O'Neill, Susan

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Susan O'Neill


Australian swimmer

Susie O'Neill's sweet exterior easily cloaks a determined champion. She has won more titles than any Australian swimmer in the history of that country. Every record and medal she has set her sights on has eventually come to be hers. Her 1996 gold medal win at the Atlanta Olympics was the first for an Australian woman in sixteen years and the first ever for an Australian woman in Olympic competition in the 200-meter butterfly. At the end of her swimming career she stood as the reigning champion of the 200-meter butterfly from Australia's Commonwealth games to the Olympics, from the Pan Pacific Championships to the Olympics.

Taking to Water

Susan O'Neill was born in Mackay, Queensland, Australia, on August 2, 1973. O'Neill grew up surrounded by

the beaches and waterways of this coastal city located on the northeast side of Australia. She first began swimming when she was eight years old. By the time she was twelve she had won an Australian title for her age group. It was about this time that she started swimming in the event that would become her specialty, the butterfly.

She missed a chance to make the Australian Olympic team in 1988 and in 1989 made her debut in international competition at the Pan Pacific Championships in Tokyo, Japan. She didn't place, but that same year she won her first Australian championship in the 50-meter butterfly.

When O'Neill first began swimming, it was under the expert eye of Bernie Wakefield. Wakefield had established himself previously as a coach for Australian Olympic swim teams as well as Commonwealth Games and other world championship teams. O'Neill swam with Wakefield as her coach through the early years as she established herself as a world class competitor. He was her coach when she won her first Olympic medal at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 for the 200-meter butterfly.

New Coach Raises Stakes

In 1994, O'Neill switched from Wakefield to Scott Volkers. She had just won bronze medals for the 100-meter and 200-meter butterfly in the world championship meets in Rome and felt she wasn't capable of achieving much better. She told Wayne Smith of the Sunday Tasmanian, "I thought I had reached my plateau." She was wrong. Volkers helped O'Neill continue on an upward curve that led her to win a gold medal for the 200-meter butterfly in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

O'Neill was lucky to have Volkers by her side after her win in Atlanta because an earlier doping scandal had made him ineligible to attend. Volkers was banned for one year by La Federation Internationale de Natation (FINA) when one of his swimmers and O'Neill's very good friend, Samantha Riley, tested positive for a banned painkiller. He appealed the decision at the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland. The court approved his appeal and Volkers was with his team during the competitions in Atlanta, Georgia.

After her win at the 1996 Olympics, O'Neill continued to excel. She explained to the Sunday Tasmanian, "I don't want to fall into the trap of other gold medal-lists. I want to keep improving." O'Neill did not let herself or her fans down. In 1997, she broke the Australian record for the 200-meter butterfly with a time of 2:8.90. She had won enough Australian titles by this time that she was quickly approaching the record previously set by Sir Frank Beaurepaire. In May of 1998, she won her 30th national title. She thought she had broken Beaurepaire's record, but four more wins were discovered, making his total wins thirty-three, not the previously held twenty-nine. It took her two more years, but at the Olympic trials held in 2000, O'Neill surpassed Beaurepaire's record with her thirty-fourth title. By the time she retired, O'Neill had thirty-five Australian titles to her name.


1973Born August 2 in Mackay, Queensland, Australia
1981Begins swimming
1987Starts competing in butterfly
1989Begins competitive career at Pan Pacific Championships in Tokyo; wins first Australian championship in 50-meter butterfly
1992Competes in 1992 Barcelona Olympics
1993Almost breaks world record for time in 200-meter butterfly
1994Switches from coach Bernie Wakefield to Scott Volkers
1996Scott Volkers banned from attending swim meets due to dosing controversy, overturned in time for Atlanta Olympics
1998Marries opthamologist Cliff Fairley on October 2; wins 30th Australian national title
2000Loses 200-meter butterfly at Sydney Olympics, first loss in the event in six years; voted onto the International Olympic Commission
2000Announces retirement from swimming

One goal that continually eluded O'Neill was breaking Mary T. Meagher 's 1981 world record for the 200-meter butterfly. Meagher's speed was the longest standing record in international swimming history. O'Neill had broken the Australian record in 1997. That same year she was the fastest swimmer of the 200-meter butterfly in the world for the year. Her times were often faster than Meagher's during the first 150 meters of the race, but O'Neill's early attacks would lead to exhaustion during the last fifty meters, where she always lost her lead.

World Fastest, Australia's Best

While focusing on breaking the 200-meter butterfly record, O'Neill managed to set a new record as part of the 4x200-meter freestyle relay team. Not long afterwards, at a World Cup meet in Malmo, Sweden, she broke Meagher's record for the 200-meter butterfly short course with a time of 2:04.16. She went on to win her tenth consecutive national open title in the 100-meter butterfly, and then break the Commonwealth record for the 200-meter freestyle with a time of 1:59.11.

The day after O'Neill surpassed Beaurepaire for the most Australian swimming titles, she finally became the fastest 200-meter butterfly swimmer in the world. On May 17, 2000, with fifteen seconds to spare, O'Neill broke a record that had existed for almost twenty years and one that had been a personal goal of hers for three years with a time of 2:05.81.

Hoping to maintain the momentum gained from having set a world record in her sport, O'Neill represented her country in the 2000 Olympics held in Sydney, Australia. She had already won gold medals for the 200-meter butterfly in two previous Olympics and set her sights on defending that title. Unfortunately, O'Neill was defeated by an American swimmer, her first loss in that particular race in six years. Despite the blow, O'Neill could remain proud for having won the gold for her country in the 200-meter freestyle, and also contributing to the bronze medals won by the 4x200-meter freestyle and the 4x100-meter medley teams.

Two months after the 2000 Olympics, O'Neill announced her retirement. One of her main reasons for retiring was to focus on her marriage and her husband. She had married long-time boyfriend, Cliff Fairley, in late 1998. His work as an opthamologist ended up taking him to Sydney while O'Neill remained in Brisbane to train. She felt that she had spent enough time concentrating on swimming and had achieved the goals she set.

After she announced her retirement from swimming, O'Neill dedicated herself to working for the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Her primary focus is educating athletes regarding doping issues. She is an active member of the World Anti-Doping Agency, a group that advises the IOC as well as governments and international sports organizations regarding doping regulations. She is ambassador for various companies and organizations including SAAB, Kellogg's, the Fred Hollows Foundation. She also has her own line of swimsuits that is sold in Target stores throughout Australia.

Susie O'Neill left her sport at her peak. She holds more swimming titles than any other Australian swimmer ever. She set national and world records in several events from relays to freestyle to butterfly. While she maintained her determination and focus, she also presented a positive attitude that the Australian public took to their hearts. Australians not only recognized the valuable contribution that O'Neill made to the sport of swimming but also her contribution as a representative of their country to the world. She will be remembered as she had hoped when she told the Sunday Mail, "I want to be known as one of Australia's greatest athletes."


Address: c/o Athletes Commission, Château de Vidy, 1007 Lausanne, Switzerland. Fax: (41.21) 621 62 16. Phone: (41.21) 621 61 11.

Awards and Accomplishments

1990Silver for 100-meter butterfly, Commonwealth Games
1992Bronze for 200-meter butterfly, Barcelona Olympics
1994Gold for 200-meter butterfly in Commonwealth Games; bronze for 100-meter butterfly and 200-meter butterfly, World Championships, Rome
1995Telstra Australian Swimmer of the Year
1996Gold for 200-meter butterfly, silver for 4x100-meter medley, bronze for 4x200-meter freestlyle, Atlanta Olympics; Telstra Australian Swimmer of the Year; Australian Female Athlete of the Year; Amateur Athletic Foundation World Trophy
1997Gold for 200-meter butterfly, Pan Pacific Games; Order of Australia
1998Gold for 200-meter butterfly, World Championships, Perth, Australia; gold for 200-meter freestlye, 400-meter freestyle, 200-meter butterfly, 4x100-meter, 4x200-meter, 4x100-meter medley, Commonwealth Games,; 4x200-meter freestyle relay team sets new record (8:03.73); Australian Female Athlete of the Year
1999Gold for 200-meter butterfly, World Cup, Malmo, Sweden; breaks world record for 200-meter butterfly short course; gold for 200-meter freestyle, 100-meter butterfly, 200-meter butterfly and bronze for 4x100-meter freestyle, 4x100-meter medley, 4x200-meter freestyle, Pan Pacific Games; Australian Swimming Awards for female sprint freestyle swimmer and female butterfly swimmer
2000World record for 200-meter butterfly (2:05.81), sets Australian record for 200-meter freestyle (1:57.47), places 2nd in 100-meter butterfly, Telstra 2000 Trails; silver for 200-meter butterfly, gold for 200-meter freestyle, bronze for 4x200-meter freestyle and 4x100-meter medley, Sydney Olympics; becomes winningest Australian swimmer in history with 35 titles; Australian Swimming Awards for female middle-distance freestyle, female butterfly, female shortcourse, and female sprint freestyle; Telstra Swimmers' Swimmer of the Year
2001Outstanding Contribution to Swimming Award
2002Inducted into Sport Australia's Hall of Fame


(With Fiona Chappell) Choose to Win, Sydney Pan Macmillan, 1999.



"O'Neill Keeps Focus on Future." Sunday Tasmanian (August 10, 1997): 40.

"O'Neill Smashes 200m Butterfly Record." Sunday Tasmanian (October 12, 1997): 29.

Smith, Wayne. "Decade of Madame Butterfly." Advertiser (March 22, 1999): 76.

Smith, Wayne. "The Greatest; Super Susie Now Our No. 1 Title-holder." (May 17, 2000): 128.

Smith, Wayne. "Simply Susie." Sunday Mail (May 10, 1998): 71.

Smith, Wayne. "Susie Stops the Rot." Sunday Tasmanian (July 28, 1996): 2.


Australian Swimming. http://www.swimming.org.au/news/news_item.cfm?ObjectID=993 (January 28, 2003)

"Pieter the Great Rules; Hyman Stuns O'Neill." Rediff.com. http://www.rediff.com/sports/2000/sep/20hogie.htm (January 22, 2003).

"Swimmer Biography: Susie O'Neill (AUS)." FINA. http://www.fina.org/bio_Oneil.html (January 22, 2003).

Sketch by Eve M. B. Hermann

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