Melanie Renee Wright OAM (formerly Melanie Schlanger, born 31 August 1986) is an Australian freestyle swimmer training at the Southport Olympic Swimming Club on the Gold Coast in Queensland under head coach Glenn Baker. She boasts over two Olympic Gold Medals in swimming and has lived an interesting life whilst on the journey of acquiring them. We reached out on behalf of The FLUX LIST to ask her about life swimming in the fast lane, Bucket Lists and what it takes to be successful, this is what she said:
- What first inspired you to take swimming seriously?
My childhood aspirations were to go to the Olympics and to become a doctor. The Olympic part, I actually dreamed of being a high jumper. It wasn’t until puberty hit and I didn’t grow and instead got more muscles that I realised I might need to rethink the dream. I ended up starting swimming at the age of 14 for a few reasons. Mostly, mum and dad worked late and I could never be picked up from school until about 5pm. There was a pool at my school and I loved all kinds of sport, so I thought it would be more fun to go swimming training than to sit at the bus stop and wait for 2 hours.
Initially, I was terrible. I was put in the junior squad with kids 4-5 years younger than me. It was quite embarrassing, but I couldn’t keep up with the higher squads. All I wanted to do was get good enough to make it into the senior squad with the kids in my grade. I improved quite quickly and after a few months I had moved up to the senior A squad.
I always had that dream of representing Australia, but it was more of a fairytale in my mind than a goal. Swimming for me was always mostly just about trying to improve and see how fast I could get. I have always been very intrinsically motivated. Initially, I just wanted to be the fastest in the squad, and qualify for bigger meets like state and nationals. As I got faster and worked my way toward each little goal, I kept shifting the goalposts. Next, it was about trying to reach the final and the podium at those bigger competitions. Eventually, I was qualifying for open nationals, then making finals and, bit by bit, I had climbed my way up to the point where my next goal was to make the Australian team.
To be honest, there was never really a time where I said “I’m going to start taking this seriously”, it was more of a step by step process of tiny improvements. Really big dreams can seem scary and unattainable when thought about on their own, but little improvements take you a few steps down the road, closer to those goals and before you know it, those really big dreams become a possibility, and then a reality. All you have to do is, bit by bit, keep moving forward.
- What have two big moments of your career been so far?
There have been so many significant moments along the way, but like everything in life, as you improve, the big moments change in perspective. Initially, winning my school swimming carnival was an absolute highlight. Every time I ticked off a little goal ,it was a big moment, and I think it’s important to celebrate each and every one of them along the journey – you never know when you may have reached the peak.
On reflection now though, after a 10 year international career, there are actually four moments that stand out to me as my most memorable. First was winning my first world championship as a part of the 4×100 freestyle relay in Melbourne. In front of a home crowd in a pool that was built on top of Rod Laver Arena. The atmosphere was electric and, still to this day, is the best crowd I ever swam in front of. We were expected to lose to the Americans and I was labelled the “weak link” being the rookie of the team and a fresh faced 19 year old. I ended up swimming a huge pb, over a second faster than anyone would have predicted and we won the gold by a fingernail.
The second and third moment came at the London 2012 Olympics. At my first Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008, I came home with a gold and bronze medal. However, I hadn’t swum as well as I would have liked and, while I was super excited to have swum in the final of a relay to win a bronze medal, the gold came as a part of a relay where I swam only in the heat. To me personally, I didn’t feel as though I deserved it, having swum so poorly. In London, it was a different story. I swam in 3 relays and the individual 100 freestyle coming home with a gold and two silver medals. The entire week was incredible and I was swimming out of my skin. The first big and memorable moment for me came in the form of Olympic Gold on day one. My amazing teammates had established a lead and being able to maintain it to anchor our Aussie team to gold is a feeling I can’t adequately describe. It is totally surreal to make the most of a tiny moment in time and actively live out a dream you’ve had as long as you can remember.
Just a few days later the next big moment came in the individual 100 freestyle. I entered the meet ranked about 6th in the world and my goal was to make the final and then just see what I could do. When the final came along, I found myself in lane 5, ranked 2nd fastest and a good shot at an individual Olympic medal. Unfortunately, instead of relaxing and doing things as I had always done, I found myself unable to switch off my thoughts. I spent the entire 24 hours from semi to final thinking about the possibility of winning a medal. I ended up swimming 0.06 seconds slower than my semi final and ended up 4th. What hurt the most was that I was 0.03 away from the bronze medal and the exact time I had swum in the semi, would have won me the silver. 0.06 was the difference between silver and nothing. Despite all that though, it remains as one of my proudest, most memorable moments because I raced for my country and gave it everything I had in that moment. Could I go back and do things over, I certainly would…but by the same token, if I could go back and tell my 14 year old self that I would finish 4th at the Olympic Games, I know I would have signed up for it on the spot.
My fourth and final big moment was in 2014, when I was a part of a world record breaking 4×100 freestyle relay. Our team was so strong and we broke a record that stood to the “super suit” era of the sport. Apart from the obvious record breaking, it was memorable because I had withdrawn from the world championships the year before with a rib fracture and had struggled for 18 months to get it right. The rehab was long and slow and impacted my training greatly. Despite it all, I ended up swimming faster than I ever had before and what ended up being the fastest of my career. And all at the age of 28. The personal endeavour to get to that point it, combined with the achievement of a world record and being able to share it with friends, is what made it so special.
- How do you manage to strike a balance between being a human being and a world class athlete?
I think the word balance is misleading. It implies that you give equal attention to all facets of life at all times. But actually, the “balance” comes more from allocating more time to the most important things at the time when they are most important. Sometimes I would need to give 100% of my time and effort to training, other times I needed to prioritise my studies and sometimes the most important thing was family, friends and relaxation. You can’t do everything, at all times.
I think it’s about being efficient with your time and making the most of it while you are doing something. Its quality over quantity in some respects. I think we innately know when we are giving too much to one thing over another, but it’s learning to acknowledge it and then doing something about it. Having said that, we are all human and we are not perfect, so cutting yourself a break when you don’t get it right is also really important.
- Top tip for keeping focused on your work?
For me, the easiest way to keep focused is to set little goals. I live by to-do lists and work out what is most important to me each day and try to get it done. I often end up being a bit too ambitious and my to-do lists sometimes don’t change for a good couple of days. Other times, I will write silly things on there that are super easy and I know will get done anyway, like “wash my hair”, or I write down something after I’ve already done it, just so I have something to cross off. It makes me feel like I’ve achieved something. 🙂 Overall though, I find it a good way to keep track of everything and it makes it easy to see when I’m doing too much or being too unproductive.
- What’s next on your Bucket List?
- Have a baby
- Keep said baby, happy and healthy
- Pass my second year of medicine
- Take a holiday in December after getting through what will likely be the most challenging year of my life to date
I am days away from giving birth to our first baby, so that is the next big achievement to tick off. We are so excited. After about a week or so off, I plan to continue studying and working part time, while learning to be a mum. I study medicine at Bond University and work for them as well, as a sport ambassador. I’m extremely lucky that Bond is so great with their support, so I will be able to do quite a lot of work and study from home, which means I won’t miss out on spending time with our newest family member. I also have amazing family and friends, and will certainly learn to ask for help more than I ever have before.
My long term Bucket List includes;
- Qualify as a doctor
- Help my husband open a swim school.
- Expand our family
- Pay it forward. I have been so lucky in my life to have so many wonderful people help me in ways that have changed my life. I try to pass that kindness on as much as I can everyday…but my long term goal is to be in a position to establish a scholarship that can help young athletes to study or establish a career, without sacrificing their sporting dreams.