Rosie DiManno: Swimmer Maggie Mac Neil flies to Canada’s first gold medal of the Tokyo Olympics: ‘Oh. My. God.’
TOKYO—Geeky scholar spectacles off, laser-focused goggles on.
The view from behind the polycarbonate lens was a water-wavy wall-touch gold for Canada’s Maggie Mac Neil in the 100-metre butterfly at the Tokyo Olympics on Monday morning.
“Oh. My. God.”
As her head popped up, mouth wide open.
Third medal of the Games for Canada — first gold — and second medal of these Olympics for the 21-year-old from London, Ont. She was glazed silver on Sunday after swimming the second leg of the 4×100 freestyle relay.
But Maggie flies.
Maggie’s gotta fly, girl.
She’d qualified sixth out of the semifinals with a time of 56.16, but brought it home when it counted at 55.59, setting a new Canadian record — breaking her own watermark — and the third-fastest time ever in the event.
“I’m not even sure what my final time was,” Mac Neil admitted to reporters as she came through the mixed zone later, after putting the gold medal around her own neck on the podium, and as a male U.S. swimmer came by: “Great race Maggie!”
“The result was what I was hoping for at this point, but I was really just trying to enjoy the experience and have fun, which I think I did today. So I’m really proud of that.”
Preternaturally poised in the wake of an Olympic championship and quite credible in her claim to just wanting to savour the experience.
At that point, somebody leans over to show Mac Neil her split time of 29.09 and she wrinkles her nose. That actually had her in seventh at the turn among eight swimmers.
But golly, the girl can kick.
“I had my very specific strategy that works for me,” she explained, without really explaining. “I’m not usually out as fast.” Reaction time of 0.63, actually. Just “smooth and strong” in the opening 50, “and then just working in the water. The second 50’s always my sweet spot.”
The butterfly is Mac Neil’s divine stroke, the wingspan churn that catapulted a then-teenager to world championship gold two years ago, stunningly setting aside superstar Swede Sarah Sjostrom in the 100-metre fly — a three-time and defending world title-holder and reigning Olympic champion, who still owns both the world and Olympic record of 55.48. Mac Neil had bested her 55.83 in that race.
Same Sjostrom who was in the pool at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre with Mac Neil on Monday morning — kind of a recovery miracle that, after fracturing her elbow in February slipping on ice, which required surgery and three months or rehab.
Man, these women are tough.
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For Mac Neil, she was also the hunted, which is not a comfortable position for her, world champion and all.
“Coming in with a target on your back is hard in so many ways. Going into worlds, I was relatively unknown. I had that to my advantage. (Now) going in with an expectation, wanting to do well for myself, for my family and friends.”
None of whom, of course, are here to witness Mac Neil’s exploits in personal, kept pandemically at bay.
Tenacious is how Mac Neil is frequently described, stretching back at least to when she was an 8-year-old girl — began swimming at age 2, by the way — and on the eve of her first swim meet attended a school event where she fell and sprained her wrist. Refused to back out of the meet though, despite an injury that “hurt like heck.”
That’s how you get to be No. 1 in the world on one memorable day in Gwangju, South Korea. And how, on one of the most nerve-jangling days of your young life — legs twitching nervously as Mac Neil sat in a plastic pool deck chair, pre-race, waiting to be announced — you come rising out of the water, gasping, 55.59 seconds after you plunged into the pool out of the blocks.
But only after completing her pre-race rituals: splashing herself precisely 15 times with water before getting in the blocks; kick the backfoot plate three times. Athletes are deeply attached to their superstitions, though Mac Neil’s seems almost verging on OCD. To go along with the sports-induced asthma with which she was diagnosed four years ago — it can and has worsened with exposure to chlorine — that turned her focus away from the lung-choking longer events, beaming in on the shorter distances that made her a sudden sensation in a few brief years post-Rio.
Mac Neil’s swimming prowess devolves from underwater strength and back-half speed when she turns on the jets, just as she caught Sjostrom three years ago and broke out down the stretch Monday in front of China’s Zhang Yufei (0.05 behind) and Australia’s Emma McKeon (0.13), whom many had expected to seize this Olympics crown in the 100.
It was around the 10-minute mark in her distanced mixed-zone session with reporters that Mac Neil realized her friend, young teammate and village roommate Summer McIntosh was racing the 400-metre freestyle, for which she’d qualified sixth, not remotely awed or intimidated by sharing the pool with swimming legend Katie Ledecky. The audacious teenager isn’t even 15 yet.
“Go Sums!” Mac Neil yelled at the TV monitor in the bowels of the Tokyo Aquatics Centre. “Ooh, this is good.”
As indeed McIntosh had hold of third place before fading ever so slightly into fourth.
“Not bad for a 14-year-old,” declared Mac Neil.
Not bad for a 21-year-old either, gold and silver at her debut Olympics.
And now, as guaranteed — on the other side of another relay on the weekend — an Olympic rings tattoo when she gets back to London. Her mom, who didn’t much like the idea of a daughter mutilating her skin, had finally agreed, if she made the Olympic squad. Done rather more than that.
“She’s not a fan of it. My friend group and I, we’re all planning to get tattoos when I get home.”
Mom is a physician.
“She’s emailed every doctor to find out the cleanest spots in London.”
Rosie DiManno is a Toronto-based columnist covering sports and current affairs for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno
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