Georgia Sheehan | Almost Olympian

"I found myself in the club that no athlete wants to join: the circle of ‘almost Olympians’." While this time of year is filled with tears of relief and elation for some, for others, it's utter devastation. VIS diver, Georgia Sheehan reflects on the reality of missing out on the Olympic dream.

Written by Georgia Sheehan.

This year in the women’s 3 meter springboard, only the top two Australian divers qualified for the Olympic Games. When the final scoreboard appeared, my name was in third place, and with it, my vision of an Olympic debut shattered. The pain was excruciating. 15 years of relentless effort, all seemingly for nothing. My dream of representing Australia at the Olympics was gone in an instant.

"When your dreams are as big as the Olympics they have a way of becoming part of you, as integral as breathing or your heart beating."

As soon as those numbers appeared on the scoreboard, I found myself in the club that no athlete wants to join: the circle of ‘almost Olympians’. We trained just as hard, sacrificed just as much, and dreamed just as big, but due to some cruel twist of fate, we fell agonisingly short of punching our ticket to this year’s Olympic Games. The reality of not competing in Paris this year is a hard one. There’s a peculiar ache that comes with almost-but-not-quite achieving your dreams. It’s the kind of pain that nestles deep in your chest, a constant companion reminding you of what could have been.

When your dreams are as big as the Olympics they have a way of becoming part of you, as integral as breathing or your heart beating.

For me, my dream of diving began when I was nine years old, after watching Mathew Mitcham and Melissa Wu win medals for Australia during the 2008 Beijing Games. I was transfixed, determined to become the next big thing. One round of tryouts later, and I found myself plunging headfirst into a new life: 30 hours a week in an elite national squad for junior athletes. My mornings began with 4:30 am wake-ups, my days orchestrated by the demands of a full-time training schedule. Unlike other teenage girls, things like part-time jobs, parties and dating were replaced by swimsuits, gruelling training sessions, and a lingering chlorine smell.

While my dedication drove me forward, I quickly realised that my journey was not one I travelled alone. The immense sacrifices that come with high-performance sports were shared by the unwavering support network around me. Over the last 15 years my family has given up so much. They gave up after-school hobbies, stretched our finances, drained their emotional reserves, and disrupted the normal flow of family life—all for my Olympic dream. A dream, which remains untouched.

But here’s the thing about dreams: even when they shatter, they leave behind a glimmer. Fifteen years of dedication and sacrifice haven’t just disappeared; they’ve woven themselves into the fabric of who I am, making me stronger, more resilient, and ready for whatever comes next. Still, in these moments of heartbreak, it is easy to question what that is.

I’ve flirted with the idea of retiring from professional sport twice in my career. The first time was right after my synchro partner and I won gold at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. After such a career-high, I faced an all-time low. Any young athlete who’s been at it for over a decade knows the feeling—burnout. It’s almost inevitable.

"We all face moments where our passion feels like a burden, and the thing we love most becomes the source of our greatest stress."

Burnout isn’t just physical; it’s about the emotional and mental toll that the relentless pursuit of a dream takes. This struggle is not unique to athletes of course. It’s a universal experience. We all face moments where our passion feels like a burden, and the thing we love most becomes the source of our greatest stress. Whether it’s a demanding job, a challenging project, or even the daily grind of balancing responsibilities, we all know what it’s like to feel overwhelmed and question if we can keep going.

In my moment of exhaustion, I decided to step away from the pool for 18 months. It was a scary hiatus to discover who I was outside of sport, but necessary. What kind of person am I, I had to ask myself? What kind of athlete did I want to become if I chose to return to the pool? Did I even want to go back? But, somewhere in those 18 months, I knew I did. It happened during a Saturday night dinner with my closest girlfriends. She pulled me aside and asked if I planned to return to diving. Her directness struck a chord deep within me. My comeback to diving had been a sensitive topic, avoided by many around me. “Give it another shot,” she said. “You might not see it now, but you only have a small window to pursue this. Just be sure you’re doing it for yourself, not anyone else. That’s the only way you’ll feel truly satisfied.” Her words echoed the feeling that had been quietly stirring within me for weeks—I was ready to head back to the pool.

By late 2021, I found my way back to the springboard, with my eyes firmly set on the Paris Olympic Games. This time, I returned with a renewed sense of purpose and a deeper understanding of myself. I was convinced that things would be different—I believed in my potential and trained with a newfound intensity. Reflecting on the past 3.5 years, I can confidently say that I poured every ounce of my being into this journey. Of that, I am proud.

However, despite this unwavering commitment, the path of an athlete is rarely straightforward. A missed goal, a stumbled routine, a poorly timed injury—that’s all it can take to derail years of dedication and sacrifice. For me, it was 0.5 points. As a springboard diver, this number is so small it almost seems laughable, and yet it is the chasm between me and the Olympic Games.

"The lessons you have learnt on your journey hold greater value than any medal."

So, just as I have once before, I now find myself at another crossroads—considering retirement for the second time. But this time, I’m not alone. As I grapple with this decision, I can’t help but think of my fellow athletes, who have given their all but fallen short of the finish line.

For those retiring, I wish you fulfilment on your journey and hope that you walk away proud, not just of what you have achieved, but of the person you have become. Please remember that we, the sporting community, are deeply proud of you. The lessons you have learnt on your journey hold greater value than any medal, and are bound to guide you on whatever path you decide to take next.

To those continuing the Olympic pursuit, know that you have my utmost respect. The emotional energy it takes to stay hungry and humble when it feels like your untapped potential is within arm’s reach is exhausting.

As I contemplate my own future in sport, I feel a familiar spark of determination that hints I, like you, am not ready to let go just yet. So to my fellow athletes still chasing their dreams: I see you, and I want you to know you are not alone. I’ll be right there with you. In these tough times, I find comfort in knowing that I am part of a remarkable community of full-time athletes and dreamers, united by a love for the sports that have shaped us.

My final message goes to my teammates who successfully qualified to compete in Paris this summer. Congratulations and best of luck to you. While I’ll miss being there in person, know that I’ll be cheering just as loudly and proudly from home as I would if I were beside you.

One day, I hope to join you there.

Article credit: Vogue Australia and Georgia Sheehan

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