Commonwealth Games star discovers the power of the mind
COMMONWEALTH Games bronze medallist Keryn McMaster knows only too well the link between sporting success and harnessing the power of the mind.
The USQ psychology student learns about it in her studies each day.
But she has compelling evidence from her own recent achievements in Glasgow that mental strength has a flow-on effect to performance.
The 20-year-old has also learnt the value of balancing her hectic training schedule at Springfield's Waterworx Swim Club with her pursuits away from the pool.
Swimming can be an all-consuming and sometimes lonely sport.
Olympic gold medallist Leisel Jones has spoken previously of her own struggles with what can be a fixation on winning a medal.
Finding a balance can be a challenge.
Jones found it away from the pool and is now studying to be a psychologist herself.
For McMaster, the mental and physical is like the yin and the yang in her life.
"It is always hard to juggle uni and swimming," she says.
"But for me it also gives me a break mentally from study.
"You can't swim forever.
"You always need a back-up.
"Doing psychology takes up a lot of my thinking and it gives me down time away from the pool, which I believe every athlete needs.
"I definitely want to specialise in sports psychology eventually.
"I am really interested in it.
"I see a sports pysch myself."
McMaster credits those visits to helping unlock her potential in the lead-up to Glasgow where she produced a career-best effort to win bronze in the 400m individual medley.
"I think sports psychology is definitely underestimated in sport," she says.
"I saw a sports psych leading up to the Commonwealth Games and I don't believe I could have done what I did without seeing one.
"That is how much weight I think that it carries."
One of the most poignant lessons McMaster learnt from discussions with her psychologist was identifying what she can control and what she can't.
"One of the biggest (lessons) I learnt in the last year or two is that I can't control what other people do leading up to the meet.
"I don't know what kind of prep they've had, or their strengths or weaknesses.
"So I've always got to get up there on the block and bring it back to me.
"What I really worked on with my sports psych is that you can't control what anybody else does, thinks or feels.
"You can only control what you do, and your own actions."
That is a tough mental task for a swimmer to accept. A swimmer is racing against an opponent in a free and open lane.
It is vastly different from a rugby league player, cricketer or basketball player who has the capacity to stop what an opponent does or thwart them.
McMaster has suffered setbacks in her career, but has bounced back each time.
She had the 2012 London Olympics in her sights when her quest hit a speed bump, as her coach Dean Pugh explains.
"It was 12 months out from the London Olympic trials and Keryn needed to have shoulder surgery," he says.
"It got to the point where she just couldn't push through it any more.
"We bit the bullet and jumped into surgery.
"It took eight or nine months to get through the rehab to the point where you could be sure there wasn't going to be a relapse.
"Then her first major meet back was Olympic trials."
But McMaster's performances in the trials had her questioning whether she wanted to continue in the sport.
She was forced to look within to find the answers she was craving and, in true McMaster style, she found them.
"My setbacks were quite big and I didn't think I would come back," she says.
"Post-shoulder surgery, in the trials, I didn't swim very well at all.
"I scraped into the final and swam slower in the final.
"I thought, 'Do I really want to swim? Is this worth it?'
"But, looking back, I think I needed to find the passion for the sport again and learn to love it, regardless of my setbacks.
"I am glad I had that setback because it made me the athlete I am today in terms of work ethic and my mental capability in the pool."
There is a saying that perhaps sums up McMaster's situation, and it goes like this: "All of us at one point end face-up in a ditch, but only a few will choose to look up at the stars and dream."
Pugh says his pupil did not stop dreaming, or working hard, despite her trials.
"Keryn bounced back, as she always does," he says.
"Last year she won her first national championship in the 400 IM, but she just fell short of Swimming Australia's qualifying time for the worlds.
"She got picked on the Australia A team to go to the US Open and she won the 400IM, and it was the first time she broke 4min 40sec.
"That was important because that time is a bit of a barrier for 400IM swimmers
"She also became the first athlete to be the Australian and US champion in the same year."
When McMaster spoke to the QT, it was two years to the day before the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.
The numberplates on her car read 604 GLD - as in "go for gold" - and say everything you need to know about how high she is aiming.
The plates were a 17th birthday gift from her parents and are a constant reminder of her aspirations.
"Early in the morning, when you go to your car and see that, it definitely gives you a bit of drive," she says.
The Commonwealth Games was always a step on the journey she is on, not the destination.
"Everything we are doing now is to give Keryn the best shot of being on the podium at Rio," Pugh says.
"The girls that beat her in Glasgow were the second-fastest and third-fastest in the world.
"Keryn has swum the seventh-fastest time this year, which we know would have put her in the final at the world championships last year.
"After Pan Pacs this month we will be looking to the world championships trials next April, and then go to Russia to hopefully finish in the top five.
"We need to keep building both speed and endurance.
"We know the times we are going to need to go in Rio.
"We need to find 6sec to be a factor in the race.
"Four minutes 30 seconds will put her in with a show for the medals.
"The good thing is she is still improving in everything she does and she has improved at every event over the last 12 months."
In Glasgow, defending champion Hannah Miley, from Scotland, smashed her own Commonwealth Games record in winning gold in 4min 31.76sec.
England's Aimee Willmott (4.33.01) secured silver.
McMaster's time (4.36.35) bettered her previous fastest IM by 3sec.
It was a breakthrough in more ways than one.
"It sets me up now and gives me a lot of confidence leading into Pan Pacs this month and the world trials next year," she says.
"I know now that I can swim at that level.
"It makes you so happy and makes everything so, so worthwhile. It is definitely a mental breakthrough.
"I think you train for so long and you don't really know what it is like to swim at that level. So to win a medal at your first one means, mentally, that I can relax.
"I know I am as fast as those girls and I can do what they are doing."
The women's 400IM is now a blue-chip event in Australian swimming, thanks largely to the performances of Stephanie Rice.
Rice became the first woman to break the 4.30 mark when she won gold at Beijing in 2008 in what was a world record swim at the time of 4.29.45.
McMaster wants to blaze her own trail, but concedes the achievements of Rice in the pool are an inspiration to her.
"Everyone brings it up," she says.
"I want to be my own person, but I would love to get to where she went in the sport, so I suppose she was an inspiration - especially growing up and racing her as an age grouper and now following in her footsteps in terms of the swimming stuff.
"There are shoes to fill, but I don't feel as though anyone has put pressure on me to get down as fast as she did with her times."
McMaster was initially inspired to swim by her older brother Bryce, but has had to battle asthma to get where she is today.
"I still have it," she says.
"My brother was burnt as a toddler and started swimming as part of his rehab program.
"That is kind of why I started, but the doctor said it would help with my asthma.
"It was worse when I was younger, but it is not as bad now.
"When I was younger, I couldn't finish sessions because I was struggling to breathe, especially when it got cold.
"It's not an issue at meets, but it does play up sometimes in winter."
There has been no slowing down for McMaster.
She arrived home from the Commonwealth Games on a Thursday morning and was in the pool in the afternoon.
"As much as I didn't want to get in the pool, I knew we had Pan Pacs coming up," she grins.
"I knew I had to smile and push through it."
The Pan Pacs start on August 21. McMaster will contest the event and then take a well-earned break.
McMaster, who this year defended her national title, has previously credited coach Pugh as being the major influence on her career and for always believing in her.
Pugh insists she is a pleasure to coach.
"Keryn has an extremely good work ethic and the ability to really push herself," he says.
"She has all those good qualities."
When McMaster was asked in a recent interview to nominate three sporting stars she would like to meet, one of them was champion boxer Muhammad Ali.
And it is a quote of Ali's that Pugh says best sums up the Springfield swimmer.
"Muhammad Ali once said that champions are made far away from the lights," Pugh says.
"He basically said they are made in the gyms and the training centres, so, when it comes time to compete, the medals have already been won.
"You are just turning up to pick them up.
"Keryn exemplifies that. She just prepares very well.
"She has the perseverance and dedication, and all the good qualities that you preach to kids as they are coming through."