It is July 31, 3 p.m., Japanese Standard Time at the Tokyo Aquatics Center.
I should have been there.
My journey to my second Olympic Games started as soon as the 2016 Games concluded, and this time I had a deeper sense of assurance and confidence. The 2016 Games were something from a dream, in fact, a dream from a 10-year-old Lizzie Cui. It was my 19th birthday when I represented my home country of New Zealand in the women’s three-meter springboard event in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, making history as the first New Zealander to compete in the Games for springboard diving since 1992.
I was a kid in 2016, taking in all the sensations with a wondrous curiosity. Walking in the opening ceremony is a highlight I look back on with the corners of my mouth turned up. The vibrant colors of each country's flags perched high above as I walked with my head held high in a sea of black and silver. I loved walking with Team New Zealand, there’s something about representing a small country on the world stage that ignites a different type of fire within.
The competition day was one of the most memorable days of my life. It was my birthday and my birthday wishes for the past 12 years were coming true. I finally got to call myself an Olympian. The truth is however, I never thought I’d make the 2016 Olympic Games, my sights were always on the 2020 Games in Tokyo. The 2016 Games were a blessing I never saw coming.
The journey to my second Olympic Games looks much different than the first time around. Instead of riding on luck and talent, I had to work harder and smarter. I was no longer in high school with little responsibilities. This time around I was faced with the full course load of a chemistry student, whilst balancing a 20-hour a week training load, and traveling out of the state and across the world for competitions representing Lousiana State University (LSU) and New Zealand. One of my favorite aspects of being an athlete is how I’ve travelled to countries such as Australia, Russia, Canada, China, Mexico, and Malaysia. I haven’t been to Spain yet but it is on my bucket list to compete at the amazing outdoor facility in Barcelona. My time management skills had to brush up quickly and Google calendar became a good friend of mine.
My day typically started with the abrupt sound of my alarm at 4:50 am and then another at 5:00 am. I would roll out of bed, reciting “you got this,” in my head to contradict the weight of my eyelids. On the way out the door, I would grab a piece of bread and peanut butter and make my way to practice. Three days a week my mornings consisted of weights training and two mornings of the week I’d be in the water. These practices lasted around an hour to an hour and a half, to allow time for me to make my 8:30 am class. A lot of my college life I had back to back classes from 8:30 am to 12:30 pm. As soon as my last class would end, I’d scurry to the dining hall to grab a quick bite to eat before returning to the pool at 1:30 pm. Practice was split between what we call dryland, which consists of a series of exercises and technical skills designed to enhance our abilities in the pool, and water practice where we repeat repetitions of our dives. After practice at around 4:30 pm, I would eat dinner whilst simultaneously checking my emails and reminders for any school work I needed to do. I ended my day lounging on the couch watching Netflix, just like anyone else does, and aimed to be in bed by 10:00 pm.
My day typically started with the abrupt sound of my alarm at 4:50 am and then another at 5:00 am. I would roll out of bed, reciting “you got this,” in my head to contradict the weight of my eyelids.
I missed a total of 5 weeks of the school spring semester upon returning from the Games and that wouldn’t be the last time I’d be away for so long. I had been putting off my chemistry lab work as long as I could because of the amount of school I was missing. When I enrolled in my organic chemistry lab, in the spring semester of my junior year, I was told that I could not miss more than three labs or it would be a health and safety liability. I was faced with a difficult decision; continue taking chemistry courses and compromise my athletic season or switch my major.
This decision brought great sadness to me. I felt like I had to give up a part of me to fulfill the other. I ultimately chose to change my major to mass communications because I liked to write in my free time and LSU had a great mass communications program. I was sad about the transition because I felt like I was giving up a part of me but ultimately I believed that things would work out the way they were meant to.
I wasn’t enjoying writing formally as much as I did recreationally. It felt forced and straight. I enjoyed the creativity and flow that writing in my journal provided and that wasn’t translating to the articles I was writing. I mostly wrote about sports because I felt like it made sense since I was an athlete, but I built up resentment for it and decided I did not want to be a sports writer. For a time, I despised myself for choosing mass communications but I told myself I was almost at the end of my college career and didn’t want to change my major again. There were so many rules and the style of writing was much different from English 2000 my freshman year. I rushed articles and put little effort into my work. However, what I’d soon realize was that I hadn’t found my voice in journalism yet.
It wasn’t until senior year capstone class that it all made sense. We were given the freedom to choose our topics for our articles. The canvas was blank and I had the paintbrush. My mind went back to my recruiting trip to LSU where I was met with a professor with a bow tie named Dr. John Pojman. I was interested in studying chemistry so I took a tour of the science buildings. My encounter with Dr. Pojman was particularly memorable because of a certain slimy creature. He was studying the slime of his pet amphiuma for its unique antibacterial properties and asked if I wanted to hold it. I said yes and still have the photo to prove it.
For my first paper in my capstone class, I decided to write about amphiuma and was able to reconnect with Dr. Pojman. I found it tremendously fun and exciting to learn how research on amphiuma slime could possibly help combat the global extinction of amphibians around the world due to the chytrid fungus. Combining my creative writing skills with science was a challenge that I instantly fell in love with. After handing in my first article, I knew that science communication was a new home for me. It was the first time that I felt a strong desire to pursue something since deciding that I wanted to compete at the Olympics when I was 10 years old. I wasn’t an incredible scientist and my writing needed some work, but I knew that with my curiosity, creativity, and hard work I will achieve my dreams of becoming an incredible science communicator just like I achieved my dreams of competing at the Olympic Games.
I wasn’t an incredible scientist and my writing needed some work, but I knew that with my curiosity, creativity, and hard work I will achieve my dreams of becoming an incredible science communicator just like I achieved my dreams of competing at the Olympic Games.
And science is there helping me lock in on the Olympics, even though my plans were changed when the events were postponed due to COVID-19. I looked at how other science communicators preach the importance of mental health and started to see a sports psychologist; I learned about my thoughts and actions which made the biggest difference in my ability to perform. I researched the importance of breathing and began yoga and meditation practices. I looked at academic journals on diet and nutrition to best inform myself, along with my personal experiences, what food is best for me. Everything is coming back full circle, where they belong, and where I belong.
I probably still get asked at least twice a week, ‘What are you going to do after diving? Like for a career?’ But now with sights set on both the Tokyo Olympic Games and improving my science communications skills, I am excited about the future, and for the first time, I’m excited about my future after my diving career ends.