Susie O'Neill watches 200m butterfly race from 2000 Sydney Olympics.
Susie O'Neill watches 200m butterfly race from 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Aussie swim star relives 19 years of pain

September 20, 2000. A night that will sadly be remembered for heartbreak instead of a night of celebration.

Australian swimming legend Susie O'Neill was as unbackable as Winx at her peak when she entered the final of her pet event at the Sydney Olympics.

The Sydney Olympics produced moments that will live on in the memories of thousands of Australians for years to come, but one still burns all to brightly for O'Neill and for the wrong reasons.

O'Neill entered the 200m butterfly final as the the defending Olympic champion who hadn't been beaten for six years.

She solidified her spot as the swimmer to beat when she broke the event's 19-year-old world record during the selection trials.

If you were a gambler you would have put everything on O'Neill walking away with her second gold medal of the games.

She qualified fastest for the final alongside fellow Aussie Petria Thomas and many believed a one-two finish was coming.

But for the woman known as "Madam Butterfly" the fairytale script didn't go according to plan as 21-year-old American Misty Hyman played the role of villain and broke hearts across the country.

Hyman proved too strong for the Aussie duo as she touched the wall in an Olympic record time of 2:05.88 with O'Neill finishing second and Thomas in third.

Misty Hyman celebrates after pulling off the stunning upset victory.
Misty Hyman celebrates after pulling off the stunning upset victory.

It wasn't how the night was supposed to unfold for the Queen of the pool.

Like many athletes who have fallen short in a big race or game, O'Neill has never watched the race that didn't go as it was supposed to. Until today.

On her Brisbane based breakfast radio show, the Australian Olympic legend re-watched the race in a raw and emotional moment.

"My default is … my default is I just want to crack a joke," O'Neill says through tears as the video begins on Nova's Ash, Kip, Luttsy & Susie.

"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."

Her co-host Ashley Bradnam asks what was going through her head as she prepared to head to the blocks and if she thought she was going to win.

"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," O'Neill says in reply.

"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 to which O'Neill replies simply "No".

"Of course I thought I was going to win, I'm still trying to find reasons even 19 years later," O'Neill says.

Susie O'Neill breaks down watching the 200m butterfly from the Sydney Olympics.
Susie O'Neill breaks down watching the 200m butterfly from the Sydney Olympics.

"If I could swap my 200m free for this I would, this was more important. I'm Madam Butterfly at this stage, that's my nickname … this is my race."

The footage of the race begins to roll as O'Neill spoke about Hyman, an athlete who wasn't even on her radar.

"Not in my wildest dreams did I think she was a legitimate competitor to me," O'Neill says.

"Her time was three seconds slower than what she does. She was not a legitimate competitor at this point."

O'Neill, as she did with every single race, broke down the things that went wrong, lamenting she was too far back and admitted to panicking with 25 metres to go after she spotted the American across the pool.

"I've seen that footage before (Hyman celebrating) … that hurts. She's a nice girl, I cant begrudge her … but that hurts," O'Neill says.

"I remember when the race finished just feeling numb and going what do I do now?

"In my head I was telling myself to be a good sport and I was thinking why is everyone cheering? We're in Australia and they just seemed to be cheering."

O'Neill was overcome with emotion.
O'Neill was overcome with emotion.

Despite being emotional before the footage of the race was shown, O'Neill said she felt more relaxed after having re-watched the race.

"I think it's a relief, I don't know it's weird. I felt so much emotion before but I feel like maybe because I'm still the same person," she says.

"Just because I lost that doesn't mean I'm that for the rest of my life. I've moved on to other things."

"I'm not a failure … bit of a sook though," O'Neill says through tears.

O'Neill holds a record 35 Australian titles, 8 Olympic medals and a string of victories at the World Championships and Commonwealth Games.

An International Swimming Hall of Fame honoree in 2006, O'Neill is one of the country's most successful swimmers, but the pain of that night on September 20 still lingers.



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