‘I’m hiding out down here’: For Maggie MacNeil, anonymity is a secret weapon

Wednesday, March 18, 2020 - 7:20pm

Maggie MacNeil has stayed relatively anonymous at Michigan despite her status of world champion.

Maggie MacNeil has stayed relatively anonymous at Michigan despite her status of world champion. Buy this photo
Dominick Sokotoff/Daily

In observance of Women’s History Month, The Daily’s sports section is launching its third annual series aimed at telling the stories of female athletes, coaches and teams at the University from the perspective of the female sports writers on staff. Senior sports editor Aria Gerson kicks off the series with this story.

On one side of the pool at the London Aquatic Club, the older swimmers train for competitions. On the other, younger swimmers perfect their strokes with styrofoam flutterboards. Each flutterboard is emblazoned with an autograph.

In the fall, the last time Maggie MacNeil returned to her hometown of London, Ont., her coach, Andrew Craven, asked her to take pictures with the young athletes and sign their flutterboards.

It’s a similar scene every time she comes home. The kids rush to her, asking for autographs and photos. The local radio stations and newspapers ask for interviews. Everyone knows who she is — Maggie MacNeil, world champion.

In Ann Arbor, MacNeil’s presence is much harder to spot. The entrance to the pool deck at the Canham Natatorium is lined with swim caps of Olympians who swam for Michigan. There are lists of NCAA champions. Soon, MacNeil could be among them. But she isn’t yet.

MacNeil is, of course, still well known within the confines of the natatorium. She’s the best swimmer on an already-stacked Michigan team. She’s a 10-time Big Ten champion in just her sophomore year. Every other swimmer knows that in a butterfly or sprint freestyle event, she’s the one to beat.

But MacNeil isn’t the only swimmer on her team who’s contended for conference championships, NCAA championships or even the Olympics. She was only one of nine who competed at the World Championships last summer. The Wolverines don’t have to pin their hopes on her.

Outside the pool, MacNeil keeps a fairly low profile, not boasting her status as one of the world’s top swimmers. Other than her block ‘M’ backpack all the athletes wear, she could be any other student.

On campus, no one really knows who MacNeil is. She likes it that way.

***

When MacNeil was growing up, one of her mom’s rules was that she could never get a tattoo. But her mom, Susan McNair, didn’t want to seem like a complete stick-in-the-mud, so she added one condition. MacNeil could get a tattoo of the Olympic rings — if and only if she ever got to the Olympics. “Knowing full well that I would never have a child who got to the Olympics,” McNair said.

Back then, McNair’s thought process was sound. MacNeil wasn’t one of those kids you always knew might be destined for the Olympics. She was good, yes. Good enough to go to nationals-level meets at the age of 12, good enough to be selected for international events like the 2018 Junior Pan-Pacific Championships, good enough to be recruited by top NCAA programs. But MacNeil hadn’t hit the level of some other swimmers her age, and because of that, most of the pressure on her was pressure she put on herself.

In 2017, she didn’t make the Canadian team for the World Junior Championships. She won medals at national and regional meets but hadn’t quite reached the pinnacle of her sport. 

Even teams that recruited her, like Michigan and California, had reservations. She was strong in the 100-yard butterfly, but teams were concerned she might just be a one-trick pony. Michigan assistant coach Rick Bishop, who primarily works with the women’s team, wasn’t sure whether the Wolverines were the right fit. MacNeil, after all, came from a club where she was always the best — better, even, than the boys. With the Wolverines, she’d be in a much bigger pond.

Head coach Mike Bottom, though, was sold from the beginning. He saw someone with a strong work ethic and good results for the club she came from. But Michigan didn’t see MacNeil as a future world champion — just a solid addition to a top team.

“Neither one of us really went into it with these outrageous expectations,” Bishop said. “I think she truly made a good decision in (that) she liked the University of Michigan. We didn’t have this massive expectation that we were recruiting this superstar talent, and she didn’t have this massive expectation that we were gonna get her to some crazy place.”

Bishop’s philosophy is to take a swimmer and, instead of improving her weaknesses, coach to her strengths. MacNeil was a strong underwater swimmer with good closing speed, so she and Bishop worked to make sure she was the best underwater swimmer with the best closing speed. 

That was when she began to burst onto the scene.

MacNeil was used to swimming as an individual. But the team environment of Big Ten dual meets — the parents in the stands, the constant cheering, the feeling of cheering for weaker teams to win so Michigan’s biggest competitors got fewer points — invigorated her. Suddenly, she was swimming not only for herself, but for 32 others. It took some of the pressure off, because her team was there for her. 

In 2019, her freshman season, she won two individual conference championships and two more as a member of a relay team. At NCAA Championships, she notched a second-place finish in her signature event, the 100-yard butterfly, and finished fourth in the 50-yard freestyle. Then, in April, she made the Canadian team for the World Championships. Even still, Craven’s realistic expectation for MacNeil was maybe making the semi-finals of the 100 fly.

Instead, all it took were 55.83 seconds for MacNeil to go from unknown to the top of the swimming world.

Before MacNeil’s race at Worlds, she strategized with Bishop for how she could beat her biggest competition: Sarah Sjöstrom, a Swedish swimmer who has been nearly unbeatable in the event since breaking the world record at the 2016 Olympics. Her parents and coaches watched from the audience, Craven from his computer at home and her teammates from a TV feed at the natatorium as MacNeil went into the turn in the middle of the pack. Then, she turned on the jets — utilizing her underwaters and back-half speed to great effect, just the way she and Bishop planned — to beat Sjöstrom and win the championship.

The Canadian flag went up and “O Canada” played. It was MacNeil’s coronation moment — and one that removed her cloak of anonymity.

MacNeil went into the 2020 season knowing full well that it was an Olympic year, and that she was potentially on track to make the Canadian team. She briefly considered taking a redshirt year to train, but ultimately decided against it. 

Taking the year off would have meant returning home to Canada. That, in turn, would mean much more intense training sessions, without the fun of Big Ten meets to break them up. It would mean constant media requests, autograph signings, photos. It would mean the eyes of a country, pinned on her, and all the pressure that came with that.

For MacNeil, the decision to return to Michigan was easy because it allowed her to keep a lower profile. With the Wolverines, she can take her training one big event at a time and focus on swimming in one of the best conferences in the country before worrying about the all-consuming potential of Trials or the Olympics. 

In late February — before the world was flipped on its head due to the COVID-19 outbreak — MacNeil returned from Big Tens with two big meets coming up. First, NCAA Championships were set to begin March 18. (They have since been canceled.) Canadian Olympic Trials were scheduled to start March 30, just nine days after NCAAs were supposed to end. (They have since been postponed indefinitely, and it has yet to be determined if they will be moved to a later date.) One look into Bishop’s office, and it was clear which of the two MacNeil was more focused on.

Listed on a whiteboard were four times, a list of teams and a drawing of a medal. They were Michigan’s target splits for the 200-yard medley relay, in which MacNeil swam the first leg. MacNeil sorely wants to win an NCAA Championship, and she wants to win one with her team. As she trained, NCAAs were her main focus. Thoughts of Trials and potentially the Olympics would come later. That’s why, when Bishop reminds MacNeil how many days there are until Tokyo or tries to gameplan for how to beat Sjöstrom a second time, MacNeil will always remind him: “I still gotta make the Canadian team!”

The regimented, race-by-race nature of MacNeil’s training has helped take the pressure off. So has the fact that she’s in a different country, competing for a team of her own. Most professional swimmers only have one thing to focus on: international competition. MacNeil has that, but she also has college races every week. She has Big Tens and NCAAs. She has a team around her, one she desperately wants to help win a team championship.

The few times she does go back home, she’s showered with recognition. Not to the point of being overwhelmed — just enough to give her confidence that she can accomplish whatever she wants.

“I kinda like to say I’m hiding out down here,” MacNeil said. “Which is kinda nice.”

***

At meets, MacNeil blends in with the rest of her teammates. All of them wear the same blue one-piece swimsuit with the block ‘M’ on the chest. She stays loose by doing TikTok dances on the pool deck and having friendly competitions with the other swimmers. As a sprinter, when she dives into the water, all eyes are on her for less than a minute. Then, it’s a teammate’s turn.

In Canada, every meet is all about her — Maggie MacNeil, world champion, Olympic hopeful. At Michigan, it doesn’t matter who’s swimming as long as the winner wears maize and blue. In Canada, she’s expected to meet with young swimmers who idolize her and provide publicity for Swimming Canada. At Michigan, it would be a surprise if someone asked for an autograph because so few classmates know who she is.

“I’m not feeling as stressed as I should be about Trials and the Olympics,” MacNeil said. “ ... I’m really able to focus on swimming when I’m at the pool and be able to focus on my studies and really have the two connected just because I wouldn’t be recognized unless I’m at an event.”

The rigors of an NCAA program aren’t right for every international swimmer. But for MacNeil, more on her plate means a clearer head and a better performance. The anonymity the Wolverines have granted her has enabled her to develop into a swimmer that may just have to call her mom’s bluff.

Although McNair was wrong about the level her daughter would rise to, she knows there are much worse things that could happen than MacNeil getting an Olympic rings tattoo. Beside, she’s seen first-hand the way Michigan has supported MacNeil, and she’ll take that every single time.

“You know what?” McNair says. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen Maggie happier than I have the past couple of years.”