London Olympian Tessa Wallace is one of Australia’s best breaststrokers over 200 metres, but the battle to reach the top of her chosen profession has been anything but easy.
The Sunshine Coast product suffers from a medical condition which has generated plenty of debate – and even a Senate inquiry.
Commentary Box Sports’ Dave McLenaghan caught up with 23-year-old to talk about managing her illness and her plans to return to swimming’s biggest stages.
DM: Not many people know you have Lyme disease. How does it affect you?
TW: It is a tick-borne illness. The symptoms include headaches, fevers, chronic fatigue – it is a debilitating disease but it affects people differently. It depends on the co-infections. I consider myself one of the lucky ones. I have met some people who are in a wheelchair because they can’t walk properly. They are extremely weak. They cannot live properly day-to-day but I can live day-to-day with some normality. It hinders my training a fair bit but I do consider myself one of the lucky ones.
— 91.9 SeaFM (@919SeaFM) May 13, 2016
Have you altered your training program since the diagnosis?
It is a really difficult situation because there is no cure or proper treatment for the illness. The past few years have been trial and error for me with regards to diet and supplements. The right balance helps me to back up after training sessions. It helps me do more than one or two hard sessions a week but I am still searching for the best maintenance program for me. I am not sure I will find a cure. I hope I can swim through it though.
— Aus Lyme Petition (@Lymefight2015) May 17, 2016
You contemplated retirement at the ripe old age of 23 after missing out on the Australian Olympic team for Rio. Why have you decided to keep racing?
I still think I have a huge amount to give in the sport. I have not reached my true potential yet. I would regret it if I gave up. That has always been my motto: “Never give up”. It would be hypocritical if I gave up because of one little tick! I had a little break and now and I hope to come back and give it one more crack.
Instead of lining up in Brazil, you went to France to train instead. What was your thinking behind that?
I have always wanted to go to France to work on my French. It is my other big passion in life. My first passion was a bit dysfunctional at the time so I followed my other passion. It was the best time to do it. It was a holiday and training break at the same time. I kept fit but also enjoyed myself, too.
Have you set your sights on the 2020 Tokyo games?
It is a long way away. I am aware of it and it is my ultimate goal. It is possible, but short-term I need to focus more on the next Commonwealth Games and then I will make up my mind if I should stick it out another two years and go for it. It is all down to my body and if it can cope.
— Australian Swim Team (@DolphinsAUS) February 5, 2016
The 2018 Commonwealth Games are in Queensland. Can you go one better than your silver medal at the Delhi games in the 200 metres breaststroke?
How amazing would it be to win a gold medal in front of a home crowd? It is an absolute dream of mine. It is possible if I can get some good training in between now and then. I have no doubt I can achieve that, but again, it is whether or not I can eradicate this illness.
You are competing at the national short course titles at Brisbane’s Chandler Pool this week. Are you out to prove to your rivals that you have still got what it takes?
Yes. It is a compulsory meet for me but I still wanted to compete anyway to keep my race fitness and motivation. I think it is good to keep racing and I have been working on my sprints lately so I am able to race in some different events which is fun and exciting. There is not as much pressure.
A photo posted by Tessa Wallace (@tessawallace) on
Besides the length of the pool, is there much difference in short course racing to ‘normal’ racing?
Short course involves a lot more skills in your turns. If you have horrible turns, which I do, then you will be disadvantaged. I have been working a fair bit on my turns recently and hopefully that will get me back on a level playing field with other swimmers. It is a lot different because you have to be strong with your turns and when you are underwater. The times are a lot faster than your long-course times. It changes the game.
You have been coached by your father (John Wallace) for 10 years. Have you ever thought about leaving to join Chris Mooney’s squad at the University of Sunshine Coast, which has fellow Olympic breaststrokers Taylor McKoewn and Jake Packard?
It has been a long time but it has been the best 10 years I could have asked for. The reason I have not left him is because I genuinely believe he is one of the best coaches in Australia, so why would I give up that opportunity to go somewhere else? When I can train, I swim incredibly well and fast. I believe one hundred percent in his programs and I know he is the best fit for me. He understands my health history and he is the perfect fit.