YouTube stardom to the Olympics? Singer Cody Simpson’s unlikely bid to compete at Games

Teenybopper poster boy Cody Simpson will be among Australia’s top swimmers at next month’s national championships as he hones his 100m butterfly before June’s Olympic trials.

The junior swimmer turned international singer has taken another key step in his quest to make it in the pool by entering the Australian titles on the Gold Coast, where he will attempt to shave whole seconds from his personal best in his unlikely bid to qualify for the Tokyo Games.

Simpson, who counts Michael Phelps and Ian Thorpe as mentors, dated Miley Cyrus for 12 months and is friends with Justin Bieber. The Gold Coast-born 24-year-old’s path to fame is not dissimilar to Bieber’s, having been discovered on YouTube in 2009 and since toured globally on the back on three solo studio albums titled Paradise, Surfers Paradise and Free.

But his 6.9m Twitter followers and 3.9m Instagram followers have only recently been made aware that he was a junior Queensland state champion.

Simpson seriously returned to swimming about five months ago and has been training in the United States with Australian former Olympian Brett Hawke, posting regular Instagram updates detailing his progress.

His decision to rekindle a career cut short by his music was kept relatively quiet until December, when he announced his second coming with a 100m butterfly time of 54.7s. It is below the 56.87s qualifying mark for the Olympic trials and would have been the 11th-fastest time in the same event at the 2019 Australian championships, which Kyle Chalmers won in 52.07s.

At the 2021 Australian championships he has been seeded 13th in the event with a time of 53.85. The top seeds are Chalmers (51.37s) and Matthew Temple (51.47s).

Hawke has said Simpson’s swimming aspirations are “a four-year plan”, in an acknowledgement his student will be up against it to make the cut this time around. But, with a qualifying time, he will be able to contest the Olympic trials to be staged in Adelaide a few weeks before the Tokyo Games start in July.

“I just qualified for my first Olympic trials,” Simpson wrote on Instagram in December.

“I’d love to share this personal milestone and let you in on my current journey as an athlete that I’ve kept relatively low key until now. Growing up competing, and then inevitably having to cut my career short as 13-year-old Australian champion when I received an opportunity in music that I couldn’t refuse.”

After detailing his experiences as a musician “touring around the world, releasing albums, performing as a leading man on Broadway, publishing a work of poetry, travelling with and speaking at the United Nations on environmental and oceanic matters”, Simpson proclaimed he had been “fuelled by the silent fire in my stomach” to return to swimming.

“We kept it under wraps, we didn’t want it to get out necessarily in terms of kickstarting it,” Hawke told Afternoon Sport. We’ve got work to do to get to s certain level before we want people to know that you’re doing this.

“We could’ve said something a little bit earlier but we just didn’t have any swim meets because of Covid … when a swim meet popped up on the radar we thought, ‘let’s go down and have a splash and get off the blocks for the first time … ’ and first swim he gets a qualification for the Olympic trials. It kind of took us all by surprise.”

Hawke said Dolphins head coach Rohan Taylor was supportive of Simpson’s ambitions but emphasised that the realistic aim was to qualify for France 2024.

“Our goal is to be as fast as we can possibly be this year and just keep building on that,” he said. “He’s looking at this as a four-year plan, he’s committed to four years. He had a conversation with Michael Phelps, and Michael told him, ‘you can’t do anything in under four years, you’ve got to commit to that’ … so he’s looking at from the age of about 23-27 here, and that’s prime for anybody. I think that’s the best chance he’ll have, to try and make an Olympic team four years from now.”

In a YouTube video interview with Hawke, Simpson said Phelps had become “somewhat of a mentor”.

“Which is, you know, beyond anything I could have dreamed of as a kid growing up,” Simpson said.

“I had him as my computer screen saver, you know, his butterfly in Beijing, I was 11. And I think that when the Beijing Olympics were out there and that was like my first year, I was at my first national championships and stuff like that.

“And so he was and is that figure to me in sports and it’s pretty awesome that I can kind of just text with him.”