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When junior Maggie MacNeil finished her NCAA Championship race in the 100-yard butterfly, she didn’t realize she had broken a record. As she took off her outer swim cap and lifted her goggles, MacNeil looked unimpressed. As if the victory came in a friendly scrimmage rather than the biggest stage of college swimming — let alone that she became the first woman to swim the event sub-49 seconds in NCAA history.

When she finally saw her 48.89-second time, MacNeil looked like she had unwrapped car keys on Christmas. Elation filled her face, a quick pair of fist pumps showing her excitement as she prepared to exit the pool a newly-crowned NCAA record holder.

“Winning a national title has been on my mind for at least three years,” MacNeil said. “I think I definitely felt the pressure tonight, but I was really glad that I was able to kind of put that aside and rely on the training that I’ve done to get me under 49 seconds.”

As much as her performance surprised fans, the time didn’t shock MacNeil. She and her coaches knew it was within her grasp, an elusive yet available possibility. All it took was the right situation.

Part of that came from swimming against Virginia sophomore Kate Douglass, who broke her school’s 100 fly record earlier this year at 49.73 seconds. MacNeil could almost guarantee that she would be nipping at her heels no matter how well Douglass swam.

Adding fuel to the fire, MacNeil entered the race coming off a 49.76-second 100-yard backstroke in her leg of the NCAA Championship’s 400-yard medley relay. Throwing down such a low time in that event showed she might be able to go low in other events.

It likely didn’t hurt that she shared the NCAA record for the 100 fly before Thursday’s race, posting a 49.26 at the Minnesota Invitational in December 2019. If anyone could break 49 seconds, it seemed like MacNeil was the favorite.

Not everything was so rosy heading into the swim, however. From the echoes of Michigan’s two-week pause to the legacy of COVID-19 canceling last year’s NCAA championship, training was different for swimmers heading into this year.

But those developments weren’t all negative. The closure of many swimming facilities early in the pandemic relegated many to at-home setups, but many early returners were still able to earn low times.

“(Fast returning times) definitely shows how much overtraining swimmers do sometimes,” MacNeil said. “So I was kind of just excited to let my body take a rest, and then I knew everyone else was going fast.”

As much as those influences changed the dynamics of MacNeil’s race on paper, all of them existed outside of the pool, and MacNeil still needed to swim her best race.

When the buzzer sounded to start the 100 fly, little differentiated the eight swimmers. As the race progressed, though, it became a MacNeil-Douglass showdown. The two swimmers were neck-and-neck for the first 50 yards.

But when MacNeil made the second turn, she seemed to go into another gear. That first 50 yards was where she had focused her training this season, building a solid foundation to go all the way. She pulled ahead of Douglass by almost a full length as she swam toward the final turn.

Douglass would not go out silently. She cut that lead significantly while the two swimmers darted toward the wall. In the last few yards, however, it became clear that MacNeil would win. What looked like a close race at the start became the Maggie MacNeil Show by its end.

Almost every athlete must overcome roadblocks to reach success. MacNeil was no exception. Her NCAA record was within her abilities, but reaching it wasn’t like flipping a switch.

MacNeil’s excitement when she finally found out she broke 49 seconds didn’t originate from shock. Instead, it came from the relief that she finally reached that mark.

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