The career of Petria Thomas, spanning three Olympics, possessed something of a Cinderella quality. For much of it she was outshone by Susie “Madame Butterfly” O’Neill, and as she approached her final Games in Athens in 2004, some thought she might carry that sorry label, “always the bridesmaid, never the bride”, into retirement. Instead, she emerged from those Olympics with a final score of three gold medals, four silver and a bronze. Those eight medals gave her the equal best tally ever among Australian woman, alongside Dawn Fraser and O’Neill. Thomas was 20 when she swam into second place behind O’Neill in the 200m butterfly at her first Olympics in Atlanta in 1996. In Sydney four years later she won silver in two relays and bronze behind American Misty Hyman and O’Neill over the 200m butterfly.
In Athens in 2004 Thomas was the veteran, surrounded by teenage teammates - and she was often in pain, the result of three shoulder reconstructions and an ankle reconstruction. She swam magnificently to win the 100m butterfly, won silver in the 200m butterfly, and combined with Jodie Henry, Libby Lenton and Alice Mills to win the 4 x 100m freestyle relay. But many believe her last event, the 4 x 100m medley relay, was her finest. When she dived in for her butterfly leg the Australian team was a body length behind the US, with the renowned Jenny Thompson out in front. Thomas swam the fastest ’fly relay split ever, gave anchor swimmer Henry a lead, and the Australians won in world record time. Hers was truly a champion’s farewell.
Harry Gordon, AOC historian