The Sandwell Aquatics Centre, tucked away in a leafy lane in Smethwick on Saturday night with a slew of swimming finals lined up, is a small taste of the closed loop swimming pool at the Commonwealth Games. Indian Srihari Nataraj tries for the first 50 meters of the 100 backstroke, swimming in lane 1, but fades on the last 30. Swimming remains a Western world, the prerogative of wealthy Commonwealth nations, more than any other sport on the programme. Between them, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, England, Scotland and Wales have won 1,721 CWG swimming medals. Leaving aside 30 from South Africa, Papua New Guinea, Jamaica (6), Kenya, Zimbabwe, India, Isle of Man, Trinidad, Guyana, Singapore, Malaysia and the Bahamas have just 19.
Into this staggeringly uneven racial representation for what is a grassroots sport, comes the charming Canadian, Margaret Mac Neil, an avid podium flyer, who enlivens the arena with her ready and contagious smile behind the studious glasses.
Nathan White, communications manager at Canadian Swimming, informs that Maggie Mac Neil, in addition to her prodigious talent as a swimmer – she is Olympic champion in the 100m butterfly at the Tokyo Games in 2020 and world champion in 2019 – is also a mastermind brilliant, graduated from the University of Michigan. . “She’s just super smart and has memorized the periodic table and stuff like that,” he offers as an introduction.
Mac Neil’s gold medals on the biggest stages are no longer surprise medals for Canada and for the world. Its beginnings can still evoke awe in the face of the sheer serendipity of life. Born to Chinese parents in Jiujiang, Maggie was adopted by a Canadian family and grew up in London, Ontario.
The Sunday Times cited China’s one-child policy resulting in the abandonment of baby girls as the reason Maggie was given away.
When the family moved into a house with a swimming pool, the Mac Neil siblings took swimming lessons and she rose through the junior ranks before joining the London Club.
“It’s not our biggest, but many Olympic swimmers have come from the London Ontario Club,” informs Nathan White. When Mac Neil won gold in Tokyo, she was catapulted into a social media trend for her sheer reaction after the 100m butterfly final – not wearing her contact lenses, she was captured squinting eyes on the giant board, checking where she had finished, and later gaped when she realized she had won the gold.
“I like to check the dashboard pretty quickly. But it’s hard just because I don’t have any contacts (contact lenses),” she was quoted by Swimming World magazine at the time of her late reaction. “It takes me a minute to read the scoreboard, so I was just trying to squint and see where I was coming from. I knew faster at Worlds (2019) (which I had won) because I had (then reigning Olympic champion) Sarah Sjostrom next to me there I heard my name being called but it wasn’t until I turned around and saw the result that I realized that I had won.
At Birmingham’s Sandwell Pools, MacNeil’s victories came as no surprise. “More shocked by any race than she wins after beating Sarah Sjostrom,” says White. He was in Tokyo, and the TVs weren’t set up where the Canadian team watched from the bowels of the swim venue. “My Australian counterpart had snuck up to where the TV was and he came over and said, Oh Maggie won!”
Her first reaction after winning gold caused a stir in Canada because so many people identified her as the girl next door. “When she was shown squinting to see the dots, so many people identified with her, like one of us, just an ordinary kid,” White recalled. Swimming is full of tall figures, with aberrant wingspans and streamlined torsos – a body type, across genders, that separates them as a form of special physical specimen. Here is a not-so-tall woman, lightening quickly on the fly in the pool, but her eyes squint to catch a glimpse of a distant decimal digit. Canada immediately won her over.
“She’s kind, smart and funny as a person. And has that goose laugh that makes everyone happy,” White added. What struck the Canadian fraternity most was the absolute clarity of its objectives. “She had the opportunity to go to the Pacific Senior Meet in 2018, but she had her goals and objectives and stuck to a smaller Pan Am Junior Meet, as she prepared to go to the University. She passed up a chance to go to a senior meet because her plan was clear for the junior meet, and who would have guessed, next year she was the senior world champion! said White.
In Tokyo, Mac Neil’s medal shocked the Chinese the most as it sparked a conversation about the country’s one-child policy that ended up seeing her abandoned as a child by her biological parents, according to the Sunday Times. Ironically, she beat a Chinese, Zhang Yufei, for the gold. The Chinese swimming program has seen a strong resurgence, thanks to training in aerodynamics with China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation. Swimming teams use sensors common to missile development, miniaturized to work on human bodies to check the drag produced by different water movements, according to Swimmingworldmagazine. It took China to six medals in the Tokyo pool – including silver in the women’s 800 mixed medley freestyle relay, but China has consistently held the women’s 200 flying titles since 2008 – winning three matches out of four. In the 100m, however, Mac Neil shocked Zhang like at the 2019 Gwangju Worlds.
Maggie in any case breaks the visible stereotypes of Commonwealth swimming where white dominance is staggering and very visible every night you go swimming. The sport has been notoriously monochromatic, with a sprinkling of Japanese, Chinese and Singaporeans breaking through at the Olympics. Enith Brighit won the first Olympic medal for a black man for the Netherlands in 1976, while Anthony Nesty of Suriname remains the best-known name to win gold in 1988. Maritza Correia was the first black woman in the States United to win an Olympic medal, while Cullen Jones, the first black to hold a world record in 2008. Simone Manuel was the first African-American woman to win Olympic gold.
The Commonwealth however, albeit through a woman who has only known herself as Canadian since she was very young, seems a bit diverse in Maggie’s presence. Feeling a little exhausted, Mac Neil had skipped the world championships in 2022, focusing on the CWG. “I love being here because my mum is a huge London fan and always wanted to come here,” she told the Express after another relay podium for Canada. It had been two years since her parents and sisters had seen her compete.
She had said she wanted a “cold summer” before the CWG, not to defend her world title. “It just motivated me to come back to compete at CWG. I met my friends from high school over the holidays and we went rock climbing! She said. Recharged, she returned to CWG, eight years after having visited London as a visitor. This time, as an Olympic champion – and headlining the CWG show. The Games look much cooler with the addition of a smashing bespectacled geeky woman absolutely times in the pool and opens up a closed loop for atypical swimming types.