The Olympics are the grandest stage in sports and the ultimate dream of many athletes. For the very driven and gifted few, that dream becomes a goal.
Maggie MacNeil, a Canadian native and senior on the Michigan swimming and diving team, had the Olympics as a backdrop from the very beginning. Right after the 2008 Beijing Games, an eight-year-old MacNeil started her swimming career.
MacNeil’s passion arose from the most raw aspect of the sport: her love of the water. Her mother, a physician, emphasized water safety from a young age, which spurred MacNeil’s interest. But back then, she never imagined swimming would carry her to such heights.
“Whenever someone starts sports, the Olympics are always a goal,” MacNeil said. “But I didn’t think swimming would take me this far.”
MacNeil initially realized the exceptionalism of her talent in 2015 when she first joined Canada’s Junior National Team at age fifteen. Even after reaching that elite level, she never acknowledged the Olympics as a potential reality until 2019 at her first FINA World Championships.
MacNeil won the 100-meter butterfly, defeating Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom—the 2016 Olympic champion — and breaking the Americas’, Canadian and Commonwealth records in the process. As the world champion, it began to sink in 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 home to Canada, where she was isolated from her teammates and her regimented 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 great at land sports,” MacNeil said. “Running is my enemy.”
To help her get any minimal feel for the water during quarantine, MacNeil’s parents opened their backyard pool at the end of March. While it was nowhere near the 50-meter Olympic-size pools, MacNeil trained in the heated waters during the brisk Canadian spring, even if it was merely for ten minutes a day.
“Motivation was really hard,” 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 at the natatorium, and athletes were divided into quarantine bubbles by country and sport. But this being her first Olympics, there was nothing for MacNeil to compare the conditions to, so she used that to her advantage.
One of the most impactful alterations was changing the time of day that the 100-meter butterfly finals were swam. Rather than taking place in the evening, the finals were held in the morning, giving MacNeil no time to overthink.
“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 her seed. As long as there was a lane for her, winning was still a possibility. At the 50-meter turn, halfway through the race, MacNeil’s split was not even in the top three. But in the last 15 meters, MacNeil put her head down, touching the wall in 55.59 seconds to capture a new Americas record. Winning gold made MacNeil the first female Michigan swimmer to place first individually at the Olympics since 1964.
But earning gold was not the same without her family present to celebrate with her. The endearing video footage that MacNeil’s cousin sent to her displaying her family’s reaction and excitement was not nearly the same as being in person. Instead she celebrated with her Canadian teammates and also those she swam with at Michigan.
Training for four years in Ann Arbor with those swimmers left strong ties, with the collegiate season lasting from early September to late March. In between, from April through August, MacNeil competes in the international season.
And this is an annual occurrence, not only during Olympic years.
Swimming is arguably the most grueling yet underappreciated sport in the world of athletics. Many spectators tune in every four years for the Olympics and then neglect swimming’s relevance after the Games conclude. But for athletes such as MacNeil, the work never stops.
“Swimming is not an easy sport,” MacNeil said. “We don’t have an off-season.”
While she tries to take two-to-four weeks off in between each college and international season, the training drought MacNeil and every other athlete endured during quarantine was unlike any other. But despite the unorthodox conditions, MacNeil and many others had stellar performances as a result.
“I’m really grateful I was able to succeed despite all the challenges,” MacNeil said. “But it definitely makes me reevaluate my plans going into the next Olympics.”
Leading up to the 2020 Games, MacNeil’s training was significantly lighter than what it would have been in a typical year. While practicing with teammates is something that is imperative, she is looking to adopt some of the aspects that transpired into a gold medal.
Going forward, MacNeil recently announced her commitment to exercise her 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 complete control over her training the year before the 2024 Olympics.
Although it seems as if MacNeil just won Olympic gold, but the turnaround is swift. With the 2020 Olympics postponed a year, Paris is quickly approaching. While MacNeil has her eyes set on the 2024 Games, her focus has not come without doubt.
“I’ve definitely questioned swimming and goals because I feel like I’ve done a lot of everything I’ve ever wanted,” MacNeil said. “I felt lost in the ‘What’s next?’”
MacNeil has decided to train for Paris, but beyond that, she is not tying herself to anything. Every athlete’s career comes to an end at some point, and she is going to determine her future based on her happiness and the satisfaction she derives from swimming.
There could be a long professional swimming career on the horizon, or she may pivot into something else. No matter what comes her way, MacNeil is taking her training and her 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 has turned her dreams into goals and her goals into reality.
All that is left is for MacNeil to answer her own question: “What’s next?”