Australian swimming legend Susie O’Neill broke down in tears before watching the full 2000 Olympic 200m butterfly final for the first time on Monday.
O’Neill, then the world-record holder known across the country as “Madame Butterfly,” was relegated to silver by American Misty Hyman in one of the most seismic upsets of the entire Sydney Games.
She was a guest on an Australia radio show on Monday when she sat down to watch the race.
“I’m already having a physical reaction,” she said while looking at an image of herself in the ready room from 19 years ago. “I’m feeling emotional. Isn’t it weird? My default is one of um … [starts crying] … 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.”
O’Neill was the defending Olympic champion, had not lost a major 200m fly since before the Atlanta Games and, at Australia’s Olympic Trials, took down an 18-year-old world record in the event, the oldest on the swimming books.
The day before the 200m fly final, O’Neill won the 200m freestyle, “an event I didn’t care about,” she said. O’Neill said she didn’t think she was beatable in the 200m fly.
“I’m a nervous competitor, but it’s the worst nerves I’ve ever felt,” she said. “Maybe I was too arrogant. I’m not sure. Maybe I’d lost too much energy from not sleeping night after night.”
Hyman was the world bronze medalist but came into the Olympics with a personal best that was 3.46 seconds slower than O’Neill’s world record.
“Not in my wildest dreams what I thought was a legitimate competitor to me,” O’Neill said Monday. “She was a nothing to me.”
Yet O’Neill trailed at every turn. Hyman won in 2:05.88, the second-fastest 200m fly in history and a personal best by 1.99 seconds. O’Neill finished seventh tenths back.
“I’m still trying to find reasons, even 19 years later,” O’Neill said, watching the race. “I didn’t swim much slower than my best, so in my head, again, I should say, well, I did as well as I could have.”
It would be the last major individual race of her career. O’Neill retired two months after the Sydney Games.
“I’ve moved on to other things,” O’Neill said after watching the race Monday, still in tears. “I’m not a failure.”
Australia’s female swimming star of the last several years, Cate Campbell, said watching the footage of O’Neill on Monday was “almost like looking in a mirror,” according to the Sydney Morning Herald. Campbell broke the 100m free world record one month before the 2016 Olympics, then finished sixth in Rio.
“What was really interesting was that the fear of watching it was worse than actually watching it [for O’Neill],” Campbell said, according to the newspaper. “You can see the emotional scars and the pain that leaves on you.
“All of the things she had done to try and cope, I had done as well. You want to fend it off. You don’t want to face it head on. When we [athletes]fail, we feel it much more deeply than anyone ever could. I hope that people will learn to be kinder from seeing more reactions like this.”
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