July 2012

A medal for motherhood

While three-time Olympian, Susie O’Neill, understands why professional athletes make ‘come-backs’ after retiring, the mother of two is quite content to be heading to London as a commentator rather than a competitor.

BY Stephanie Thomas

Three-time Olympian and Australian swimming legend, Susie O’Neill, is looking forward to the London Olympics. While she understands why professional athletes make ‘come-backs’ after retiring, the Brisbane mother of two is quite content to be heading to London as a commentator rather than a competitor.

“It should be exciting,” says Susie. “I think these Olympics will be a bit like Sydney. Well, to be honest, they’ll probably be better. Everyone’s always said that Sydney was the best Olympics ever and most of that came down to, I think, just the public support… the whole city getting in to it.”

Apart from witnessing the remarkable feats of the world’s elite athletes, Susie sees the Olympics as a symbol of unity. “I think it’s amazing that there hasn’t been a boycott for ages. Most of the countries, even if they’re not getting on, every four years they will stop and all send teams to the Olympics,” she says.

Susie retired from professional swimming after the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Since then she has been able to appreciate more fully her experiences and achievements as an elite athlete. Reflecting on her Olympic experiences in Barcelona, Atlanta and Sydney, Susie says, “You just want it to feel like another swim meet. You don’t want to get too over-awed by it, which is hard.

“But now, I can’t believe I won at the Olympics. I appreciate it more now, and I think, I couldn’t imagine walking out in front of all those people and everyone watching me and being able to win. So I sort of get this nice satisfied feeling,” she explains.

Susie is pleased she competed when she did. “I’m glad I’ve already done all that hard work and it worked out for me.” While not discounting the pressures she faced, Susie believes today’s athletes have greater pressures – the 24-7 media cycle playing a big part.

“It seems a lot more un-private. The athletes like a lot of that as well,” she adds. “So it’s not like they’re hiding from it… But I reckon it makes it a lot harder because your every move gets scrutinised.”

Susie is grateful for what she learnt from swimming – the discipline of training and competing, time management and fitness skills, and a strong work ethic. “I just learnt, basically, the harder you work the better you’re going to go. So pretty much, if you put the work into it, you’ll get the results eventually,” she explains.

This strong work ethic is also something Susie inherited from her parents. They have been significant influences in her life along with her many coaches. She names two from her very early years in the pool: Mrs Brett, from St Agnes’ Primary School in Mt Gravatt – “who I’m still in touch with” – and Mr Wakefield, her first coach at the local pool.

Of Mrs Brett, Susie says, she “pushed me to try for the next level, because I was pretty quiet, very quiet at school. I didn’t always want to push myself out there to try to do things”.

Susie describes Mr Wakefield as “amazing” and “so ahead of his time with his training methods but also really old fashioned, in to good manners… discipline and respect and all those things.”

There’s not too much that Susie misses about competitive swimming. “I can definitely see why swimmers make ‘come-backs’, because nothing in life I’ve found – even having kids, to be honest – compares to the high that you get from competing in an elite sport,” she says.

“Basically, I miss probably the ten seconds immediately after a good performance; just the massive high that you get.”

Sometimes she misses the “simplicity” of the hard work and training – “to devote all my time to one goal and be really good at something”.

Unlike many other retired competitive swimmers, Susie still enjoys swimming regularly. “I’ve always really enjoyed being in the water,” she says.

She finds it a meditative experience. Having done a “tiny bit” of meditation, she says, “This is what I do with swimming, without even thinking about it”. She talks about taking “big deep breaths” and “the silence of it all”.

Susie tries to swim a couple of times a week. “Generally, if I don’t, I start going a bit funny… I need that time to myself,” she says. “It makes me feel a lot calmer when I’ve finished, because I feel quite often now that I’m trying to juggle five million things.”

So, are faith and spirituality important? “More as I get older,” responds Susie. “When you have kids, and as older people start dying around you, you start wondering a little bit more.”

Having appreciated her own Catholic education at Brisbane’s Lourdes Hill College (a Good Samaritan school for girls), Susie and husband, Cliff, have chosen to send their children – Alix, 8, and William, 6 – to Catholic schools.

“I really like the values they teach at Catholic schools, basically treating people how you’d like to be treated,” explains Susie. “I love going to the school liturgies.”

While Susie is enjoying motherhood now – “it’s always how I imagined it” – she found it “pretty challenging to have babies”. She explains: “I was fairly self-centred; being an athlete you have to be self-centred and I had a lot of support crew. So all of sudden to be looking after someone else 24 hours a day, I found that really challenging”.

Conscious of how quickly Alix and William are growing up, Susie tries to spend as much time with them as she can – “not missing the whole experience” – while also juggling her roles as an ambassador for the Fred Hollows Foundation and manager of her husband’s ophthalmology practice, as well as media commitments.

She feels strongly about being a mother and the responsibilities of parenting. “I’m shocked at how under-rated it is,” says Susie. “As someone who’s won a gold medal at the Olympics, and people think that’s so awesome, I’m thinking, well what about everyone who looks after their families? Why does no one even count that?”

When people ask what she does, she makes a point of saying “my main role is looking after my family”. She dislikes “the terminology ‘do you work?’ because that implies everyone who doesn’t go out to a paid job doesn’t work. I’ve got a real beef about that”.

The London Olympics will run from July 27 until August 12. The Paralympics will run from August 29 until September 9. Susie O’Neill will be providing swimming commentary for Foxtel.

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