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#7 - MISTY HYMAN DOES THE IMPOSSIBLE
Women's 200 meter butterfly, Swimming, Sydney 2000

posted July 6, 2008


Going into every Olympics, most events have at least one competitor who is considered the 'favorite' to win the gold medal, usually based on their performances during the months leading up to the Games. Sometimes there are two or more who are considered to have a good shot at winning a particular event. In other cases, there is a single athlete or team who is considered very likely to win. These expectations, obviously, are what lead to some victories being labeled an 'upset,' which of course is when someone other than a favorite takes the gold.

Among athletes that are pegged as 'favorites,' there are varying degrees. On one end of the spectrum are the 'slight favorites,' those who are the most talented in the field, but not by a very big margin. Upsets are not uncommon in such events. On the other end are the 'overwhelming favorites,' athletes who have demonstrated such a superiority over the other entries that winning the gold should be a mere formality.

In every Olympic Games there are a handful of events that have such an overwhelming favorite. In the 2000 Sydney Games, one such event was the Women's 200 meter butterfly. The overwhelming favorite for the gold was Australian Susie O'Neill. There were very good reasons for this evaluation. Consider these facts:

1) Susie O'Neill had won the 200 meter butterfly every time she had swum it since 1994, usually without anyone giving her a serious challenge.
2) At the Australian Olympic trials in May, Susie had broken the 19-year-old world record for the 200 meter butterfly, which had been set by legendary American swimmer Mary T. Meagher in 1981, and was the oldest swimming record on the books at that time.
3) The Olympics were being held in Susie's home country of Australia.

So, Susie O'Neill had dominated this event for a long time; had recently set a new world record in the event, meaning she was swimming at the highest level of her life; and she would be swimming in front of a crowd consisting mostly of fellow Australians, who considered her a national hero. Indeed, Susie and sprinter Cathy Freeman were the two most beloved athletes in all of Australia at that time. Pictures of her could be found everywhere. She had become known in Australia as 'Madame Butterfly,' a title that previous record holder Mary T. Meagher had also been dubbed with in her day. Some Aussies had even begun to refer to the butterfly stroke as the 'Susie Stroke.' Her popularity was enhanced by the fact that she was a really sweet person who always took time to interact with her fans wherever she went. The audience that would watch her race at the Olympics would be wildly cheering her on, and any athlete will tell you that having a loud home crowd behind them makes them perform better.

Clearly, all signs pointed to a big win for Susie O'Neill in the 200 butterfly. One would have had to be irrational NOT to consider her the overwhelming favorite to win the gold. Even saying that it was impossible for Susie to be beaten didn't seem to be a stretch in this case.

Unfortunately for Susie and the rest of the Australians, someone forgot to tell American Misty Hyman that she couldn't win the race.

Watching at home as the swimmers mounted the blocks for the start of the Women's 200 meter butterfly, I was optimistic about the chances of the two Americans in the race. That is, I was optimistic that one of them might take the bronze medal. Susie O'Neill seemed an absolute lock for the gold, and her teammate Petria Thomas - who was the second fastest qualifier behind O'Neill, and who would also benefit from the home crowd - seemed very likely to take the silver. Misty Hyman was in lane 6 as the 4th fastest qualifier, which meant she should have a decent chance at finishing 3rd. Fellow American Kaitlin Sandeno was next to Misty in lane 7, and if Misty didn't have a good race, maybe Kaitlin would. It was something for me to hope for, anyway, while the Aussies were pulling off the presumed 1-2 sweep.

Petria Thomas got the best start, and was the leader after 50 meters. Misty Hyman, somewhat surprisingly, was a close second as they reached the wall. Susie O'Neill trailed by several feet, but that was expected. She wasn't known as a fast starter; it was in the second 100 meters that Susie typically made her move and took over the race.

By the time Misty had resurfaced following the turn, she had moved past Thomas into the lead. Over the second 50 meters, the lead grew to about the length of Misty's head and shoulders. By this time I was sitting up straight in my chair: this race was turning out to be more interesting than I had thought it would be! When Misty made the turn to start the second 100, the timer showed her to be .33 seconds under world record pace. I had a sudden surge of mixed emotions. I was delighted at how well she was swimming, but based on my long experience watching Olympic races I was also realistic: it just didn't seem likely that she could keep such a pace up for the entire second 100 meters. Logic indicated that she was simply going too fast, and would run out of gas down the final 50 meters.

I watched carefully as she swam back down the pool, expecting to see Susie O'Neill surge and pass Misty, with Petria Thomas following suit shortly thereafter. Susie did indeed make her expected move, going past Thomas into second. However, at the final turn, Misty was still out in front by her head and shoulders, now over Susie instead of Petria.

Still, I wasn't letting myself get too excited. I'd seen it happen too many times before: an upstart challenger leads a race for a while, but then down the last 50 meters the favorite kicks it into high gear, and the possible upset melts into just another impossible dream that wasn't meant to come true. And in this case it wasn't just any favorite, this was SUSIE O'NEILL! So I watched on, wanting to believe, but still not really believing. Yep, Susie was making her move. Somewhere in the last 25 meters the pace would catch up to Misty, Susie would surge past, and that would be that.

Except that WASN'T that. During the last 25 meters, Misty's lead stopped shrinking. She was actually holding off 'Madame Butterfly' down the stretch! Suddenly, all my experience watching races went flying out the window, and I was on my feet yelling, "Go! Go! You can do it!" As Misty reached the area of red lane markers near the wall, it was clear that Susie O'Neill had run out of time, that Misty Hyman would not be caught from behind. Still, I couldn't quite believe it, and it wasn't until Misty touched the wall and made the victory official that I finally gave a WHOOP of joy loud enough that it must have gotten the attention of my neighbors upstairs.

It had really happened: Misty Hyman had done the 'impossible.'

The home crowd hushed unlike anything else I've ever heard at an Olympic competition. The small contingent of Americans in the crowd could be heard cheering, because the Australians were in shocked silence, not believing what had they had just seen.

I was in shock too, but not silent. I was pumping my arms and saying, "She did it! She did it! She really did it!" I knew I had just witnessed something special, a moment that would live as long as the Olympics themselves.

Meanwhile in the pool, fellow American Kaitlin Sandeno, finishing her own swim a few seconds after Misty, looked up at the scoreboard and saw that Misty had won. In a classic photo moment, Kaitlin literally flung herself over the lane markers and threw her arms around Misty, as excited about the monumental upset as Misty herself. I couldn't help laughing as I watched them.

In the post-race interview when Misty was asked how she had pulled off her big win, she said, "I think I just stayed focused this whole training camp, I really made some improvements, and, ah, I figured I had been doing a lot of great training, it was time to show the world what I could do, and I'm just glad I was able to do it" When asked if she had really believed she could beat Susie O'Neill, she replied, "I did. Deep down in my heart I believed it, and I know this whole week I've been, you know, the doubts kept creeping in, the doubts kept creeping in, they were with me on the blocks, but I just said, 'Nope, this is my night!'"

On that memorable night in Sydney, Misty Hyman proved once again that if you set your sights high, work hard and truly believe in yourself, nothing is impossible. It's a wonderful lesson for all of us.


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