Olympian Misty Hyman: Inside the Mind of a Champion

By Dave Martin, Epoch Times
April 14, 2015 Updated: April 14, 2015

It was a race she swam many times before, but this was the one that Team USA’s Misty Hyman had been focused on for years: the 200-meter butterfly at the 2000 Sydney Olympics against Australia’s own swimming star Susie O’Neill.

“Hardly anybody thought that it was possible,” said Hyman of her chances, in a recent interview with the Epoch Times.

O’Neill, also known as “Madame Butterfly,” was both the defending Olympic and World Championship winner in the event and had broken the world record just a few months earlier, swimming the 200-meter in 2:05.81. Naturally, she was heavily favored to repeat in her own pond.

“In the years leading up to it, my coaches and I had talked about what it would take to beat Susie and to swim a 2:05 at the Olympics.”

In the years leading up to it, my coaches and I had talked about what it would take to beat Susie and to swim a 2:05 at the Olympics.
— Misty Hyman

“I didn’t know it would come to that,” admitted Hyman.

No one had beaten the 27-year-old O’Neill in the 200-meter butterfly in six years, and Hyman had never swum a 2:05 in her life. In fact, the 21-year-old American didn’t even finish first in her own qualifying heat, finishing second to Poland’s Otylia Jedrzejczak in the semifinals with a 2:07.96—a good two seconds off O’Neill’s best.

Planning to Succeed

Hyman had methodically prepared to swim the race of her life on the biggest stage in the world.

“We had planned out every piece of the race,” Hyman said. “Exactly how many kicks I wanted to do off every turn, how many strokes I wanted to take on each length, how many breaths, how fast I wanted to move my arms, and really we had trained every piece of the race and I knew that if I put together the race of my life I had a chance.”

She certainly did.

Hyman grabbed the lead after the first 50 meters and never looked back. Following a huge kick on the final turn, she was a whole body-length ahead of the second-place O’Neill and cruised to a first-place finish, while setting a new Olympic record in the process with a 2:05.88.

Just like that, she had dethroned the No. 1 ranked swimmer in the world.

“I looked up at the scoreboard and I had to look three times to be sure,” Hyman said. “[I thought] did this really actually happen? Did this really actually happen the way I envisioned it? It was one of the best moments of my life, of course.”

But that the underdog from Mesa, Arizona, made her one race on the sport’s biggest stage count, pulling off one of the biggest upsets ever in the Summer Games, wasn’t a coincidence.

“I had visualized the race so many times,” Hyman said. 

All that was left was the race itself.

It was amazing to have my best race, the race of my life, at the most important moment of my swimming career and be able to win.
— Misty Hyman

“It was amazing to have my best race, the race of my life, at the most important moment of my swimming career and be able to win.”

It’s a trait only the great ones have—planning to succeed.

One of famed former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden’s great quotes was “Failing to prepare, is preparing to fail.” It should be noted that Wooden won 10 titles in a 12-year span—a feat that will probably never be duplicated.

Misty Hyman's upset of Susie O'Neill in the 200 meter butterfly at the 2000 Sydney Games remains one of the biggest Olympic upsets ever. (Al Bello/Allsport/Getty Images)
Misty Hyman’s upset of Susie O’Neill in the 200 meter butterfly at the 2000 Sydney Games remains one of the biggest Olympic upsets ever. (Al Bello/Allsport/Getty Images)

Winning Spirit

For Hyman, the planning all started at a young age. She had dreamed of winning a gold medal ever since she was a little girl. “I remember watching the ’84 Olympics. I was five years old, and saying to myself that someday I wanted to be there.”

Getting into the pool, though, was actually her doctor’s idea, as the best remedy for 5-year-old Misty’s asthma—among other maladies.

“I was allergic to everything,” recalls Hyman. “I was getting pneumonia once a year and had a breathing machine and the doctor told my mom that swimming was the best sport for kids with asthma. So the first thing she did that summer was sign me up for the local parks and rec city summer swim league.”

When she was 10, she broke the state record in the 50-yard butterfly. “It was a record for my age group, but that was for me, a turning point where I thought ‘Wow. I can be good.'”

Four years later, she won the 100-yard butterfly at the junior nationals. “That was another turning point for me,” says Hyman.

As it turned out, Hyman’s fairytale Olympic upset ended up being her lone Olympic swim.

As it turned out, Hyman’s fairytale Olympic upset ended up her lone Olympic swim as injuries helped derail any plans of a repeat. But she’s maintained her championship spirit.

Today, Hyman is a swim coach and motivational speaker, and she still gets in plenty of time in the pool. “I kind of joke that now I swim as much in one week as I used to swim in one day, when I was training,” says Hyman. “I find that it’s a great way to kind of let go of my day and kind of be at peace.”

As the face of the Swimming Lives Foundation’s campaign Adult-Learn-to-Swim Month for April, Hyman hopes more adults around the country will find swimming just as enjoyable and learn to swim.

“I think it’s very important because according to the CDC [Centers for Disease Control] 37 percent of American adults can’t swim one length of the pool,” says Hyman. “Our goal is to raise awareness and encourage adults who don’t know how to swim to learn and to let them know that it’s never too late.”

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