pool deck at last month's Australian Open Championships at the Gold Coast Aquatic Centre, swinging his arms and lining up behind the blocks with the rest of the 50m butterfly contenders, was a little bit like suddenly spotting a unicorn among a grassy field of stallions.
But it was his 24.68s time in that race - enough to book himself a place at Australia's Tokyo Olympic trials in June - which really surprised everybody. Everybody that is, who doesn't know Cody Simpson. Or the family who raised him.
There's chlorine in the Simpson family veins.
Chlorine and hard work, going all the way back to Cody Simpson's grandmother Gail Leckie, a champion backstroker, training at the Manly baths in the 1960s under the Olympic freestyler John Devitt.
Both of his parents have worn the green and gold; Brad Simpson as a member of the Australian swim team at the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Canada, and his mother Angela (nee Greenwood) a former national 200m breaststroke champion and, in 1987, ranked seventh and eighth in the world for the 100m and 200m breaststroke.
Angela Simpson gave swimming away at 19 years of age; a combination of bad tendinitis in both shoulders from overtraining and the need to earn some money in the pre-lucrative swimming days seeing her walk away from the sport she loved. But, as she cheerily says now, "just not enough to keep going".
Instead, she went on to do a Social Science degree (double psychology major) at the Gold Coast's Bond University, and work with the Australian girls swimming team as a manager. So there is probably no one better placed to understand both her son's taking leave of swimming - or his return to it.
"When Cody got a record offer at 13, it was a strange place for a family to find themselves," Angela recalls.
"Because what 13 year old has two choices like that, a swim career or a music career? It was a hard decision, but I guess it came down to giving him that shot at something he loved so much, and not holding him back because of his age. So we said yes, because you have to go with your heart."
Angela Simpson is refreshingly honest about the move, and the challenges that came with it.
"To be honest the last thing I wanted to do was go overseas, because we had such a close groups of friends on the Gold Coast, both from swimming, and at the kids' school (All Saints at Merrimac), but having agreed that he should take his shot, there was no way I was sending him over there by himself, and no way I was splitting up the family either.
"I didn't know a lot about the music industry in LA, but I knew enough that the whole family had to stick close to him. I wasn't letting the sharks near him.
"So we all went, and for eight years we all did it all as a family; went on tour, we did the homeschooling with tutors, and it was hard at times. I didn't really make many friends overseas because sometimes in that scene people are always looking over your shoulder to see if someone more interesting or powerful than you has just walked in, and it can be hard to tell who is sincere in their approaches to you.
"We had to look out for those who look at your child and only see a dollar sign, and make sure our other children were happy and healthy as well. All we really wanted, and still want for our three kids is to be happy, to work hard at what they want to achieve, whatever it may be, and be good people - that's it."
The family are all now living back on the Gold Coast.
Alli Simpson is now 23, and a successful model and television star with her most recent appearance on the Australian reality series I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, where the young woman with more than a million Instagram followers impressed the jungle field with her willingness to muck in.
The youngest sibling Tom is now 16 and in his final year of high school.
But just as she initially had reservations about her son leaving the pool to pursue his music career, Angela Simpson candidly admits she had just as many about him returning to it.
"Cody started talking about wanting to compete again about two years ago and to be completely honest with you when he brought it up I would kind of squash it.
"I'd say: 'Why would you go back to looking at that black line? Look at all you've done, all you've achieved, you've been on Broadway, you've done this, you've done that and you want to swap it for that solitude, for that hard-core work you'll have to put in, the hours up and down the pool?'"
"And Cody said to me, 'Mum, it's just this burning desire that's never gone away, to see what I can do with it. It's about seeing something through that I never finished, and it's about having a crack. I want to give it a red hot go, and if it goes nowhere, fair enough, but if I don't do it now I'll never do it. I'll always have music, but there's a limited time for swimming and I just want to be able to, win or lose, look back one day and say, well, at least I gave it my best shot.'"
"So of course we said again, all those years later, well, that's right then, go with your heart."
This is what "going with his heart" has looked like for Simpson these past few months, training since last June in relative secrecy under two-time Australian Olympian swimmer Brett Hawke, who, in his very first session put Simpson through an exhaustive, 90-minute workout, followed immediately by a timed 200m butterfly, to see just what this pop prince was made of.
That Simpson even finished the swim impressed Hawke, that he did so with a smile on his face, impressed him even more. Hawke, who was until recently head coach at Auburn University in Alabama, took Simpson on, training wherever Simpson's peripatetic career took him, and pools weren't shut down by coronavirus.
Sometimes, it was in country club pools, or private pools owned by friends, wherever and whenever Simpson could, he churned through the water - with or without a black line to follow.
Punctuating the swim sessions were high intensity gym sessions, gruelling, daily workouts that have resulted in Simpson's physique undergoing something of a complete transformation.
Always fit, he is now, as one social media post noted, "fully, completely ripped".
In December last year, Hawke entered Simpson in a meet in San Diego, a kind of taster race to see how far he had come; if all that training, all those hours in the water and the gym had paid off.
A nervous Simpson entered the water, and promptly surpassed the qualifying time for the Australian Olympic trails in the 100m butterfly. Cody Simpson, heart throb, rock star, had just been eclipsed by Cody Simpson, contender.
Simpson had clocked 54.91 seconds in the race to beat the Olympic qualifying standard by almost two seconds, impressive but still a long way from a guaranteed berth for Tokyo - the current top Australian seeds are Kyle Chalmers (51.37s) and Matthew Temple (51.47s).
But Simpson is not necessarily aiming for Tokyo; instead his current coach, the Queensland based, Australian head coach Michael Bohl, has a longer term goal in mind; the Paris Olympics in 2024.
Still, here's the thing with Cody Simpson, he just might pull off Tokyo anyway. Just ask another butterfly specialist, Susie O'Neill.
"I think if anyone could do it, Cody can," says O'Neill, who has known the Simpson clan for years.
"To be honest, before I saw how well he is going and the times he is achieving I would have said that was almost impossible to come back the way he has because time spent in the water makes a massive difference.
"But Cody has a few things in his favour; first of all he's got great swimming genes, secondly he has kept really fit all these years out of the water, and when he was younger he trained with Denis (Cotterell) who is an exceptional coach.
"I've also seen some of the training sessions he's done with Brett (Hawke) on videos and they are quite different to anything I've seen before, it looks like he's really streamlining his racing.
"Now he's got Michael Bohl, so that's a massive advantage, but underlining all of that is he's got this great family and this great attitude.
"After his swim on the Gold Coast, all these people were asking for selfies, and he was
just so lovely to everyone, so gracious and polite.
"I know Cody would not have a big head about all this at all, he'd be in there trying his hardest and learning whatever he can from the other swimmers, there's no ego there at all."
O'Neill pauses, reflecting on what it takes to make a world champion, what factor can separate a remarkably close field.
"The Olympics are all about this one shot, all those hours of training come down to this one moment in time, and you have to have nerves of steel to not let it get to you.
"Cody's given speeches at the United Nations, he's been on Broadway - I think he knows how to settle his nerves," O'Neill chuckles.
It's a couple of weeks after Simpson caused literal and figurative waves at the Gold Coast meet, and the man Australia's best swimmers call "Bohly" is grabbing a quick coffee between training sessions for his 14 member team on a four day training camp at Lennox Heads in northern New South Wales.
Among his squad are several Olympians; Emma McKeon, Emily Seebohm, Georgia Bohl, Tom Fraser Holmes and Taylor McKeon; some young guns like Flynn Baildon and Lucinda Macleod, some rising stars like Lani Pallister - and his newest recruit, Cody Simpson, who Bohl says has slotted right in.
Known for both producing medallists and his understated and polite, poolside manner: "Could you please grab your boards, guys?", Bohl says Simpson is a "courageous young man".
"It's quite remarkable I think, what he's done, because I know how hard it is for swimmers to come back after just one season off, if they've had some sort of injury. So for Cody to do what he did, without having any formal competitions behind him, and when you consider he hadn't even swum for three weeks before the (Gold Coast) race because he had a week getting here from Spain, and then two weeks in quarantine in Darwin, well, it's impressive.
"I think for Cody swimming is unfinished business and I think it takes someone with real substance to look back and say, 'well, I didn't quite find out what I could have achieved there, and I would like to find out'.
"And there's no delusions of grandeur at all, he doesn't think he's going to jump straight in and set the world on fire in the pool, that's not his mindset.
"His mindset is to work really hard over the next few years for Paris in 2024, and he is working really, really hard.
"He's just fitted right in with the team, he's sharing a room, they all eat together, he helps out where he can, he's a very mature and polite young guy.
"That's because he's got good people around him, he comes from a great family, his parents are nice people, he's just got this great attitude and character, he brings a great deal to the table and the team."
He also brings a great deal of attention.
Or, as Bohly put it, "there's nowhere for him to hide".
"There's another layer for Cody that makes what he's doing more difficult again, because he's been in the public eye and everyone is looking at him.
"It creates this extra layer of expectation, a sort of 'let's see what he's got' around Cody, and he handles that really well also."
But for every would-be tall poppy slayer (and Australian soil seems to be particularly fertile ground for them) Simpson has many, many more cheerleaders, hoping his ambitious tilt at swimming stardom pays off - O'Neill, Ian Thorpe, Grant Hackett, Michael Phelps, and Mitch Larkin among them.
And, of course, Cotterell, now semi-retired at 71 years old, is still keeping a close eye on his one time swimmer - and his times.
"He sent me over videos of his training sessions, and I have reviewed and analysed them," Cotterell says.
"You know, it's interesting, I was having a look at one of his 50m training videos, and it was three tenths of a second slower than in the second 50m (lap) Michael Phelps won gold for in the 100m fly in Beijing, and I thought, 'You're in the ballpark there, mate, you're in the ballpark'."
And if anyone would love to see Simpson knock that ball right out of the park, it's his one-time childhood coach.
"It takes a ton of courage to do what Cody is doing," Cotterell says from his home on the Gold Coast.
"But Cody has always had a ton of courage - it took a ton of it to leave swimming, and another ton to come back."
Originally published as 'If not now, never': How Cody Simpson ditched pop stardom for Olympic dream