Famous Face: Susie O’Neill

She’s come a long way since her days as Madame Butterfly, breaking records and winning the hearts both in and out of the pool. Manveen Maan catches up with former Olympic darling and global swimming sensation, Susie O’Neill, to find out how her love for triathlon was first ignited, and what’s in store for her tri future.

How did you first foray into triathlon? What was it that appealed to you?

I was invited to be part of a short celebrity relay at the Noosa triathlon. The next day my husband, Cliff (Fairley), and I watched the race. Everyone seemed on such a high that we wanted to do it. I went and bought two bicycles for us the week after the race and we started training. We competed the year after in our first triathlon. I like training for three different disciplines so I don’t get bored. I also like how you can do a whole race, or be part of a relay if you only want to do one or two legs. It’s really versatile like that.

You’re a multiple Olympic gold medallist and former world champion. How have your years as an elite athlete helped both on and off the tri circuit?

Being a swimmer taught me discipline, perseverance, hard work and setting goals, which are all good life lessons. I also think with regard to triathlons, I can be good and training and competing through pain. Notice I said ‘can’…sometimes I don’t push myself through the pain barrier and I like that now I don’t have to.

How has training for a triathlon differed from your training as a swimmer?

Firstly, I do a lot less than I used to as an elite swimmer. That however was like my job, where as now, like most master athletes, I fit my training in and around family and work. When I was swimmer I swam around 70 – 100 km per week which took me around 30 hours! That’s quite a lot of time spent in the pool. Now I try to do one hour of exercise a day, whether it’s swimming, running or cycling (usually on wind trainer). I now swim about 6 km a week.

You did your first triathlon in Noose in 2010, which you finished in 2 hours and 29 minutes, only about 30 minutes behind the elite female winning time. What was achieving such an amazing result in your first go like?

I really enjoyed my first triathlon. I always find the run the hardest. Like most people though, any improvement from your first effort is so hard! I think I may have gone 2 mins faster since but it is hard to make any improvement. I probably did more cycling back then because I was just starting out in that sport and needed a lot of work!

What were your expectations going into competing in a triathlon, and did they differ once you were competing? If so, how?

I always get a little bit nervous when I compete in anything, but I have no expectations, which is good compared to my swimming skills. When I am in the race I get white line fever and want to beat everyone. It’s a pity my body doesn’t always agree with me!

Have you done more triathlons since then on your own? Which race have you enjoyed the most/is most memorable?

I always enjoy the Noosa weekend, mainly because I love the whole festival of sport! Hamilton Island triathlon is also pretty good and for the last two years I’ve also done the Straddie Salute – which is at Stradbroke Island. Our family loves having mini breaks combined with triathlon events – it’s fun for everyone.

What’s your favourite leg of triathlon and why?

The swim because I can do it easily if I wanted to, then cycling because it’s the fastest of the legs. I hate the run!

What do you do in your non-tri time? How do you juggle your time with your work/family and training for tri?

I work as part of Nova’s Ash, Kip and Luttsy breakfast show in Brisbane, two mornings a week. I’m also a brand ambassador for Swimart, and help out in the admin side for my husband’s business. I’m also a Fred Hollow Foundation ambassador and have Australian Olympic Committee adhoc roles with the Junior Olympic Team.

I also have a family, with two children – 12-year-old Alix and 10-year-old Bill. And for fun, I like to read, listen to music and surf the Internet.

I hear you are eyeing the Hamilton Island triathlon – what’s your preparation routine like? What is your aim for this event?

I’m only going to do a team event this year (because the hills are a killer!) so I can relax a bit more up there. Also there is a 2km swim at Whitehaven the day after the triathlon and I always race an old Olympic friend so I like to stay semi-fresh for that event! Haha!

What’s your secret to successfully completing a triathlon?

Small steps would be it. Like any sport, consistency is the key with your training. If you miss a few sessions, don’t stop going for weeks, just start up again. Also don’t go too hard at the beginning of a race.

Do you have any words of advice for anyone wanting to compete in a triathlon?

I think it’s important to note that there are all different levels competing – anyone can do it with a little bit of training!

If you could describe the whole triathlon experience in 3 to 5 words, what would they be?

Excitement, pain, achievement, and celebration!


Manveen Maan

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