Cate Campbell Wants Female Athletes To Speak Openly About Their Periods

Throughout her illustrious professional swimming career, Cate Campbell struggled to manage her periods and lacked access to information or women’s health professionals.

As a four-time Olympic champion, Cate Campbell has achieved the kind of success in the pool few could even dream of. Throughout her career, she gifted us all some of the most memorable moments in sport, seeing Australians rise from their seats and yell at their television screens before erupting in an emotional outpouring befitting of her victories. But while Campbell was known as an athlete who gave her all in each race and seemed to perpetually be at her best, she admits to struggling with her own health – namely that of her period and having the correct information to train and compete during her menstrual cycle. 

It’s for this reason that Campbell is speaking openly about her struggles, as she wants female athletes to receive greater access to information and health professionals. According to Campbell, she experienced “patchy” periods during competitions, and would also see her weight fluctuate during her menstrual cycle. When she reached out to Swimming Australia in 2012 seeking help with the issue, she was instead advised to talk to her gynaecologist, who prescribed her the pill. 

“I had a really bad experience with that – I put on five kilos, I felt foggy, I didn’t feel like myself,” said Campbell. “Over the year that I was on it, I could say that I was slipping into a bit more of a depressed state, which I know a lot of women talk about.”

When she came off the pill, Campbell took matters into her own hands and began having conversations with her fellow swimmers about managing periods. These swimmers recommended a progesterone-only bar, which sits inside the arm. Campbell had one inserted in 2018, but it didn’t work for her. When she went back to her GP to have it removed soon after, that’s where she encountered more issues. 

Due to her low body fat percentage, the bar had been inserted against her muscle, rather than in the fat layer in the arm which is above the muscle like it’s supposed to. “[My GP] didn’t know this at the time, so she could feel it and she was trying to dig around for it. She was digging and digging and kept on hitting the ulnar nerve,” said Campbell.

Campbell had to have a surgeon remove the bar, who said the experience was common for people with low body fat. As a result of the complications, Campbell was left with serious bruising and permanent nerve damage. “I have a strange sensation in my pinkie finger and through my palm during times where I’m in very heavy training load that can turn to tingling and numbness,” she said. 

“It affects my ability to hold things, which then affects my ability to lift heavy weights in the gym. I just feel like throughout that whole course, there was no expert who I could turn to. There was no referral network,” she added. 

“I decided to do this through word of mouth because it wasn’t something that was really spoken about within the broader sporting community.”

cate campbell

Now, Campbell uses the Mirena IUD. “It’s not a perfect solution. It gives me some very intense cramps around the time of my period, but my period is very light, and only comes once every two months,” said Campbell. “So I can’t specifically manage when it is, but I find that it’s easier than going through a regular cycle. I can’t wait for the day when we find a side-effect-free form of hormonal contraception.”

Campbell’s openness about her own struggles has led Swimming Australia to partner with City Fertility, looking to provide athletes with access to the group’s network of women’s health experts and create an online platform with education resources. The ABC reports that only 6 per cent of research in exercise and sports literature is based on female athletes, something that needs to be changed. But as more women speak up about their experience with professional sport and their menstrual cycle, there’s greater awareness and understanding of the unique challenges that face the female body at a high competitive level. 

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