Misty Hyman celebrates after winning gold in the women's 200-meter butterfly at the Olympic Games Sydney 2000 on Sept. 20, 2000 in Sydney.
Twenty years after the “Miracle On Ice,” Misty Hyman performed the “Miracle on Water.”
She won the women’s 200-meter butterfly at the Olympic Games Sydney 2000 by defeating the indisputable favorite, Susie O’Neill of Australia.
Hyman acknowledges that her victory 20 years ago today is among the greatest upsets in Olympic history, but she is too modest to rank it.
“I don’t know if I could just because I was actually in it,” she said. “I’ll leave that to people on the outside to decide.”
OK, O’Neill was the newly-minted world record holder, the defending Olympic champion, undefeated for six years (winning every head-to-head race against Hyman) and had just won a gold medal the night before in an event that wasn’t her specialty - the 200 freestyle. The 200 fly was to be O’Neill’s individual swan song after announcing her retirement.
To top it off, O’Neill was swimming in her home pool with the bulk of the crowd on her side. At the Olympic Winter Games Lake Placid 1980, at least Team USA had home ice advantage against the Soviet Union.
“I’m sure in most people’s minds it was a foregone conclusion that O’Neill would win the 200 fly,” said Bob Bowman, who was in Sydney as Michael Phelps’ personal coach.
Another Australian swimmer was also a factor. Petria Thomas had placed second to O’Neill at both the Olympic Games Atlanta 1996 as well as at the 1998 world championships, where Hyman was third.
“I thought I had a chance to win if I swam the race of my life,” said Hyman. “I did - by a long way!”
The Phoenix native swam 2 seconds faster than she ever had before to beat O’Neill, who also swam an exceptional race.
Hyman clocked 2 minutes, 5.88 seconds, just .07 off O’Neill’s world record. In May, O’Neill had finally broken Mary T. Meagher’s 19-year-old mark of 2:05.91, which still stood as the American record until Hyman eclipsed it in Sydney.
Hyman also set the Olympic record, with O’Neill seven-tenths, or half a body-length back at 2:06.58 and Thomas at 2:07.12.
After touching the wall and turning around, Hyman looked at the scoreboard three times.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “After everything I had been through, I couldn’t believe that I put together the race of my life at the most important moment of my swimming career.”
Within the past two years, a rule change forced Hyman to completely transform her stroke. She also had to overcome sinus infections, fend off thoughts of quitting and rebuild her confidence before arriving in Sydney, where she promptly came down with the flu.
Hyman had dreamt about being in the Olympics since she was 5 years old and saw gymnast Mary Lou Retton compete in Los Angeles.
“I wanted it so bad I could taste it,” she said. “Winning the gold medal and hearing the national anthem was something that I had been obsessed with since I was a little girl.”
She chose swimming to take her there. Hyman had the good fortune to be coached by the late Bob Gillett of the Arizona Desert Fox swim team, who was one of the great minds in the sport.
Gillett used math and science to develop Hyman into a pioneer of the “fish kick.”
“He was really the brains behind the operation,” Hyman said. “I was a young swimmer who was willing to push the boundaries and try new things.”
When she was 13 or 14, they discovered she could go faster underwater than on the surface.
“Two kicks underwater was the same distance or farther than one stroke on the surface,” Hyman said, “but two kicks would take less time, by about two-tenths of a second.”
Backstrokers were the first to use underwater kicks to stay submerged for more than half the length of the pool (which was eventually curtailed by FINA, the international governing body), but butterfliers and freestylers didn’t start exploring the technique until the 1990s.
Then in late 1995 or early 1996, Gillett went a step further. He saw an article in “Scientific American” magazine about scientists at MIT who were constructing a mechanical fish to try to simulate what happens when a fish flips its tail back and forth.
“That’s how the fish kick was born,” Hyman said. “Traditional butterfly kick on your front underwater is called the dolphin kick. The big change we made after reading the article was turning to my side. That’s why it was more like a fish as opposed to a dolphin.”
They even did an experiment with blue food coloring inside a plastic tube stretching from Hyman’s fingertips to her feet to determine the size of the vortices – or whirlpools – from the kick.
“I pushed off underwater and I was holding the tube like a straw to keep the dye in,” Hyman said. “I did my butterfly kick on the side and let the dye come out by my feet as I was kicking. We saw that the whirlpools got to be over 4 feet in diameter.”
She said that showed them that if she was doing dolphin kick on her front, the whirlpools created would be interrupted by the bottom of the pool and the surface of the water.
“But if I turned on my side,” Hyman said, “then the vortices would have more room to spin unobstructed, which would lead to more distance per kick.”
At that time, Hyman specialized in the 100-meter fly, where she could take advantage of her speed using the sideways, underwater fish kick for up to 30 meters on starts and turns.
At age 16, Hyman was third at the U.S. Olympic Trials, missing Team USA by .03 of a second.
“It was devastating, but in the end it turned out to be a big learning experience for me,” she said.
Hyman did a lot of soul searching and gained perspective about what was important to her.
“It made me realize,” she said, “that even though I had these big dreams and I really wanted to be on the world stage, the real reason I was a swimmer was because I loved it.”
Then FINA lowered the boom on Hyman and the other underwater breakout specialists. In 1998, the governing body allowed a maximum of only 15 meters of underwater swimming for fear athletes would push the limits so much they might pass out from holding their breath.
For Hyman, the rule change was a psychological and emotional blow after five years perfecting the fish kick.
“I had identified so much with what my coach and I had done to develop this unique technique that had brought me a lot of success,” she said. “I was at the top of my game at that time and really looking forward to the 2000 Games. It felt unfair that they would change the rule in the middle of the quadrennium.”
Because she could no longer use the fish kick underwater for 30 meters, Hyman lost her advantage as a sprinter and had to become a 200-meter butterfly specialist. But there was a problem: she always struggled in the last 50 and tended to fade.
“Basically, I had to reinvent myself,” Hyman said.
She was also adjusting to collegiate life as a freshman at Stanford with a new coach, the late Richard Quick, who had worked with many Olympic athletes.
“I didn’t really know how I was going to compete at the world class level,” Hyman said. “The way the math worked the best was with me staying underwater. One of the most important things I learned in my career was it’s usually our most difficult challenges that help us to find our biggest strengths.”
With Quick, she worked on making her surface stroke more efficient. “With big changes, you get slower before you get faster,” Hyman said, “and so it was taking me a while to put together my new stroke and my new strategy.
“I think I lost some of my confidence during the rule change as well, in myself and my own abilities.”
At the 1999 Pan Pacific Championships in the Sydney Olympic pool, Hyman was third in the 200 fly, with O’Neill’s winning time almost 4 seconds faster, 2:06.60 to 2:10.40.
Then Hyman hit bottom the spring before the 2000 Games. She had her worst NCAA performance and was plagued by sinus infections that had her on various antibiotics most of the summer.
“The doctor said, ‘Well, if you weren’t training for the Olympics, we’d tell you to take a few months off.’” she said. “That wasn’t really an option at that point, but I considered it.”
Yet the illness had a positive aspect, forcing Hyman to rest more. She took some independent study classes instead of a full course load and also cut back on her training.
By the end of the summer, Hyman won the U.S. Olympic Trials with a time of 2:09.27.
“I really had the training camp of my life and came into Sydney with a lot of confidence,” she said. “In my training leading up to the Games, I had made some big breakthroughs. All the pieces were there, I just had to put them together at the same time. You just never know when that is going to happen.”
But two days before the opening ceremony, Hyman got the flu and slept for about 17 hours. She decided to skip the ceremony, which turned out to be a blessing because she got more rest than she would have had she marched.