Susan O’Neill ended her lustrous swimming career with eight Olympic medals - an Australian women’s record, shared with Dawn Fraser and Petria Thomas. (Ian Thorpe, with nine, is the only Australian with more.) Dubbed “Madame Butterfly” for her peerless quality as a butterfly swimmer, O’Neill attended three Olympic Games - winning bronze in Barcelona in 1992; gold, silver and bronze in Atlanta in 1996; and a gold and three silvers in Sydney in 2000. Although she was more famous (and more comfortable) with the butterfly - in which she achieved world No.1 ranking over both the 100m and 200m - she was also rated world No.1 in the 200m freestyle through 1999-2000. After winning the 200m butterfly at the 1994 Commonwealth Games and 1995 Pan Pacific titles, she won the 1996 Olympic gold medal in that event, defeating Ireland’s triple winner Michelle Smith, who was later found guilty of drug offences.
One of O’Neill’s greatest triumphs came in May 2000, when she broke the 19-year-old 200m world record of the great Mary T. Meagher, swimming’s first Madame Butterfly. Her career ended paradoxically at the Sydney Olympics, when she won the race she didn’t expect to (the 200m freestyle), and finished second in the one she expected to win (the 200m butterfly). 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. She was elected to the IOC Athletes’ Commission by competitors at the 2000 Games, but family obligations caused her to resign in 2005.
Harry Gordon, AOC historian