Q&A with Susie O'Neill

Q&A with Susie O'Neill

By dear molly

I want to start by saying this. The interview I had with Susie O’Neill was an absolute highlight for me. She was incredibly generous with her time and her candour.  I first met Susie last year after a speech I had given. Her sister was a year above me at school, we played tennis together, and on the odd occasion, her mum used to drive me to after school math tutoring. After meeting Susie, I asked her (with an inspiring women’s series in mind) if she would be at all be interested in being interviewed. She is an all-time legend. One of the greatest female athletes Australia has produced. She's a superstar in the pool, and outside she runs a busy home, has kids and a full-time gig on morning radio which is going swimmingly (no pun intended). She didn't have to be interviewed. She didn't have to do anything to support a women's startup. Hell, she could have said hi and never spoken to me again. She's done a thousand interviews over the years, and another one surely wouldn’t float the boat. But here's the thing. She agreed to be involved. She has, at all times in the follow up to the interview been gracious, kind and accommodating. During the interview, she was friendly, open and honest and gave me hours of her valuable time.  In a social media world where so many women promote female relationships and empowering each other, we are inundated with hashtags about women supporting women Susie is the real deal. She chose to support a start-up, a website which tries to empower and promote women. She chose to do something which would have little advantage to her but a lot to other people and that is what being a true supporter of women is all about.

When I asked her in the interview what advice she would give other women, she simply said ‘to support other women'.  She doesn't just mouth it, she does it, and on International Women's Day, this is something that we should all be mindful of. So thank you, Susie O'Neill. You really are a legend in and out of the pool, and you are a wonderful role model for girls and women everywhere. 

Susie O’Neill interview as told to Clare Sultmann

When did you start swimming? 

I started swimming when I was young but at about the age of 8 or 9 the Commonwealth Games came to Brisbane in 1982, and it inspired me to want to swim for my country. I cut out all the newspaper articles about the games and kept them, and I wrote in a project for school that I wanted to swim for Australia.

You were a talented runner and athlete. Some of the records in athletics may still stand at your old high school. Why did you choose swimming?

I liked swimming because it was fun. Mr Wakefield was my first coach, and he made it fun. We had a fun group who swam, and we were all friends. I really liked the social part of swimming- swim club, we'd play touch footy before we got into the pool, throw the Frisbee. In general, I liked the camaraderie that swimming provided.

I also really liked being good at something at an early age.  You know you could get in your lane, you could control how you swam, and I found the harder I worked the better I got so my hard work correlated into results.


Did your family play a role in your choice of sports?  

I was always competing with my brother. He was 2 years older, and we competed in the pool at home a lot.

Dad was a good athlete. He was in the firsts for Rugby, Tennis and Cricket and mum herself was sporty. My sister Catherine was also sporty and a good swimmer.


When did swimming get serious for you?


Swimming got serious before I expected it to. I was 14 at the Olympic Trials in 1988 and got second, but I was too young to be on the team. At 15 a year later I was on the Australian Team for the Pan Pacs.  

I think I was really spurred on in 93’ as well when Sydney got the Olympics. That was my aim- Sydney 2000, and that was my focus.


There’s this great line that your dad once said to you? What was that? 

Dad’s advice and his mantra was - ‘never think you’re better than anyone else just because you can swim faster’. That is something that I have always lived by and always thought.

From doing some research about you, I read that your parents weren’t the type to talk to your coach or to track your times. Can you elaborate on that?

My parents were not overly involved in my swimming. They took me to and from swimming but they were busy, and I had a brother and a sister as well. They were supportive, but it wasn't their focus. They were very careful never to put too much attention on me just because I was good at swimming. I was always the one to wake them up and get up for swimming myself. I just loved it.


You are very fit still. Do you still train? 

To keep fit now I swim 3 times a week in a squad, I also do a couple of spin classes on the bike, and some long bike rides with my husband on the weekends. I also run a couple of times a week.  I'm still pushing myself in the pool, but at this stage, I'm training for an ironman later on in the year.


You have two children. Alix who is 14 and William 13. Are they swimmers? 

Our kids are good all-rounders and involved in sports although they don't love swimming and they hate being asked: ‘Are you going to be a swimmer?'


You’ve said swimming is your meditation?

Swimming for me is like meditation. It's the big breaths in and the breathing that I really find relaxing. It’s my form of meditation.


What has swimming taught you?

Swimming has taught me discipline and work ethic. There was always a good correlation between the harder I worked the better I got. 

I saw a lot of people who were physically better than me or as good physically but I always believed that if I trained harder I could do better. My belief and my work ethic were ‘no-one will train harder than me'. I believe that there is hard work and then there's hard work….


How do you juggle a family, a successful career on morning radio and the work that goes into training for an Ironman? 

It's a juggle, but the kids are older now so are self-sufficient in that they can get the bus to and from school, they can make their own lunches and do a lot more for themselves so it's a lot easier to manage exercise and the radio. Plus with the radio, I finish early so am home for the afternoons.


Do you believe that people are born with innate competitiveness or can parents massage it? I.e. the tiger parents out there?

I’m not sure. I know in my case it was something that I was definitely born with.


You’ve talked openly about suffering from postnatal depression. Can you tell me more about that?

I was living in Melbourne at the time. In a unit. I had a newborn baby. No friends or family close by. No support network. The GP I went to said I had it and I said ‘No I don’t’ and went to another GP. The next doctor said: ‘Yep, you’ve got it’. I think I was high risk anyway. I was used to being in control, getting results and now I had an unpredictable baby, I was isolated, had no mates around me, and I lived interstate from my support network.


What did you do to get better?

I sought treatment and then began to take care of myself. I found time to exercise, to eat better, sleep better and I learnt not to feel guilty about spending time on myself.


Because you were such a high achiever, do you have high expectations for your kids? 

I did, and I am trying to change. I'm working on that. My kids are really good communicators. They often pull me up. It’s a work in progress for me- realising that life isn't just about ticking things off. You really do just want your kids to be happy but I'm trying not to push, and I really do believe that you have to be self-motivated in life.


Advice to other mothers? 

Don’t be so hard on yourselves. I used to spend all day going over what I did wrong. I’m gradually trying not to be so hard on myself now.


Best piece of advice you could give women.

Support each other.


I've had a request to ask you about after-school activities versus schoolwork. How much is too much? 

My husband Cliff and I disagree on this quite a bit. He thinks that as the kids get older, they will have to cut down on their sports. I don't agree. I think it's all about consistency. I managed to get a 960 TE score when I finished school and swam all through high school. I think it all comes down to consistency. I was consistent with my schoolwork. I did one and a half hours every night and then some extra on the weekend, but the point was that I did it every day. I was consistent, and I think that is key. I would advise that whatever you do, don't put all your eggs in one basket.


Best advice you can give to upcoming swimmers?

Give 100% every session. Don’t look too far in advance. Don’t plan the next 8 years but every time you hop in the pool give it all you’ve got. Be consistent.


Your greatest inspiration? 

My greatest inspiration is probably my first coach Mr Wakefield.  He had terrific morals and values and also my old coach Scott Volkers who was just a good coach.


What was your favourite Games and why?

Auckland was my favourite Commonwealth Games as it was just fun. I went when I was in High School. In fact, my P.E teacher was competing in the High Jump, and we went together. I had a ball. No pressure. I walked away with a silver medal from that Games, but I'll always remember it as fun.


Greatest achievement?

Breaking the world record. On the 17th May 2000 at the Olympic Trials in Sydney when I broke the world record in the 200 metres Butterfly, everything just came together. I knew it was my last chance to swim that distance before the Olympic games and I was just feeling good.


At the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, you lost the race you were supposed to win and won the race you didn't expect to. Can you tell us about your memories of that time?

When I won the 200-metre freestyle in the Olympic games in Sydney in 2000, it took me a long time to realise that I had actually won that race as I had been so focused on losing the 200-metre butterfly. I was being interviewed on ABC Grandstand in 2010 on the 10-year anniversary of the Games, and they replayed the 200-metre freestyle final. As I listened to it, I got a bit teary as I realised I had won the race. It sounds strange, but I spent 10 years focussing on the fact that I lost the 200-metre butterfly final and not on the race I actually won.

What would you like to be remembered for?

I would like to be remembered as someone who is honest; hardworking, loyal and who always gave 100%.


Any regrets?

Only the 200-metre butterfly final in Sydney and about half a second.


Most proud of?

Being loyal. I'm a loyal friend, and I'm loyal to my family.


Last year you recorded a song called ‘My heart goes boom' for your husband, Cliff. Can you tell us the reason behind the song?

It started as a bit of a joke. We had Gamble from The Real Housewives of Melbourne on our radio show, and she had just written a song for her husband, Rick. He's an eye doctor and so is my husband so I thought it would be a bit of fun to do the same thing.  We had been married 20 years last year, and it was for Valentine's Day, so all the stars collided so to speak.


Anything you’re not good at?

Not good at knowing I’m good at things. I don’t love meeting new people.  I get tired of talking to people. I find social things hard.


Do you ever worry about what you’d do after swimming?

Absolutely. Scares the hell out of me. I still worry about it. I like being busy, so it's always at the back of my mind.


Finally, after 20 years of being in the same home, you’re putting a pool in. Does that mean that you will train at home?

No, I still love swimming down the lanes. I just love it. Always have. Always will.

Feature image via CNN

Related Articles

A class act – Ash Barty

A class act – Ash Barty

Tennis golden girl Ash Barty might have suffered a shock recent Olympic loss, but the world No 1 continues to prove she’s all class after winning Wimbledon only two weeks ago.
To the surprise of many, Barty came crashing down in the first round of the Olympics singles on July 25, losing in straight sets to world number 48 Sara Sarribes Tormo.
It was a heartbreaking loss for the player, who only a couple of weeks ago was riding high after attaining tennis royalty status, becoming the first Australian woman to win Wimbledon since Evonne Goolagong Cawley more than four decades prior.

Read more

Today is the 20 year anniversary of the accident that changed my life

Today is the 20 year anniversary of the accident that changed my life

I woke on the 18 August 2000, and like so many things, habit takes over. I am still that girl, yet work drinks are long gone and the daily routine of starting with a 10km run (no matter how cold) was the first item on the agenda for the day. I am a creature of habit and routine is paramount. It’s all so clear. It’s cold. I remember that. Should I go or shouldn’t I go for a run were the thoughts that went through my head as I dragged myself from under the sanctuary and warmth of my doona and looked out the window. That one decision….What if I hadn’t gone? I’ll never know. I went. That decision changed my life forever.

Read more

Meet Rochelle Courtenay - The woman behind Share the Dignity

Meet Rochelle Courtenay - The woman behind Share the Dignity

Dear Molly recently connected with founder Rochelle Courtenay to meet the woman behind Share the Dignity and learn more about the simple initiatives that are making a very real difference to disadvantaged Australian women’s lives.

Read more


Please login or sign-up to add your comment.

Comments (0):

There are no comments yet.