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“Madam Butterfly” Susie O’Neill talks about life after retiring as a champion swimmer

She still gets in the water!
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Content Warning: This article touches on post-natal depression and mental heath which may be triggering for some readers.

It’s shortly after 4am at Brisbane’s Yeronga Park Memorial Pool, and a bunch of lively locals are ready for their early morning squad session. And without too much fanfare, it doesn’t take long to realise that among the pack is Aussie swimming great, the one and only “Madame Butterfly” Susie O’Neill!

“This has always been my happy place – swimming is the one thing I can rely on when it comes to looking after myself both physically and emotionally,” Susie, who turns 50 this year, shares with Woman’s Day.

“There’s no better way to start the day than a few laps with a great bunch of people washed down with plenty of laughs, and not feel like you have to race anyone to the end!”

“This has always been my happy place.”

(Image: Instagram)


Catching up with one of the true legends of world sport, who in a career spanning more than 20 years won an astounding 35 Australian titles, eight Olympic medals, and a string of victories at the World Championships and Commonwealth Games, it doesn’t take long to figure out what makes her tick.

“I’ve always been incredibly disciplined in almost everything I do. I’m known to be a little too blunt at times – at least you know where you stand, and there are no grey areas! I don’t take myself too seriously, and I get uncomfortable with heavy conversations – my sense of humour and ability to laugh has served me well for almost half a century, so why change!”

Born in Mackay, Queensland to Trish and John O’Neill, Susie has two siblings, John and Catherine, who are both successful doctors. As though there weren’t enough medics in the family, in 1998, at the height of her career, Susie married her long-time love Cliff, a leading ophthalmologist, and they have two children, Alix, 18, and Bill, 17.

Susie has won eight Olympic medals!

(Image: Instagram)

“2023 is a year of milestones – I celebrate the big 5-0 in August and our 25th wedding anniversary is in October – and no, we won’t be climbing Mt Everest!” she laughs.

And Susie’s secret to reaching the quarter-century milestone? “Enjoying one another’s company is a good start! It’s important to work as a team with lots of give and take, and never being afraid to afford each other a bit of space.”


“Our kids have kind hearts and – most of the time – nice manners! Alix our daughter is very caring and nurturing, and our son Bill lives for his rugby – and they don’t love swimming, which is fine by us!”

Never one to shy away, Susie hasn’t been afraid to talk about her earlier battles with PND [postnatal depression].

“It was the hardest period of my life – I had an overwhelming sense of sadness after both births,” she says, before adding, “I’d see other mums loving the whole process, and I found parenthood infinitely more challenging than training and winning gold medals.

“I ignored my mental health for a long time, until I eventually gave in and got the help I needed.

“There’s nothing more important than getting that part of your life in order. I was used to being in control and running everything like clockwork. Today, thankfully, I’ve never been healthier, both physically and emotionally.”

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These days Susie has switched her talents from winning gold medals in the pool to co-hosting Brisbane’s favourite breakfast radio show alongside two of her closest mates, Ash Bradnam and David “Luttsy” Lutteral, on Nova 106.9.

“I joined the boys full-time in 2019 and they’re like my second family. I really lucked out getting a job in radio, because it delivers a similar energy and passion I had for swimming. Most mornings I set my alarm for 3.45 and head to the pool before work, swim a good 3km and then make my way to the studio.

“From the moment I arrive, we have lots of fun sharing silly stories, and there’s always plenty of banter – I reckon I’ve got the best job in the world!”

She is still keeping busy after retirement.

(Image: Instagram)


So, the question remains – what’s next for Madame Butterfly? “I’ve never been more curious about things, and I feel like I want to keep learning new skills. I admit I’m pretty dumb about a lot of topics, and I’m hungry for knowledge,” she says.

“There’s plenty more I want to pack in to this next half-century – I feel like time is running out, so I’d best get my skates on!”

If you or someone you know has been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, help is always available. Call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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