Susie O’Neill went into Sydney 2000 as the darling of Australian swimming. Aside from her peerless quality as a butterfly swimmer, she was revered for her down to earth nature, humility and work ethic.
The 27-year-old attended her third Games as defending Olympic Champion, but even after adding one gold and three silver medals to her tally in Sydney, she considered herself a failure until recently.
Just three months out from Sydney 2000, the eight-time Olympic medallist made history when she broke the 19 year-old 200m butterfly world record of Mary T. Meagher, the original ‘Madame Butterfly’.
The moniker was then passed on to O’Neill, who was undefeated in the event for six years.
Although she eventually became a 35-time Australian title holder, O’Neill’s introduction to swimming was a shaky one.
As a child she was exclusively a backstroker, as any other stroke where her head would go under the water, would cause her to have panic attacks.
“I had a bit of a rough start to begin with, I was always a shy, nervous kid, especially when I wanted to do something really well,” the mother-of-two explained.
“I was also scared and of having my head under water, so I only competed in backstroke.
“I didn’t do butterfly back then, but if I did a freestyle race, I would need to stop every couple of strokes because I’d have a panic attack.”
It was O’Neill’s first swimming coach, the late Bernie Wakefield, who helped her to overcome her fears, creating Australia’s most successful Olympic summer medallist alongside Dawn Fraser and Petria Thomas.
“It was hard. My coach, Mr. Wakefield, used to say to me that when I walked behind the block, I had a switch on my brain that could turn everything off, so visualising flicking that switch to ‘off’ helped,” she said.
“When I started to panic, I’d concentrate on blowing bubbles and breathing out which also made it a bit easier.”
From a young age, O’Neill knew she wanted to represent the country in swimming regardless of whether her nerves would occasionally beat her in the water.
At the age of 10, she wrote a school project about wanting to swim for Australia, then at 11, was inspired to pursue the Olympic dream.
“I remember watching the Los Angeles 1984 Olympics, when Jon Sieben won the 200m butterfly and that was when I decided I wanted to be an Olympian.
“I thought to myself, that’s what I want to do, I want to go to the Olympics,” she said.
She made her first National Team at 15, but rather than being worried about how she would perform, O’Neill’s mum was more concerned about Susie not fitting in to the team, due to how shy she was.
“I remember when I made my first team in 1989, my mum was really worried because I didn’t speak,” O’Neill shared.
“I was really, really shy and I never smiled because I was just petrified.
“She wrote me a letter and sent it to me at the hotel we were staying at and it said, ‘make sure you smile otherwise everyone will think you’re a snob’ but I wasn’t, I would’ve had the most petrified look on my face,” O’Neill recalled.
“Mum never wrote anything about my swimming, she was just worried about me fitting into the team.
“She sent me a poem which I’ve still got in my purse, it says, ‘a smile costs nothing, but it means so much,’ and I like to tell everyone that story because I never knew that people who won gold medals, could be like me, having all those fears and doubts,” she continued.
“I didn’t know they could also feel really sick before they raced, so when I started to win, I really wanted to tell people and let kids know that it's okay to be nervous, it just means that you really want to do well.
“In fact, when I was nervous, I knew I would swim faster because of all the adrenaline going through my body.”
After she made the national team, media started to ramp up around O’Neill which she found quite difficult.
“I was and still am an introvert, so when I first started becoming successful in the pool, I found it quite daunting and the interviews were really difficult,” she said.
“I remember a journalist interviewed me when I was about 15 and she said, ‘just talk to us journalists like you're talking to your family’.
“I told her, ‘that's the thing, I am. This is how I talk to my family, with one-word answers, this is me,’ she laughed.
Throughout O’Neill’s 12 years in the national team she won 18 World Championship medals, 25 Pan Pacific Championship medals and 16 Commonwealth Games medals, including 11 gold.
She was the 200m butterfly long course world record holder from 2000-2002 and the short course world record holder from 1999-2004.
She won her first Olympic medal at Barcelona 1992 when she was 18, a bronze in the 200m butterfly, but her coming of age was at Atlanta 1996 where she won gold, silver and bronze in the 200m butterfly, 4x100m medley relay and 4x200m freestyle relay, respectively.
“My gold medal at Atlanta was probably my favourite one of them all,” O’Neill said.
“When you’ve thought about something ever since you were a kid and you’ve looked up to people like Jon Sieben and then all of a sudden, you’ve done exactly the same thing.
“I had my brother, his wife and my boyfriend (now husband, Cliff Fairley) in the crowd wearing shirts with my face on it and green and gold zinc. Winning gold in front of them was a really special moment.”
Going into Sydney 2000, O’Neill was seemingly untouchable. There was a cavalier confidence from Australian fans that she would quite easily defend her Olympic title, after all, she hadn’t been beaten in her pet event for six years.
To her competitors, coming up against Madame Butterfly was intimidating to say the least, but O’Neill certainly felt the pressure of such expectation.
“I hadn't been beaten in six years and three months earlier had broken the world record which had stood for 19 years, so it's fair to say that I was the favourite,” she said.
“As it got closer to Sydney 2000, I did start to feel a bit of pressure because there was so much support from the general public, it was absolutely amazing but it also started to become a bit nerve wracking.
“I was quite recognizable back then, so whenever I’d go outside or go to the supermarket people would say, ‘Oh, we've got tickets to your gold medal event or we can't wait to see you win the gold medal’, they were really supportive messages, but as a consequence, I got more and more nervous.”
The crowd favourite collected three silvers and a gold at Sydney 2000, an impressive way for any athlete to end their Olympic career. Of her medals, her gold and one of her silvers were a surprise in different ways.
Her gold was in the 200m freestyle, an event that she hadn’t truly focused on in the past, but the surprise Olympic Champion almost didn’t make it to the starting blocks.
“Winning gold in the 200m freestyle was a massive surprise because I'd always done that event, but had never really concentrated on it,” she said.
“In the lead up to Sydney, we had a really good 4 x 200m freestyle relay team, there were about six girls who could make that team, so we had a fair bit of depth and thought that as a group, we could do really well in that race.
“As a consequence, I really started to focus on the 200m freestyle alongside the 200m butterfly.
“It was day five or six of Sydney and I qualified fastest for the 200m freestyle and was really surprised,” she continued.
“I looked around at the times other people had done and I thought to myself, ‘I should probably win this’ then I got really, really nervous.
“The final was at 6pm and at lunchtime on the day of the final, I remember ringing my husband crying and said, ‘I don't want to go to the pool tonight, I'm too nervous.’
“He said to me, ‘Go to the pool, put on your toggs, dive in and just swim as fast as you can.’
“It was really good advice because I'd gotten really caught up in the hype, but from there, I went to the pool and I ended up winning gold that night.
But the more shocking surprise came when O’Neill was beaten.
In a huge upset, the defending Olympic Champion came second to 21-year-old American, Misty Hyman in the 200m butterfly.
O’Neill had come first in the heat in a time of 2:07.97 which she improved upon, coming first again in the semi final in 2:07.57. In the final she swam a time of 2:06.58 but it wasn’t enough to beat Hyman who posted an Olympic record time of 2:05.88.
O’Neill watched the footage back for the first time on her radio show last year and revealed through tears that she felt like she was a failure for the last 19 years.
Upon watching the footage back, she said “If I could swap my 200m freestyle gold for this, I would, this was more important. I was Madame Butterfly, that’s my nickname, this was my race, this was my home crowd and to come second, for me, is failure.”
At the end of the show she added that she felt relief adding, “Just because I lost doesn’t mean it defines me for the rest of my life, I’ve moved onto other things… I’m not a failure.”
Now, she says the experience was a cleansing one that helped her to process and move forward.
“Last year I really debriefed it in a very public way, but I look at it really differently now,” she said.
“For all those years, I didn’t revisit that event, so when I re-watched it all of these feelings came up.
“Everyone expected me to win, I didn’t win, I failed, I didn’t do what I was meant to do, but since then I’ve had a really big cleansing and looking back now, I actually think it’s an amazing result,” she continued.
“For 19 years, whenever someone would mention the Sydney Olympics, the first thought in my head was always that I’d I lost the 200m butterfly, but now, I don't even want to focus on that because I feel like three silvers and a gold at a home Olympics and the longevity and consistency I had in my career was amazing.
“I suppose it taught me that I need to celebrate things that I do well and celebrate when I do my best and I don't know if I should have processed that so publicly, it was a bit of a public therapy session, but I’m glad that it all came out because now I look back and think, wow, I actually did pretty well.
“Throughout my 12 years in the Australian team, I was very consistent with my performances and I think that's what I'm most proud of. I never really had a terrible performance and was always close to my best time.”
O’Neill said that she is inherently, quite a self-critical person, but that is one of the drivers that make elite athletes, elite and helped push her to swimming’s greatest heights.
“It’s really difficult because to be an elite sportsperson, you have to be quite self-critical,” she said.
“I've really worked on stopping that in my life moving forward and as much as I hate that about myself, I'm also thankful because it's what made me so good during my career, that I was never quite satisfied.
“But at the same time, it's not healthy and you need to get the balance right.
“Certainly, by the end of my career, my balance was a little bit out, but over the years I learnt that if you've done your best and given 100%, you've got to be happy with that effort and that’s something I tell my kids and something my parents told me.”
O’Neill has continued to play an active role in the Olympic movement and last year was named one of the Deputy Chefs de Missions for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics Games in 2021.
She says the advice she would give to current and future Olympians is to believe that even as a ‘normal’ human, they have the ability to do great things.
“The first thing I always say, is that normal people do well at the Olympics.
“I always looked at those who won the gold medals or did really well and thought I couldn’t do that for every reason under the sun, because I'm too quiet, because of where I’m from but I really believe anything is possible if you put your mind to it and work really hard.
“I'm not an extraordinary person, growing up my parents always taught my siblings and I to be humble and would say, ‘Just because you’re good at swimming doesn’t make you better than anyone else.’
“I always knew I was really good at going up and down the pool, but I also knew that I wasn’t super important just because I could swim fast.”
O’Neill also encourages athletes and everyone alike to spend more time celebrating their triumphs and move on from their disappointments.
“Celebrate your victories along the way. I don’t think I celebrated mine enough and if you have disappointing events, analyse them, but move on from them quickly and don’t sit on them for 19 years,” she laughed.