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Olympic champion swimmer Maggie Mac Neil lauded as demon for speed, sponge for detail

·4 min read

The analysis of Olympic gold medallist Maggie Mac Neil is in: she flies through the water because she's a sponge.

Coach Andrew Craven says one of the main reasons the 21-year-old is now an Olympic champion is that she soaks up every detail and works to fix the smallest mistake to summit a sport where success is measured in the blink of an eye.

"She’s got a very high swimming IQ," Craven, who coached Mac Neil through her developmental years at the London Aquatic Club, said Tuesday in an interview.

"I mean she’s academically brilliant anyway," he added, noting Mac Neil is well known for memorizing the periodic table of elements and putting it to song.

"She likes to know all the data and all the details and is very analytical and processes it all very well and is able to make adjustments as required."

Mac Neil picked up Canada’s first gold medal of the Tokyo Olympics over the weekend, touching the wall first in the women’s 100-metre butterfly.

She finished at 55.59 seconds, the third-fastest time in the history of the event, five-one-hundredths of a second ahead of China's Zhang Yufei.

She was Canada's first multi-medallist in Tokyo after earlier combining with Penny Oleksiak, Kayla Sanchez and Rebecca Smith to win freestyle relay silver.

Craven coached Mac Neil for five years until 2018, when she graduated high school and went on to a scholarship at the University of Michigan.

Her attention to detail and her work ethic stood out, he said.

When he would arrive at the pool early in the morning for practice, Mac Neil was often already there.

She always knew her stroke counts, her finishing times, and would touch the wall and call them out before being asked.

When Craven recommended a technique change, she did it, then would get frustrated if he wasn’t watching to see if it was, in fact, fixed.

Mac Neil slightly slipped once at the start of a race on a poorly mounted starting block. Since then she always kicks the block three times to test it before a race to make sure it never happens again.

She always splashes water on her suit before the race because once she was held up ever so slightly when she hit the water dry and her suit caught an air bubble.

The butterfly is a technical brute — legs constantly undulating like a dolphin, arms working in unison, windmilling under water, then skimming wide over the top and down again — a killer stroke on the body’s core.

Swimmers gain velocity off the start and when they push off the wall at the turn, where they perform multiple dolphin kicks underwater before breaking through to the surface.

Craven said young swimmers are told to do at least three kicks coming off the wall, but some will give too few or half power.

Mac Neil, he said, never did, going from three to four, and eventually to 10.

"She was right on that from the age of eight," he said.

"She’s doing them at maximum efficiency and maximum power. She's always been that way. If she's going to do it, she's going to do it with maximum attention to detail."

In the gold medal race, Mac Neil was second last in the field of eight at the 50-metre turn, but once she broke through to the surface she was among the leaders.

"She came off the wall with the patent 10 underwater fly kicks and up through the surface and started to pick up the stroke rate and got the head down on the finish," said Craven.

Mike Bottom, Mac Neil's coach at Michigan, said she is focused on fixing tiny flaws in the pool and in the classroom, watching video of her swim form, spotting and adjusting muscle movements to decrease drag.

"She's a very driven and very detail-oriented student," said Bottom.

Carter Buck, 17, who swam with Mac Neil at the London club and is now making a name for himself as one of Canada’s elite young swimmers, said her strength is the wall.

“She’s always working on her technique and her work ethic is unbelievable,” he said.

"I'd swim beside her a lot, the next lane over. She was always making sure to work on her on her form, to make sure her stroke is perfect."

He said the race was a nail-biter, especially when she was seventh on the turn.

"I was kind of worried at the beginning," he said.

"But after her breakout I was pretty confident she was going to be able to pull it out.

"Never count Maggie out — especially when there is a wall."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 27, 2021.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

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