Oldest World Swimming Record Broken

Wednesday, May 17th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SYDNEY, Australia (AP) — After 19 years, it's goodbye Mary T. Swimming finally has a new Madame Butterfly.

In just 2 minutes, 5.81 seconds Wednesday, Susie O'Neill erased swimming's oldest record in the 200-meter butterfly and part of Mary T. Meagher's legend with it. Backed by a crowd of 10,000-plus, the 26-year-old Australian shaved 0.15 off the longest-standing world record in the sport after six years of frustratingly close calls.

O'Neill had just turned 8 years old when Meagher set the world record of 2:05.96 on Aug. 13, 1981 at Brown Deer, Wis.

Now with Olympic and world championship gold medals to her credit, and still possessing Meagher's autograph that she gained as a starry-eyed teen, O'Neill secured the only prize she thought might elude her.

``Finally,'' the 26-year-old said after a celebratory dance on the pool deck following the record-setting effort in the finals of the Australian Olympic trials. ``I saw the time and saw the world record flash up. It was one of the greatest moments of my life.''

O'Neill's initial reaction was to punch the air. She just managed to hold back the tears.

In Peachtree City, Ga., where she lives with her husband and two children, Meagher praised O'Neill's perseverance

``There's a sadness, a sentimentality that my name is no longer in the record books,'' said the former champion, now 35 and known by her married name of Mary Plant.

``I'm happy where I am now,'' she added. ``It definitely puts a finality to my swimming career.''

The former star, who was widely known just as Mary T. and picked up the nickname ``Madame Butterfly'' as she dominated the event in the early 1980s, said the record could not have gone to a more deserving swimmer.

``She missed it a few times but kept her head down and kept working and finally did it, so all the credit goes to her,'' the American said. ``I couldn't ask for a better way to have that door in my life closed.''

Both of Meagher's long-standing butterfly records have fallen at the Sydney International Aquatic Center, which will be the swimming venue for the 2000 Olympics. American Jenny Thompson broke the 18-year-old 100 butterfly record at the Pan Pacific Championships in August last year.

The pool has a reputation for producing world records, with 12 marks tumbling at the Pan Pacifics and a further five in the opening five days of the Australian trials.

O'Neill, the 1996 Atlanta Olympic gold medalist, was pushed all the way by Olympic silver medalist Petria Thomas, who was second in 2:07.21.

``I just felt really strong in the water,'' O'Neill said. ``I knew I was going to touch, and when I heard the reaction from the crowd I knew I had done it.''

O'Neill chose not to wear the full-length fastskin bodysuit, going with a more conventional neck-to-knee swimsuit to ensure no controversy.

``Now nobody can say it was the swimsuit that swam the 2:05,'' she said.

O'Neill said she had doubts going into the meet, giving herself just four more opportunities to overhaul Meagher.

She hinted at retirement after the Olympics but, despite clocking personal bests in all her races so far at the trials, is still aiming to go faster at the Sept. 15-Oct. 1 Games.

``I'm going back into training. The big one is in September, I'm looking forward to that,'' she said. ``Hopefully, now the record is off my back, I can relax and go faster. You always aim to go faster. I don't think just because you break a world record you stop and think 'Oh, well, that's it.'''

O'Neill went out hard in the final, faster than world-record pace from the start.

Her split at 50 meters was 28.51 seconds, inside the 29.53 record pace. She clocked 1:00.24 at 100 meters, cutting more than a second off the split of 1:01.41, and turned at 1:32.71 going into the final lap.

The victory gave O'Neill her 35th national title, a record for the Australian championships.