“Madame Butterfliers” Susie O’Neill And Mary T Leave Indelible Marks On Swimming History

WORLD RECORD REFLECTIONS; Susie O'Neill on her way to a new world record on May 17, 2000 - and a sporting milestone. Photo Courtesy Rob Griffith AP.

Susie O’Neill was never one to chase autographs but in 1986 the then 12-year-old lined up nervously with her friends to seize the prized signature of popular visiting US swimming superstar Mary T Meagher.

The three-time Olympic champion had been invited to Brisbane by Swimming Queensland to swim at the State Championships at the Sleeman Aquatic Centre at Chandler – the home of swimming in Australia’s premier swimming State.

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SIGN OF THE TIMES: Susie O’Neill’s Competitor Pass from the 1986 Queensland State Championships. Photo Courtesy: Susie O’Neill Collection.

And this week Susie rummaged through her collection of swimming memories to reveal the autograph of the girl she would be forever associated with in the annals of swimming history.

It comes as Susie O’Neill celebrates the 20th anniversary of the day she achieved one of the sport’s great milestones.

Twenty years to the day that O’Neill finally broke Mary T’s world record in the 200m butterfly on May 17 in the year 2000.

It was the Australian Selection Trials for the Olympics at the Sydney Olympic Park Aquatic Centre.

The time by Mary T of 2:05.96 (set at Brown Deer in Wisconsin on August 19, 1981), lasting 19 years. It had been was swimming’s oldest world record, until O’Neill, after being so close so many times, lowered it to 2:05.81.

O’Neill, married to husband Cliff Fairley and the mother of two teenagers in Alix and William, is also a successful radio host on Brisbane’s Nova 106.9 Breakfast Show and she took time out this week to recall the day she finally broke a work mark she believed she was always destined for.

After winning bronze at the ‘92 Barcelona Olympics four years before her triumphant Olympic gold in Atlanta in ’96, Mary T’s world mark became the prime target in the lead up to Sydney 2000.


RELIEF: Finally…Susie O’Neill celebrates breaking swimming’s oldest world record. Photo Courtesy: Craig Borrow (News Ltd).

“I remember there being an amazing atmosphere at the Sydney pool that night….and then touching and seeing that I had broke it…it was just like relief and you know I felt like I was always going to break that record,” O’Neill recalled.

“I woke up thinking this would be my last chance to break it..I didn’t think I’d do it at the Olympics, you know with all the pressure and everything.

“I remember arriving at the pool and the crowd was just amazing, you just took that for granted back then…and just how many people (12,000) were there and what a big deal it was.

“But I felt pretty good; I remember chatting to one of the massage therapists, Jo Yeoman-Hare in the warm up area.

“I had done my warm up and was on the way to the marshaling area and we just chatted about nothing in particular really but I felt like I knew I was going to win it, which I didn’t always feel when I was racing Petria (Thomas).

“She was always quite close but I felt like I had her measure on this particular day and I just wanted to try and execute the proper number of strokes.

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FINALLY: Susie O’Neill celebrates that one moment in time. Photo Courtesy: Nick Wilson (Allsport).

“I remember I always tried to practice 24 strokes for the last 50 metres; we did a lot of pacing work and I know I never quite got there on the last 50m previously so I knew what I had to do.

“When I touched the wall, retrospectively I never felt any pain but you never know whether you feel the pain in the race or not; it usually just depends on the result I’ve found previously…

‘Like Being A Rock Star’

“With the crowd it was kind of like being a rock star I imagine. Not that I was a rock star but with the crowd we more or less took it for granted given subsequent years.

“I remember feeling pretty good; like when you go into a race knowing you’re going to win it; not really worried about whether you are going to win it is always a good feeling; I knew it was going to be like a time trial and I felt like I was a lot freerer than at other events.

“When you feel good and your nerves are not over whelming at all; I remember sleeping really well and I had already swum relatively well that meet.

“If you’ve done all the training there is nothing more you can do. My coach Scott Volkers never really gave me too many race instructions; it was really just getting your mind off it to be truthful.


ON THE FLY: Susie O’Neill in full flight  May 17, 2000. Photo Courtesy: Jeff Crow (Sport The Library).

“I wasn’t really feeling any pressure. Not compared to other events I’ve been in…

“I had always trained hard and we would do so much work on pacing and I guess it’s not much use thinking about it too much before you dive in….good races just happen…everything just pops out…so if you can keep distracted it works really well….”

And then there was the celebration and that pool deck dance?

“The idea of a celebration dance if I ever broke the world record came out of a nightclub catch up with my friends the year before after the Nationals in Brisbane and saying if I ever broke the world record I would do a dance,” recalled O’Neill.


WORLD RECORD DANCE: Capturing the moment. Art Work Courtesy: Warren Brown (News Ltd).

“It was an idea I got off Michael Klim….I remember Klimmy broke the world record in the 100m butterfly the year before and got up and did a dance on the pool deck and I knew I’d have to do my dance if I broke the world record and when I broke it I thought “I’m going to have to do this dance now”

“I really just wanted to break that record and after the dance I remember all the teams on the pool deck and seeing one of the long time Queensland Swimming officials Mrs (Greta) Tanner.


DECK DANCING: Susie O’Neill unleashes on the pool deck. Photo Courtesy:Brett Costello (News Ltd).

“I’ve watched that swim a few times since and the hype you get at the time you don’t ever really re-create that but I remember really enjoying the moment.

“It was similar to the night in Atlanta when I won the Olympic gold. They were my last events and I was really able to celebrate.

“It was a really great night back at the Novotel Hotel at Homebush Bay…you couldn’t have wished for anything better really if I tried with the home crowd and at our Trials. It was a great memory….”

Back in ’86 Meagher had come off a triumphant ’84 LA Olympics campaign that saw her win three gold medals in the 100m and 200m butterfly and the 4x100m medley relay – one of three US women, along with Tracey Caulkins and Nancy Hogshead to win three gold.

She was still in great form and broke two Australian All-Comers records held by Australia’s greats in Lisa Curry (100m) and Michelle Ford (200m) butterfly.

O’Neill was a backstroker in her formative age group career in the mind 80s under respected coach Bernie Wakefield at Acacia, the man who set O’Neill up for her spectacular career – before launching her international career in butterfly and freestyle at the ’89 Pan Pacs.

When Mary T Meagher Met Susie O’Neill – Again …


MADAM BUTTERFLIERS: Peas in the butterfly pod. Marry T Meagher and Susie O’Neill. Photo Courtesy: Mark Cranitch (Courier Mail).

O’Neill revealed that she had met Meagher saying: “I actually came across the autograph recently, the only autograph I’ve ever kept really. I was a backstroker back then but remember all the hype around Mary T…she was a real star and for us young kids it was amazing to have her at our State Championships.

“I had met her several times since then and she was always good to talk to and I also had a look back over her world record set back in 1981 and couldn’t believe not just how fast and how good she was but how young she was too.”

Meagher had re-written the record books five times in the 200m butterfly – first in 1979 when she lowered the mark of 2:09.87, jointly held by East German Andrea Pollack and Caulkins before the 15-year-old Meagher from Louisville, Kentucky set the first of her five WRs in the event along with her two world marks in the 100m (eventually broken by Jenny Thompson in 1999) – ironically also at the Sydney Olympic Pool at the ’99 Pan Pacs.

Meagher had lowered it to 2:09.77 and through a controversial and tumultuous time in Olympic history when the US boycotted the Moscow Games of ’80 and robbing the likes of Meagher, Caulkins and Hogshead of their Olympic dreams, she lowered the mark to 2:05.96 on August 13, 1981 – the time that last 19 years.

(Her butterflying exploits had earned Mary T the nickname of “Madame Butterfly” – eventually transferred to O’Neill, who too was given the moniker by the Australian media post Mary Ts retirement).

And what about some more celebrations and a dance for the day?

“It will be just a normal day for me….(another day in lockdown)…. I said to Cliff the other day. Wow I cant believe its 20 years on Sunday since I broke the world record,” said O’Neill.

“I’ll probably just have a quiet thought to myself about it but won’t make a big deal about it with my family.”

Susie O’Neill, 200m butterfly champion of 1996 and silver medallist in 2000, forever the same humble champion, deflecting any fuss, but knowing that she and Mary T have a lot in common….two of the world’s all-time great butterfliers, both quiet achievers, and sharing the famous “Madame Butterfly” tag.

TOKYO RETURN: Susie O’Neill will also be on the Australian Olympic Team for Tokyo (COVID-19 permitting) next year as one of Australia’s deputy Chef De Missions on the Games team. “I’m excited to be back on the team……nice to be around that energy again…”

And the Team will be more than happy to have Australia’s “Madame Butterfly” right with them….

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