The Olympics are the biggest stage in the sport and the biggest dream of many athletes. For the very motivated and talented few, that dream becomes a goal.
Maggie MacNeil, a native Canadian and senior on the Michigan swim and dive team, had the Olympics as a backdrop from the beginning. Shortly after the 2008 Beijing Games, eight-year-old MacNeil began his swimming career.
MacNeil’s passion stemmed from the rawest aspect of the sport: his love of water. His mother, a doctor, emphasized water safety from an early age, which piqued MacNeil’s interest. But back then, she never imagined that swimming would take her to such heights.
“Anytime someone starts playing sports, the Olympics are always a goal,” MacNeil said. “But I didn’t think swimming would get me this far.”
MacNeil initially realized the exceptionalism of his talent in 2015, when he joined Canada’s Junior National Team at age fifteen. Even after reaching that elite level, she never recognized the Olympics as a potential reality until 2019 at her first FINA World Championships.
MacNeil won the 100m butterfly, defeating Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom – the 2016 Olympic champion – and breaking the records of the Americas, Canada and the Commonwealth in the process. As a world champion, she began to understand that she could qualify for the Tokyo Olympics the following year.
But in March 2020, all of MacNeil’s plans were thwarted. With the NCAA championships cancelled, she returned home to Canada, where she was isolated from her teammates and her regimented training schedule. MacNeil went six months without a regular-sized pool and was forced to find other ways to get in shape.
“None of us (swimmers) are great at land sports,” MacNeil said. “Running is my enemy.”
To help her feel the least amount of water during quarantine, MacNeil’s parents opened their backyard pool in late March. Though she was nowhere near the 50-meter Olympic pools, MacNeil trained in the heated waters during the Canadian spring, even if it was just for ten minutes a day.
“Motivation was very difficult,” MacNeil said. “In retrospect, I probably should have done more than I did.”
Her atypical training paid off as she qualified for the rescheduled Tokyo Games. But the 2021 Olympics were far from the typical competitive atmosphere. No fans were allowed into the swimming pool, and athletes were divided into quarantine bubbles by country and sport. But this being her first Olympics, there was nothing for MacNeil to compare conditions to, so she used that to her advantage.
One of the most striking changes was the change in the time of day when the 100m butterfly finals were swum. Instead of taking place at night, the finals were held in the morning, giving MacNeil no time to think too much.
“I just woke up and knew I had a job to do,” MacNeil said.
Entering the finals ranked No. 6, MacNeil was not deterred by his seed. As long as there was a clue to her, winning was still a possibility. At the 50-meter turn, midway through the race, MacNeil’s division wasn’t even in the top three. But in the last 15 meters, MacNeil ducked his head, touching the wall in 55.59 seconds to set a new Americas record. Winning the gold made MacNeil the first female swimmer from Michigan to place first individually at the Olympics since 1964.
But earning gold wasn’t the same without her family there to celebrate with her. The captivating video MacNeil’s cousin sent her, showing her family’s reaction and emotion, was not the same as being in person. Instead, she celebrated with her Canadian teammates as well as those she swam with in Michigan.
Training for four years in Ann Arbor with these swimmers left strong ties, with the college season lasting from early September to late March. In between, from April to August, MacNeil competes in the international season.
And this is an annual occurrence, not just during the Olympic years.
Swimming is arguably the most grueling and underrated sport in the world of athletics. Many spectators tune in every four years for the Olympics and then neglect the relevance of swimming after the Games conclude. But for athletes like MacNeil, work never stops.
“Swimming is not an easy sport,” MacNeil said. “We don’t have a low season.”
As she tries to take two to four weeks off between each college and the international season, the training drought that MacNeil and every other athlete suffered during quarantine was unlike any other. But despite the unorthodox conditions, MacNeil and many others had stellar performances as a result.
“I am very grateful to have been successful despite all the challenges,” said MacNeil. “But it definitely makes me re-evaluate my plans for the next Olympics.”
Ahead of the 2020 Games, MacNeil’s training was significantly lighter than it would have been in a typical year. While practicing with teammates is imperative, she is looking to embrace some of the aspects that resulted in a gold medal.
Going forward, MacNeil recently announced his commitment to exercise his final year of NCAA eligibility to compete at the University of California at Berkeley while pursuing a master’s degree. After graduating in 2023, she will have full control over her training in the year before the 2024 Olympics.
Although it looks like MacNeil just won Olympic gold, but the turnaround is quick. With the 2020 Olympics postponed by a year, Paris is fast approaching. While MacNeil has his sights set on the 2024 Games, his focus hasn’t come without a doubt.
“I definitely questioned swimming and goals because I feel like I’ve done a lot of everything I ever wanted to do,” MacNeil said. “I felt lost in ‘What’s next?’”
MacNeil has decided to train for Paris, but other than that, she’s not holding onto anything. Every athlete’s career comes to an end at some point, and she will determine her future based on her happiness and the satisfaction she gets from swimming.
There could be a long professional swimming career on the horizon, or it could turn into something else. No matter what, MacNeil is taking his training and his career forward day by day.
“As long as I’m enjoying it, whatever happens along the way is the icing on the cake,” MacNeil said.
She turned her dreams into goals and her goals into reality.
All that’s left is for MacNeil to answer his own question: “What’s next?”