Susie O’Neill Breaks Down Watching Her ‘Failure’ To Beat Misty Hyman In Sydney Olympics 200 ‘Fly Final

Susie O'Neill - 200 freestyle gold - Photo Courtesy: Swimming Australia

Susie O’Neill’s Sydney 200 ‘Fly Silver Still Raw 

Until this week, Susie O’Neill had never watched the full video of the moment at a home Sydney 2000 Olympic Games when she battled to get back in contention with American Misty Hyman in the 200m butterfly final – and fell shy of her target as a defending champion wanting to keep her crown.

Just how much the moment meant to her was obvious when, 19 years on, O’Neill broke down in tears during a live broadcast on her morning radio show after watching the 2000 race video.

“I felt like this was my race, home crowd and to come second for me is failure,” says O’Neill, for whom a 19-year gap had been significant once before.

She had entered the Sydney race a hot favourite: not only had she arrived at the Games as the swimmer who had finally, after almost 19 years, taken down the 1981 world 200m ‘fly record of legendary Mary T Meagher, but O’Neill had claimed 200m freestyle gold in an upset she caused just the day before. The Australian was on form. What could possibly go wrong?

The 200m ‘fly had long been a signature event for the 1996 Olympic champion. Hyman was world-class, too, but never before had the American been quite that good: she had often been a swimmer in contention at the 100m mark, not far off at the last turn but not in the same league as O’Neill and teammate Petria Thomas when it came to the hunt for home down the last lap.

O’Neill qualified fastest for the Sydney 2000 ‘fly final alongside Thomas. The money was on a home 1-2 finish.

Hyman led at the 100m mark, was still ahead at the last turn and, where in the past she had faded, refused to yield on her way to an Olympic record time of 2:05.88. Sensational.

Watch the video of the race:

Hyman caught the headlines not only for her win: in her post-race press conference, when asked what had made the difference, she mentioned taking “… pills every five minutes …”.

Nutritionist Glen Luepnitz, who was brought on to the USA team by head coach Richard Quick, confirmed that he had indeed put some swimmers on regimes that involved them taking “amino acids and vitamins” on a very regular basis. At a press conference, Luepnitz refused to give further details, saying that that would be to “give away the USA’s advantage”. Banned substances were not a part of it, he said. There was a more serious twist to that tale involving other swimmers come the Athens 2004 Games.

Doping was a hot topic at the time, swimming still reeling from the China Crisis of the 1990s, including the 1998 hGh scandal and subsequent mass suspensions among Chinese swimmers and coaches. It was hard to escape the issue in many events at Sydney 2000. In the 200m freestyle final won by O’Neill, for example, three others swimmers would end their careers with doping records in tow, while two others would face accusations during their career.

Hyman’s victory delivered one of the upsets of the pool at Sydney 2000.

Now, 19 years on, speaking on her Brisbane based breakfast radio show, O’Neill let raw, deep-rooted emotion spill after watching the race video. She noted that it provoked a “physical reaction” in her before breaking down in tears. O’Neill, struggling throughout to composed herself, said:

“My default is … my default is I just want to crack a joke. I know it’s only a swimming race and I know in my head I didn’t fail, but with that I just see failure. I felt like this was my race, home crowd and to come second for me is failure.”

Co-host Ashley Bradnam asked what was going through her head as she prepared to head to the blocks and if she thought she was going to win. O’Neil says:

“I think I was. I was really nervous for the whole Olympics. I’m a nervous competitor but that was the worst I’ve ever felt. Maybe I was too arrogant, maybe I’d lost too much energy from not sleeping night after night.”

Did you think you were beatable?” Bradnam asks.

“No,” says Susie.

“Of course I thought I was going to win, I’m still trying to find reasons even 19 years later.”

“I knew this was my last race … I just see failure.”

Confronting her demons, she adds, fighting back more tears: “I’ve moved on to other things. I’m not a failure.”


Watch the moment unfold

Comment: The last four words spoken by O’Neill are where it’s at: no, she was not a failure. Not even remotely close. This moment 19 years on gives us insight into just what it all means for the athlete; just how much they have invested; just how important it is that the guardians and governors of sport understand the mindset of world-class athletes and treat such things with great care. Watching the hugely successful O’Neill talk about a depth of emotion yet attached to an Olympic 200m butterfly final 19 years ago, it is easier to imagine what it was like – in the moment and for decades beyond – for those in other circumstances who were robbed of their rightful rewards by dopers and cheats and the failure of governance to deal with all of that nearly as well as they ought to have down the decades. An issue that ripples far and wide – and one Swimming World will be returning to in due course.



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