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Biography / Human Interest

MonoMermaid

The Olympic champion’s other breathless aquatic adventures

Elaine K. Howley | January 7, 2014

Olympian and USMS on-deck correspondent Misty Hyman, 34, of Phoenix, Ariz., is best known for winning the women’s 200-meter butterfly in stunning fashion at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. In a glorious upset that’s often cited as one of the top 10 moments in sports history, Hyman bested heavy favorite Australian butterflyer Susie O’Neill for the win. She earned wide recognition for her feat, but swimming butterfly wasn’t her only aquatic endeavor.

In addition to Hyman’s career as an elite swimmer, she also moonlighted as a Finswimmer. Finswimming is a nontraditional form of swimming with a monofin that gained some traction in the late 1990s but never really took off in the United States. Because Hyman was so adept at underwater dolphin kicking—her signature superpower in the butterfly events she dominated—she was a natural at finswimming, which requires a swimmer to blast off pool walls, hold a tight streamline, and use core muscles to undulate underwater.

Finswimming consists of three disciplines:

  • Apnea, in which the swimmer must complete a 50 completely underwater without breathing;
  • Surface, in which the swimmer completes events ranging from 100 to 1500 meters while wearing a snorkel; and
  • Immersion, in which the swimmer carries an oxygen tank and completes distances ranging from 100 to 800 meters underwater.

“The tank is only big enough for three or four breaths,” Hyman says, “so you have to time the breathing. It’s really interesting.”

She got into the sport, which is popular in Europe and parts of Asia, in 1995 when coach Bob Gillett began integrating a monofin into Hyman’s training to increase her kicking power. “There was a group of people in the U.S. trying to grow the sport, and in 1996, I went with the U.S. team to compete in Budapest,” Hyman says. Fellow Olympic swimmer Jenny Thompson also attended that world championship meet in Hungary.

Hyman and Thompson had a lot of fun at the world championships. “We would walk out behind the blocks swinging our arms to loosen them up and realize we’re not going to use our arms,” she says, laughing, “You just kick!” In addition to redundant arms, Hyman’s broad butterflyer shoulders were problematic in finswimming for the extra resistance they offered against the water. “The professional finswimmers have big legs but not big shoulders,” she says.

Although Hyman no longer competes in finswimming, her love of the monofin continues today. She trains with one regularly and even completed the 5-mile St. Croix Coral Reef Swim using only a monofin and snorkel. Who says mermaids aren’t real?

Read more about Hyman’s Olympic victory and what she’s been up to since in the latest issue of SWIMMER magazine.

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About the Author—Elaine K. Howley

Elaine K. Howley is Associate Editor of U.S. Masters Swimming. A lifelong swimmer who specializes in cold water marathon swimming, she edits and writes for SWIMMER magazine, USMS.org, and the STREAMLINES eNewsletter series. 

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