Susie O’Neill was inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame on Thursday, December 5, 2002 as an Athlete Member and was Elevated to Legend of Australian Sport in 2012 for her contribution to the sport of swimming.
Dubbed ‘Madame Butterfly’ for her peerless quality as a butterfly swimmer, Susie O’Neill is one of Australia’s most successful swimmers. She was a dominant influence in Australian swimming, first rising to prominence at the 1990 Auckland Commonwealth Games. At times, she carried the hopes of our female team almost single-handedly, never returning home from an international competition without a medal, a stretch from 1990 to 2000. O’Neill’s determination to win was matched by her modesty and her respect for her fellow competitors and the sport in general.
First making a name for herself at the 1990 Auckland Commonwealth Games, O’Neill won gold in the 4x100m freestyle relay and silver in the 100m butterfly. At the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games, O’Neill won bronze in the 200m butterfly, an sign of things to come.
At the 1994 Victoria (Canada) Commonwealth Games, O’Neill returned home with three gold medals in the 200m butterfly (2 min 09.96 sec), 200m freestyle (2:00.86), and 4x200m freestyle relay, and two silver medals, 100m butterfly, and 4x100m freestyle relay.
Two years later at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, she won gold in the 200m butterfly, defeating Ireland’s triple winner Michelle Smith, who was later found guilty of drug offences. She was the first Australian female swimming Olympic gold medallist since 1980 and was the first Australian female ever to win the 200m butterfly. She also won silver in the 4x100m medley relay, and bronze in the 4x200m freestyle relay, becoming Australia’s most outstanding Olympic performer since Shane Gould in Munich 1972.
O’Neill dominated the 1998 Kuala Lumpur Commonwealth Games swimming program, winning a record eight medals, including six gold – 200m butterfly (2:06.60), 200m freestyle (2:00.24), 400m freestyle (4:12.39), 4x100m freestyle relay, 4x100m medley relay, 4x200m freestyle relay, and two silver – 100m butterfly, 100m freestyle.
In August 1999, O’Neill won six medals at the Pan Pacific Championships in Sydney, gold in the 200m butterfly and 200m freestyle and silver in the 100m butterfly, 4x100m freestyle, 4x200m freestyle, and 4x100m medley relay.
At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, O’Neill affirmed herself as one of Australia’s all time greats, winning the race she didn’t expect to, and finishing second in the one she expected to win. She won gold in the 200m freestyle and three silvers in the 200m butterfly, 4x100m medley relay and 4x200m freestyle relay. O’Neill, until then unbeaten in the butterfly event for six years, was the first Australian woman since Dawn Fraser to win gold in successive Olympics.
O’Neill had won a total of eight Olympic medals, an Australian women’s record, shared with Dawn Fraser and now Petria Thomas. At the closing of the 2000 Games, O’Neill was elected to the IOC Athletes’ Commission by competitors at the Games, but family obligations caused her to resign in 2005.
During her career, Susie won an astonishing 35 Australian Open Swimming Championships – the most by an Australian. In her favoured event, the 200m butterfly, Susie broke the Australian record on eight occasions, and the Commonwealth record six times. One of O’Neill’s greatest triumphs came on May 17, 2000, in Sydney, when she broke the 19-year-old 200m world record of the great Mary Meagher, swimming’s first ‘Madame Butterfly’. Her time was 2:05.81 seconds.
Although she was more famous (and more comfortable) with the butterfly – in which she achieved world number one ranking over both the 100m and 200m – she was also rated world number one in the 200m freestyle in 1999 and 2000. In 1995 and 1996 she was awarded Australian Swimming’s highest honour – Swimmer of the Year.
Awards, Honours & Achievements
- 1997: Awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia
- 2002: Inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame
- 2012: Elevated to Legend of Australian Sport
- 2018: Became a Member of the Order (AM)