The Olympics are the biggest sporting stage and the ultimate dream of many athletes. For the highly motivated and gifted, that dream becomes a goal.
Maggie MacNeil, a Canadian native and senior member of Michigan’s swimming and diving team, had the Olympics as her backdrop from the start. Right after the 2008 Beijing Games, eight-year-old MacNeil began her swimming career.
MacNeil’s passion was born from the most raw aspect of the sport: his love of water. His mother, a physician, emphasized water safety from an early age, which sparked MacNeil’s interest. But at the time, she never imagined that swimming would take her to such heights.
“Any time someone starts a sport, the Olympics are always a goal,” MacNeil said. “But I didn’t think swimming would take me this far.”
MacNeil first realized the exceptionality of her talent in 2015 when she first joined Canada’s National Junior Team at the age of 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 100-metre butterfly, beating Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom – the 2016 Olympic champion – and breaking Americas, Canadian and Commonwealth records in the process. As world champion, she began to realize that she could qualify for the Tokyo Olympics the following year.
But in March 2020, all of MacNeil’s plans were derailed. With the NCAA championships canceled, she returned to Canada, where she was isolated from her teammates and her strict training schedule. MacNeil went six months without a regulation size pool and was forced to find other ways to stay in shape.
“None of us (swimmers) are good at land sports,” MacNeil said. “Running is my enemy.”
To help him feel the water minimally during quarantine, MacNeil’s parents opened their backyard pool at the end of March. While away from the 50-meter Olympic pools, MacNeil trained in the heated waters during the crisp Canadian spring, even if it was only ten minutes a day.
“The motivation was really tough,” MacNeil said. “In retrospect, I probably should have done more than I did.”
Her atypical training paid off when she qualified for the rescheduled Tokyo Games. But the 2021 Olympics were far from the typical competitive atmosphere. No fans were allowed in the natatorium and athletes were divided into quarantine bubbles by country and sport. But since it was her first Olympics, MacNeil had nothing to compare the conditions to, so she used that to her advantage.
One of the most impactful changes was changing the time of day the 100m butterfly finals were swum. Rather than taking place in the evening, the finals took place 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.
Going into the No. 6 ranked final, MacNeil was undeterred by her top seed. As long as there was a path for her, winning was always a possibility. At the 50-yard turn, halfway through the race, MacNeil’s split wasn’t even in the top three. But in the final 15 meters, MacNeil put his head down, hitting the wall in 55.59 seconds to set a new Americas record. Winning gold made MacNeil the first swimmer from Michigan to place first individually at the Olympics since 1964.
But winning gold wasn’t the same without her family being there to celebrate with her. The endearing video footage MacNeil’s cousin sent him showing his family’s reaction and excitement was not the same as in person. Instead, she celebrated with her Canadian teammates and also those she swam with in Michigan.
Training for four years in Ann Arbor with these swimmers left a strong bond, with the college season running from early September through late March. Between the two, from April to August, MacNeil participates in the international season.
And it’s an annual event, not just in Olympic years.
Swimming is arguably the most grueling yet underrated sport in the world of athletics. Many spectators tune in every four years for the Olympics and then overlook the relevance of swimming after the Games are over. But for athletes like MacNeil, the work never stops.
“Swimming is not an easy sport,” MacNeil said. “We don’t have an off-season.
As she tries to take two to four weeks off between each varsity and international season, the training drought that MacNeil and every other athlete endured during quarantine was unlike any other. But despite the unorthodox conditions, MacNeil and many others performed exceptionally well.
“I’m really grateful to have pulled through despite all the challenges,” MacNeil said. “But it definitely makes me reassess my plans for the next Olympics.”
Prior to the 2020 Games, MacNeil’s training was much lighter than it would have been in a typical year. While it’s imperative to train with her teammates, she’s 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, Berkeley while pursuing a master’s degree. After graduating in 2023, she will have full control over her training the year before the 2024 Olympics.
Although it looks like MacNeil has just won Olympic gold, but the turnaround is quick. With the 2020 Olympics postponed for a year, Paris is fast approaching. While MacNeil has his sights set on the 2024 Games, his goal hasn’t come without a doubt.
“I’ve definitely questioned swimming and goals because I feel like I’ve done a lot of everything I ever wanted to,” MacNeil said. “I felt lost in the ‘What’s next?'”
MacNeil has decided to train for Paris, but beyond that, she’s not attached to anything. Every athlete’s career ends at some point, and she will determine her future based on how happy and satisfied she gets from swimming.
There could be a long career as a professional swimmer on the horizon, or she could turn to something else. No matter what happens to him, MacNeil follows his training and career day by day.
“As long as I’m enjoying it, whatever happens along the way will be icing on the cake,” MacNeil said.
She turned her dreams into goals and her goals into reality.
All that’s left for MacNeil is to answer his own question: “What’s next?”