top of page
The Women's Sports Alliance


Maggie Mac Neil: Olympic Medals, Squinting Memes and Life as a ‘Swim Nerd’

“I remember watching Beijing 2008 on TV when I was eight and thinking then that I wanted to go to the Olympics,” recalls Maggie Mac Neil with a smile. “I didn’t realise the amount of work and dedication that would take!”

Image Credit: Swimming Canada

There was a squint, a celebration and then a puzzled frown as Maggie Mac Neil tried to fully comprehend what had just happened.

“I still get sent the video all the time,” the Canadian swimmer tells the Women’s Sports Alliance, while shaking her head. “It still haunts me!”

Maggie, who wears glasses away from the pool, finds it amusing that in the days which followed her incredible 100m butterfly victory at the Tokyo Olympic Games, she became arguably better known for her post-race reaction than historic feat in the pool.

For context, her stunning success saw Maggie become her nation’s first-ever Olympic butterfly champion, whilst the then 21-year-old was also only the second Canadian swimmer to claim top place on the podium at an Olympic Games this century.

In the moments after impressively touching out Chinese rival Zhang Yufei (who went on to win the 200m fly event) and Australia’s Emma McKeon (who claimed four golds in Japan), there was confusion.

“I like to check the scoreboard pretty quickly, but it’s hard because I don’t have contacts (contact lenses),” she recalls.

“I heard my name so I thought I’d done something good, but I was just trying to squint and see where I came.”

Upon realising the significance of that ‘good’ performance there was a mix of excitement and relief after achieving her “lifetime goal,” but now she also looks back fondly on the social media response to her post-race reaction.

“I know it's such an endearing moment and a lot of people can relate to that who wear glasses, so I got I can be that to them,” says Maggie, who also claimed silver and bronze medals as part of Canadian relay teams at Tokyo 2020.

'I was born in China, but I'm Canadian'

Image Credit: @macnmagg

Three medals, in her Olympic debut, saw Maggie’s profile sky-rocket in Canada.

There was also interest from further afield and the nation of her birth, China, particularly as she had finished ahead of their ‘star swimmer’ Zhang Yufei in the 100m fly final.

Her victory ‘went viral’ on Chinese social media once it became known that Maggie had been born in the city of Jiujiang and while it was a source of pride for some, it also drew attention to China’s, now abandoned, one-child policy.

After being born in 2000, she was adopted by her Canadian parents Susan McNair and Edward Mac Neil the following year.

When asked about her connection to China and the response to her victory at the Olympics Maggie emphasised that while born in the nations, it is a “very small part” of her journey and she has “always grown up Canadian.”

“If that (being a role model) is something that people identify with me great, but that's definitely not something I've put myself out there, because it’s not something I wake up every day and think about.

“It's just something that's been in my past and hasn't really affected my swimming career and doesn't really impact my future or what I want to do in life.”

Sibling rivalry and senior swimming success

The Olympian’s relationship with the water began developing from a very early age.

After moving to Canada, and into a house that had a pool, she recalls her parents placing “six or seven locks” on the back door and building a metal fence around it to keep them safe.

Maggie and her younger sister soon began lessons.

“I was very competitive by nature,” she states, before acknowledging it was a trait she shared with her sibling.

“Outside of the pool, she’d call me and say ‘I got this grade in school, what did you get’ and when I went say bowling with friends I’d always have to win.”

Image Credit: World Aquartics

She credits the sport with “fostering” her independence and fuelling her Olympic aspirations which took hold after she watched the Beijing 2008 Olympics on TV.

Maggie won her first significant international title in 2018 at the Junior Pan Pacific Championships, but over the 12 months which followed she made astounding progress.

Not only did the Canadian qualify for the senior World championships, but at Gwangju 2019 she produced a major upset by defeating reigning Olympic champion Sarah Sjöstrom to claim gold in the 100m butterfly final.

“I'd been a good junior summer, but it was my first year national team so I kind of went in not knowing what to expect,” Maggie tells the WSA.

“I just wanting to take in the atmosphere, watch what legends in the sport do to kind of prepare themselves and kind of see what I could take away from that experience.

“I definitely didn't anticipate going that fast!”

Performing under pressure and being a student of the sport

Image Credit: World Aquartics

A world title, 12 months from the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, saw her profile skyrocket in Canada.

“Going to school in the States (Michigan and Louisiana State) I think really helped because while everyone at the pool knew who I was, I wasn't recognised all the time everywhere else,” she reveals.

Achieving her “lifetime dream” at the postponed Games in 2021 truly transformed her life.

“I don't think I realised like the full extent of it until after the Olympics,” she admits.

“I think even more so because a lot more people tuned into the Olympics than usual (due to global Covid-19 restrictions), because it was something we really needed in the world and at that time everyone watched it.

“So, I think that's when I had realised I had a bigger impact than I thought I did originally.

“On a swimming level, I was kind of hit really hard with ‘Oh, everyone knows who I am and just being a role model for all the kids on my club team’ and going home and signing autographs was a completely different experience.

“It (becoming an Olympic champion for Canada) is not that common, but hopefully it will be more so (in the future) especially for swimmers in Canada as we continue to improve in progress.”

Seeking Pan-American Games success in Santiago

Image Credit: @macnmagg

Maintaining the medal-winning mentality

Maggie is an athlete highly focused on maximising her own performance, but she is also a genuine fan of her sport and follows competitions she is not competing in to see how others are performing.

“There's been some high-level meets kind of going on throughout the entire summer like the World University Games, the Asian Games just happened and then of course World Cups and I’m such a swim nerd, because I’m always watching,”

“It definitely fuels my fire.”

After becoming a World, Commonwealth and Olympic champion over the last four years, she now aims to secure another landmark title at the 2023 Pan-American Games in Santiago.

“Ha, I mean that’s obviously the goal, but I’m also just excited to go and experience another Games atmosphere, have fun and hopefully do some good things for Canada,” she says with a smile.

“I'm excited to see some of my teammates but also meet some new people as it’ll be a quite different team to ones we’ve had in the past.

“It’s great for experience and hopefully I can guide them and show them the ropes because obviously the Olympics is going to be the big one.”

Maggie admits that ‘mentoring’ feels a little surreal as she is still only 23, but feels it is an important part of her role in the Canadian team as a champion athlete.

“It definitely feels weird, I mean, I still feel relatively new, but I have some experiences I want to bring to the table,” she tells the Women’s Sports Alliance (WSA).

“Reflecting now, things went so well for me (in 2019 and 2021) because I didn’t have that much pressure on myself and that’s something I want to re-create ahead of Paris.

“I definitely feel like I’m succeeding with that and hopefully that mentality can help the team too.”

Image Credit: @macnmagg / Swimming Canada


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page