From the worst food at an athletes’ village to winning gold, Susie O’Neill shares her Olympic memories

Swimming great Susie O’Neill was 20 when Sydney won its bid to host the 2000 Olympics.

It was 1993 and she had already represented Australia at the Barcelona Olympics the year before.

“I was at a training camp at the Australian Institute of Sport, I remember we all got up really early to hear the announcement,” O’Neill says.

“My first reaction was, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m going to be so old, I’ll be 27’.” 

An artist’s impression of the opening ceremony at the Gabba for the 2032 Olympics.(Supplied: Queensland government)

For any young athletes with dreams of making it to the Brisbane Olympics in 2032, O’Neill has this advice.

“It’s a long time, so you have to break it down to the smallest goals,” she says.

“When I was an athlete, I broke it down to each training session and if you give 100 per cent at each session, it will add up.”

two female athletes holding their olympic medals
O’Neill and fellow Olympic swimmer Sam Riley (left) both won bronze at their first Games in Barcelona.(Supplied: Susie O’Neill)

When O’Neill began her international swimming career there were limited opportunities to make money.

“I was an amateur athlete, you couldn’t keep swimming into your 30s, even 27 was a bit of stretch,” O’Neill says.

However, when Sydney was announced at the host city, money started pouring into the sport.

“All these corporate opportunities opened up, and I was able to keep swimming and make it to Sydney,” O’Neill says. 

“It meant that I could just focus on swimming rather than have to work as well.”

close up head shot of Susie O'Neill with her parents
O’Neill, pictured with her parents John and Trish, was born in Mackay in north Queensland.(Supplied: Susie O’Neill)

Susie O’Neil may have earned the nickname Madame Butterfly but she actually started out swimming backstroke.

“Everyone always asks how swimmers choose their events and it’s just down to whatever will give you the best chance of winning,” O’Neill says.

“We all start out wanting to be sprinters … 50 or 100m but if you can’t do that, you gradually try to find another event.”

At 14, O’Neill came second in the 100m butterfly at the Australian trials for the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games team. 

She narrowly missed out on selection but it was clear butterfly was going to be her focus.

A group female Australian Olympians in 1992 team uniform
O’Neill has worn three different Australian Olympic team uniforms. Here is what they looked like in 1992.(Supplied: Susie O’Neill)

O’Neill competed at three Olympics but the games in Barcelona stand out for a few reasons.

She won her first medal, a bronze in the 200m butterfly.

The food at the athlete’s village was also memorable.

“It was the first time I saw Magnums [ice-cream], there were big buckets full of them, we didn’t have them in Australia yet,” O’Neill says.

“These days the Olympic villages all look similar and that’s often to keep costs down,” she says.

Barcelona had a different feeling.

“Our rooms had big bay windows looking out over the water,” she says.

O’Neill says the worst food was in Atlanta in 1996, which for the first time, offered athletes unlimited McDonalds.

“They don’t do it now but back then, once your event was over there was an endless supply of cheeseburgers,” she says.

O’Neill also remembers security being very relaxed in Barcelona.

“The wife of our head coach, who was quite a bit older than me, was able to use my lanyard to get into the pool.”

‘I was a very nervous competitor’

groups of Australian olympians in a grandstand
O’Neill with her teammates at the Atlanta 1996 Olympics.(Supplied: Susie O’Neill)

Like many athletes, O’Neill had a specific pre-race routine to help keep calm and reduce nerves.

“[It was] a certain warm-up, getting changed at a particular time and walking to the pool and splashing water in my mouth,” she says.

“I started out listening to music before a race but stopped because when I am nervous, noise irritates me and I like to hear what’s going on around me,” O’Neill says.

“I was a very nervous competitor.

“You’d think it would have gotten better as I got older, but it actually got worse.”

Three swimmers with their medals after a race.
O’Neill, Petria Thomas and Michelle Smith after the 200m butterfly in Atlanta.(Supplied: Susie O’Neill)

At the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, O’Neill won her first gold medal, in the 200m butterfly, making her the first Australian female swimmer to win gold since 1980.

O’Neill also defeated Irish swimmer Michelle Smith, whose sudden surge of success had caused suspicion.

“Before the race everyone was saying she was on drugs, even in the marshalling area before I went out people were urging me on to beat her,” O’Neill says.

Fellow Australian Petria Thomas came in second, Michelle Smith third.

“Michelle got banned from swimming [for four years] after Atlanta, not for having drugs in her system but for having enough whisky in her sample to be dead … she had tampered with her sample.”

The back of two fans wearing t-shirts in support of Susie O'Neill.
Two Susie O’Neill fans at the 2000 Olympics.(Supplied: Susie O’Neill)

Heading into the 2000 Sydney Olympics, O’Neill held the world record for the 200m butterfly and was the favourite to win in front of the home crowd.

“Everyone likes to be noticed and I’m no different but the lead-up to Sydney was intense.”

O’Neill did win gold in Sydney but not for the 200m butterfly.

In that race, she came second.

Susie O'Neill with teammates at Sydney 2000
O’Neill, pictured with Sydney 2000 teammates, says nothing compares to the atmosphere of a home Olympics.(Supplied: Susie O’Neill)

“When people used to talk about the Sydney Olympics, I had a funny feeling and would kind of shut it down,” she says.

O’Neill watched the race for the first time only a few years ago, during her live breakfast radio show.

“I thought I would feel nothing but then all this stuff just started pouring out,” she says.

The experience was completely unexpected but had a profound impact.

“For a long time I thought of that race as a failure but I absolutely do not think that now.”

O’Neill’s gold medal came in the 200m freestyle. She also won two silver medals in relay events.

After Sydney she was ready to leave the sport.

“I was really over it … physically I could have kept going but it’s a very limiting lifestyle,” O’Neill says.

O’Neill hasn’t swum more than a lap of butterfly since the Sydney Games but still loves swimming and trains several times a week.

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