Canadian swimmer Maggie MacNeil is poised for breakout at Tokyo Olympics

Canada's Maggie MacNeil warms up ahead of the women's 100-metre butterfly final at the 2019 World Swimming Championships. (Lee Jin-man/AP)

The life of a NCAA Div. I student-athlete isn’t easy, but Canadian swimmer Maggie MacNeil says that for her, it all comes down to time management and organization. And given her success so far, it seems like she’s got it all figured out.

This past weekend, the University of Michigan junior was the only triple winner at the Big Ten Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships, finishing first in the 50-yard freestyle, 100-yard butterfly and 100-yard freestyle. She also led off Michigan’s 200-yard medley relay with an NCAA-record 23.02-second 50-yard backstroke. Her impressive performance saw her named Swimmer of the Championships for the second straight season.

Her talents have paid off for Team Canada as well. MacNeil, a London, Ont., native, burst onto the international swimming stage in a stunning way at the 2019 FINA World Championships, winning two bronze medals in the 4x100 freestyle and medley relays, and beating defending Olympic champion Sarah Sjöström by 0.39 seconds to win gold in the 100-metre butterfly.

Though NCAA championships in North Carolina later this month are next on MacNeil’s radar, she’s already been named to Canada’s 2021 Olympic team ahead of trials in May. And while she may not yet be a household name like Canadian teammate Penny Oleksiak, she’s poised for a breakout performance on the world’s biggest stage this summer.

We talked to her about her beginnings in the sport, her hopes for the Tokyo Games, and what’s fueling Canada’s dominant run in the pool.

Sportsnet: How did you first get into swimming?

MacNeil: My family moved to a house that had a pool, and my mom being a physician, she’s super into water safety. So I guess that’s what got my sister and I both into swimming. I really enjoyed the water from a young age, so it started with mom-and-tot lessons, and it sort of transitioned more into swimming lessons. The company that I was taking swimming lessons from had something like a swim team, so I kind of just followed the natural progression all the kids did going through that program. It was after I kind of hit the top level in that program that they suggested that I try out for the London Aquatic Club, and I guess the rest is history.

What was it about swimming that made you realize it was something you wanted to pursue competitively?

When I started swimming competitively, I really enjoyed making friends and traveling around. That was kind of what kept me in the sport. Right after the Beijing Olympics, that’s when I started to take swimming seriously and knew that I wanted to pursue it further. But I don’t think I knew how much further, because I think it’s less than one per cent of athletes who qualify for the Olympics. So with the crazy odds I didn’t really think it’d become a thing, but it did.

Your first experience representing Canada on the senior world stage was at the 2019 Worlds in Gwangju, South Korea. Can you talk a little bit about what it was like to make the team and what your expectations were?

That was following my first year of university, so I wasn’t sure how trials were going to go. With the college system in the States, we swim in yards and not metres, so that was an interesting transition. But I just really had a great meet, and my training was going really well. I’d just adjusted to university life, so that was a positive leading into that meet, and when I qualified for the team, that was really exciting.

When we got to Worlds, I knew it was going to be tough competition. I was just like, “I’m gonna go and see how well I can do.” I didn’t really have too many expectations, just because I’d dropped so much time already, so I just wanted to make a final at the Worlds. When I made [100m butterfly] finals in like a medal position, I just wanted to get on the podium.

You had an incredible swim in that 100-metre butterfly final — not only defeating the reigning Olympic champion to win gold, but also breaking the Canadian, Americas and Commonwealth records with your time of 55.83. What was the response like after your surprising win?

It was kind of a whirlwind, to be honest. I went from just being known within Canada and the States to trending on Twitter after that swim, so that was kind of crazy. I got so many follower requests. I know social media is a bad way to measure that, but I thought it was super interesting at the time. But [when we got] on the podium, one of our top competitors (Japan’s Rikako Ikee) was battling Leukemia (and couldn’t compete), so we had a nice message for her that we displayed on the podium that the media was really talking about.

MacNeil, centre, with Australia’s Emma McKeon, left, and Sweden's Sarah Sjostrom. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

It’s been almost a year since the COVID-19 pandemic really hit North America hard. Has the pandemic impacted your training at all?

It did originally, when everything shut down last March. I went home and I was swimming in my backyard pool…. It was something, but it wasn’t the ideal training environment. I didn’t really get into a normal sized pool until the end of June, and then my training was sporadic and kind of all over the place because I didn’t know if I was gonna be in London or Toronto or back here at school. I wouldn’t say my training got back to any kind of normality until I got back to Michigan in October.

With Canada’s Olympic team trials coming up at the end of May and the uncertainty of whether the Olympics will even be held this summer, how have you been preparing and training? Do you have any goals?

I’ve really learned to take things — not day by day, but week by week. Just because everything’s changing so much. We still have NCAA Championships coming up in a couple of weeks, so hopefully that’ll still happen. That’s kind of the focus right now, and just working to be ready for Olympic trials in May. I wouldn’t say I have any goals at this point just because of the COVID uncertainties. I’m not sure how long I'm planning on continuing my career for. I feel like COVID has made me reevaluate a lot of things about my swimming career and about what I want to do afterwards. I would say I’m just trying to live in the moment and enjoy everything as it comes.

U.S.A. and Australia are the more dominant nations in swimming, but Canada’s recent success has made them a country to watch in all events. What do you think has made the team so successful and a consistent medal threat on the international stage?

That’s a really great question. I don’t know if I have the greatest answer, but I think it’s just because we’re such a young team, and that we’re really kind of figuring things out as we go. We’re developing a team culture that kind of fosters that team atmosphere, but also encourages competition within ourselves. We have the youngest team on the international stage right now. For example, our 4x100 relay team from the 2019 Worlds — we were the only team where everyone was under 19 at the time, which is really incredible. It just shows we have a lot to improve and a lot of growth to get ready for this summer.

With International Women’s Day coming up on March 8, are there any women who have inspired you throughout your journey so far?

I’d definitely say my mom. She’s a frontline worker, so she’s been dealing with this whole COVID-19 pandemic and kind of getting the full brunt of it. I just love her so much, and she always inspires me.

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