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Swimming Canada

Margaret Mac Neil didn’t know what to expect from herself heading into last summer’s Tokyo Olympics. 

The 21-year-old London, Ont., native was considered a medal contender after winning the 100-metre butterfly at the 2019 FINA World Championships in Gwangju, Korea, but her training and competition schedule for the Olympics had been disrupted by COVID-19.

“I probably would have had more swimming goals time wise, and medal wise, if we had a normal year going into it,” said Mac Neil. “But not really being able to compete with the best in the world for a year leading up to it, I wasn’t really sure what to expect.

“The pressure was on after winning in 2019.”

Mac Neil responded by claiming Canada’s first gold medal at the Tokyo Games, breaking her own Canadian record to win the 100 fly. She then captured silver as a member of the 4×100-m freestyle relay and bronze with the 4×100-m medley team that set a Canadian record.

“To come home with a full set (of medals) was definitely amazing,” said Mac Neil. 

In December Mac Neil managed another dominating performance at the FINA World Swimming Championships (25-m) in Abu Dhabi, winning four gold medals and setting a world record in the 50-metre backstroke.

For her achievements in 2021 Mac Neil has been named Swimming Canada’s Female Swimmer of the Year. 

“It’s really an honour, it means a lot to me,” said the University of Michigan swimmer. “Swimming in Canada, especially for females, had increased since Rio and I think we’re still on an upward trajectory. 

“There are so many good swimmers on the team and just being able to swim with them, and learn from them, that means a lot to me.”

The last several months have been a whirlwind for Mac Neil. In October she received the Best Female Athlete of Tokyo award from the Association of National Olympic Committees. Attending the award ceremony in the port city of Heraklion on the Greek island of Crete along with her mother was a highlight.

“It was exciting to go and meet other athletes that I didn’t get to meet at the Olympics,” she said. “It was a really special award.”

Recently, she was named NCAA Big Ten Championships Swimmer of the Meet for the third time after winning three individual races and two relay titles.

“Honestly it’s been a lot,” said Mac Neil. “Overwhelming for sure. Coming off my Olympic success and then going back to school in the fall was really hard.

“I’m kind of struggling to see what I want to do next but I’m definitely enjoying this right now and enjoying the ride.”

The Tokyo Games, which were delayed a year due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, were Mac Neil’s first Olympics. Strict safety protocols meant family and friends couldn’t attend and restricted athletes’ movements.

“It was weird with the Olympics the way it was,” she said. “It took more than a couple of months to get back to normal. 

“I think my life has changed a lot for the better for sure, but it’s been an adjustment.”

Finding herself a role model for young athletes is something Mac Neil is still adapting to.

“It really hits me when little kids come up to me and want pictures and autographs and things like that,” she said. “I remember looking up to swimmers. People would come speak at my club or do camps. That always made a big impact on me.

“I want to do the same things for the next generation.”

Mac Neil’s career followed a steady progression with her competing at World Junior and Junior Pan Pacific Championships. She was named Swimming Canada’s Breakout Swimmer of the Year in 2019, the year she made her first senior national team.

Being an Olympic and world champion now makes her one of the swimmers to watch at any competition.

“People started looking at me differently back in 2019 at the worlds,” she said. “I just popped on the scene. I had been a relatively good development swimmer for the Canadian team at that point but I hadn’t really pushed out to the senior level.

“After winning at the Olympics and setting a world record, I feel I am very familiar to them. I try not to think about that too much and put too much pressure on myself. I always do the best I can do. I just want to know I put my full effort in.”

Mac Neil took a month off training after the Olympics. The break helped her physically but “my emotional mental health probably took a lot longer,” she said.

She’s already focusing on this summer’s FINA World Championships in Budapest, Hungary, and the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, England. The Paris 2024 Olympics are also on the horizon.

“Paris is definitely a long-term goal so I’m always working toward that,” she said. “I want to take time and think about the milestones and the meets along the way.

“I always enjoyed competing. I love swimming but I swim to compete. I love the entire sport but competing really is the most fun for me.”