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Mistifying Performance

by ZwemZa on March 22nd, 2019

Misty Hyman and Kaitlin-Sandeno (USA Swimming)

It was being billed as “Will Golden Dreams Come True?,” the story of a small-town girl faced with the toughest challenge of her young life, rising to meet that challenge and become an Olympic champion. Perfect!

Wait, we have to make one change: there’s no way this golden dream can come true, especially on Australian Susie O’Neill’s home turf, the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. The number one ranked butterfly swimmer in the world, O’Neill had not lost a major butterfly race in six years. Misty Hyman was not going to beat her. Nor was anyone else. After all, there is a reason why Susie O’Neill is known as “Madame Butterfly.”

Susie has already strengthened her case in Sydney by winning the 200-meter free (one of her weaker events), a major upset. Now she’s primed and ready to take on the world in her best event – the 200-meter butterfly. So, it will be fairy tale enough for Misty just to win the silver medal. That’s because, for the previous four years, the world’s second-ranked swimmer in the women’s 200-meter butterfly has been none other than Petria Thomas, the hometown co-favorite along with Susie. No slouch herself, Thomas has been beaten only by O’Neill in this quadrennium.

Not only that, but Misty’s performances in her biggest races have been spotty at best. Her pattern has been to go out hard, take the lead, then try to hang on. It didn’t appear to be a good strategy. It rarely worked.

Nevertheless, she uses the same strategy in this, the biggest race of her lifetime, the culmination of her career. But there is a difference. Cloaked in an otherworldly smile, she was relaxed, yet totally focused. Misty was absolutely serene.

I was on the deck with Misty’s college coach, Richard Quick. We turned to each other. At the end of the first lap, the field was tightly bunched, but by the halfway mark Misty had carved out a small lead over Susie and Petria while the rest of the field languished farther behind. She turned first in 59.99 seconds, easily the fastest hundred-meter split of her career. This is about where that old piano usually started to climb on her back. Only this time it wasn’t climbing.

The third lap was pure warfare, as Misty beat off one desperate Aussie thrust after another, maintaining her slim lead. The race had now come down to a three-woman showdown. Richard and I joined in the mayhem and were screaming along with the 17,000 other fans in the Sydney Olympic natatorium. I yelled to Richard: “She’s going to do it! She’s going to take the bronze!”

She did it, all right. Not with a bronze or a silver medal, but with the gold. The victory was so unexpected that even Misty had to check the scoreboard three times (I counted) before accepting that it was, in fact she who had lit up the scoreboard.

A great story for Women’s History Month, it illustrates perfectly the power that resides in each of us.

Phillip Whitten | USA Swimming Contributor

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