At the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, American swimmer Misty Hyman made history by winning Olympic gold in the women’s 200m butterfly. But what she is truly remembered for is the fact that by winning, she pulled off one the biggest upsets in the history of swimming.
Susie O’Neill, or “Madame Butterfly,” as she is known, was the defending Olympic champion and world record holder in the 200 fly at the time. She was therefore expected to win the event easily in Sydney. What’s more, fellow Australian Petria Thomas was expected to make it a 1-2 sweep for the Australians.
But things did not go as planned on race day.
As expected, Petria Thomas led after the first 50. But Hyman wasted no time in taking over the lead, maintaining a fast pace to overtake Thomas for the lead on the second 50.
In her trademark style, O’Neill made up enough ground to overtake Thomas on the second 100, but it was not enough to overtake Hyman. Hyman unleashed an impressive final turn and underwater, defeating Madame Butterfly for Olympic gold in front of a stunned crowd.
Hyman’s winning time of 2:05.88 just missed O’Neill’s world record of 2:05.81. It was a new Olympic record, however, besting fellow American Mary T. Meagher’s mark of 2:06.90.
Hyman’s reaction at the end of the race says it all. Just like everyone in that pool, she could not believe what had just happened. She and fellow American Kaitlin Sandeno, who finished 6th, celebrated in the water in front a roaring crowd of American fans.
While O’Neill showed good sportsmanship after her disappointing performance, her true feelings have recently been revealed. In an interview in 2019, O’Neill admitted that she is still haunted by the race. Prior to that interview, she had never watched the race video. Watching it for the first time brought her to tears.
Although this race happened almost 20 years ago, it still holds significance today. Not only did it help to further elevate Hyman’s name in the world of athletics, but it showed how unpredictable the sport of swimming can be, and that even the greatest swimmers in history are beatable.