Maggie Mac Neil is a bit of an over-planner. “Meticulous” is the word she used.
“I like to know this is what I’m doing two years from now,” Mac Neil said on Monday.
So she’s trying to plan a little less. She didn’t plan how things would go in Tokyo. She didn’t plan to defend her world title in the 100m butterfly. She didn’t even plan to medal.
“I was just trying to come and get one with the women’s 4x100 freestyle relay team.”
She did that on Sunday.
Then on Monday, in one of the great come-from-behinds in Canadian Olympic history, she won gold.
Mac Neil wins on the kick, but even she cut it close. She was 7th of 8 swimmers at the halfway turn. She came on so late, the Chinese silver medallist Zhang Yufei appeared to think she’d won it.
Famously, Mac Neil doesn’t wear prescription goggles. So she can’t see much of anything as she races.
“I heard the announcer say my name so I was, like, ‘Oh, I must have done something good.”
Then she tried looking.
“I’ve gotten a lot better at squinting at the scoreboard, so I could kind of see that I had touched first.”
That’s when mics picked up Mac Neil saying “Oh my God!” She said that a few times.
Her time, 55.59, is a new Canadian record in the event. It’s the third-fastest time ever.
Take away Penny Oleksiak’s tie for gold at Rio 2016 and Mac Neil is the first Canadian swimmer to win solo gold since Mark Tewksbury in 1992. If you want a women’s solo gold, you have to go back to ’84. So we are dealing in some serious history here.
Apparently, we should all plan less. It seems to work.
In this case, it has turned a 21-year-old college kid from London, Ontario into a country’s newest athletic hero.
What’s her plan now?
First, she’s going with friends to get a tattoo.
“(My mom) is not a fan of it, but as a physician she’s emailed every doctors’ group to find out the cleanest spots in London, Ontario.”
Two things: There’s a doctors’ group for hygienic body art?; and I’m starting to get a sense of where that tendency for meticulous planning comes from.
If it all sounds a little too wholesome to be credited, that’s exactly where Mac Neil is coming from.
After winning a gold medal at the Olympic Games, she stood in the mixed zone talking about it like she was giving out directions to her house. Steady voice. Speaking in paragraphs. Mildly surprised to hear she’d just done something better than all but two women have done it in the history of the human race.
There is self-possessed and then there’s whatever Mac Neil is. Super-possessed, I guess.
For instance, where’s she going to put that gold medal?
It’s about the size of a dinner plate and looks like a wine-bottle coaster. You sort of have to arrange the room around it. That may require a new couch set.
“I don’t really have a spot,” Mac Neil said, head tilted up like she was taking a mental inventory of her house. “It kinda just sits on my bookshelf.”
Note to the Mac Neil’s insurance agent – they’re going to need an adjustment to their home policy.
As it turns out with so many Olympic athletes, you got the strong feeling that once it’s all over, ‘gold medallist for Canada’ is only going to be the third or fourth most impressive thing Mac Neil has done with her life.
Beyond this personal triumph, Monday set Canada up for a remarkable run in the pool.
The country was achingly close to two other medals. Future tenth-grader Summer McIntosh finished fourth in the 400m freestyle final.
(Mac Neil watched the end of the race in the mixed zone. When it ended she said, “Not bad for a 14-year-old.”
McIntosh, sounding a little like a pipsqueak Terminator, agreed: “This is only the beginning for me.”)
Canada’s unfancied men’s relay 4x100 freestyle relay team narrowly missed out on its own bronze. That team wasn’t supposed to make the final, much less push the Australians for a podium. That’s what you call a momentum builder.
Most promisingly, Kylie Masse finished second in qualifying for Tuesday’s 100m backstroke final. That should be another medal.
It’s only Day 3, but Canada’s having a moment in the pool – a gold and two silvers (if we count diving, which is not in the same pool, but is in the same aquatic centre.)
Swimming is a hierarchical world. The Americans and Australians are the top of the pyramid. China, Japan and a few European countries occupy the space below them. Canada’s lower than that.
That won’t change at this Games, but swimmers like Mac Neil are pushing Canada – Canada’s women at least – solidly into the second tier.
A small example that tells you where this is headed:
Once it ends, the athletes run a gauntlet of journalists. The winners are stopped several times. The losers slink through in a hurry, every day one or two in tears. But everyone goes through.
Zhang, the silver medallist in Mac Neil’s race, thought she had escaped, but an Australian journalist caught her at the exit.
“Did you see (Australian bronze medallist Emma McKeon) at the finish?” the journalist asked.
Australians who cover swimming are obsessed with this question. They ask it of every non-Australian competitor, regardless of where they finished. ‘Hey, hey, did you see us? We were totally there. Did you see that?’
The sense of the question had to be explained to Zhang by an interpreter. It’s a swimming pool, not a track. It’s kind of hard to see people when you’re in it, especially the ones who are behind you.
But Zhang got there eventually.
“I saw her,” Zhang said in English. “But I didn’t see Maggie.”
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