Maggie Mac Neil wins Canada’s first Tokyo gold in women’s 100-metre butterfly

Margaret Mac Neil of Canada competes in the women's 100m butterfly semifinal during the Tokyo Olympics in Tokyo, Japan on Sunday, July 25, 2021. (Frank Gunn/CP)

Canadian Maggie Mac Neil won the women’s 100-metre butterfly on Sunday night, giving Canada its first gold medal of the Tokyo Games in her Olympic debut.

Mac Neil’s second trip to the podium in as many days, she finished with a time of 55.59, a Canadian record. Zhang Yufei of China finished in second with a time of 55.64 seconds, and Emma McKeon of Australia rounded out the podium with a time of 55.72 seconds.

“It’s crazy,” Mac Neil said of winning the country’s first gold at the Games. “I remember when Penny [Oleksiak] won hers five years ago, and that was just so inspiring — knowing that was the first time someone had won a gold medal in a very long time.”

Shortly after Mac Neil qualified for the 100-metre final on Saturday night, a performance that saw her finish third in her semifinal and sixth overall with a time 56.56 seconds, she helped Canada secure its first medal of these Games as a member of the silver-medal winning women’s 4×100-metre relay team.

At the half-way point of the women’s 100-metre final, Mac Neil found herself in seventh, trailing by the fractions of a second that divide Olympic heartbreak from triumph.

“My race strategy has always been to go out smooth,” Mac Neil said. “But lately my front-end speed has been able to increase a lot, so that’s been really good. And, always, my back-end speed is where I feel the most comfortable.

In the final 50 metres, she knew what to do — because she’d done it before.

The 21-year-old is no stranger to rising to the moment on sport’s biggest stages.

During the 2019 world championships, her first senior international event, Mac Neil went head-to-head with Sweden’s Sarah Sjöström in the final. Sjöström, the world-record holder for the event and reigning Olympic champion at the time, was heavily favoured to secure what would have been her fifth world title in six chances.

Instead, Mac Neil happened. With an Americas-record-setting swim in the final, Mac Neil finished in 55.83 seconds, a show-stopping performance she was able to replicate Sunday night.

“I heard my name called so I thought I did something well,” Mac Neil, who doesn’t swim with her contact lenses in, said after her win. “And then I turned around and was kind of scanning the scoreboard, I don’t think it’ll process for a little while.”

With the win, Mac Neil becomes just the seventh Canadian swimmer to earn an Olympic gold. The small but storied list also includes Penny Oleksiak, Mark Tewksbury, Anne Ottenbrite, Victor Davis, as well as Alex Baumann and George Hodgson, both of whom won two.

Her journey to this feat was far from typical, upended as so much of life was by the COVID-19 pandemic. Mac Neil normally trained at the University of Michigan, a process that has produced historic results, as she became the first woman to post a time under 49 seconds in the 100-yard butterfly. Because of ever-evolving restrictions, she was forced to leave her United States-based training setup and start fresh with Team Canada in Toronto at the start of April.

The detour didn’t disrupt her final destination, though, standing with a gold medal around her neck in Tokyo.

“The ceiling is endless,” Mac Neil said. “Just go reach for it.”

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