China-born Canadian Mac Neil is a breath of fresh air in white-dominated swimming

The Sandwell Aquatics Centre, tucked away in a leafy lane at Smethwick on Saturday night with a bunch of swimming finals lined up, is a tiny peek into just how closed a loop, the pool has been at the Commonwealth Games. Indian Srihari Nataraj tries over the first 50 metres of the 100m backstroke, swimming in Lane 1, but fades off on the last 30. Pristine waters with the audience getting to high-five swim champs and a very white-dominant list of winners. Swimming remains a western world, affluent nation’s preserve at the Commonwealth, more than any other sport on the program Between them, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, England, Scotland and Wales have won 1,721 swimming medals at the CWG. Leaving South Africa’s 30 aside, Papua New Guinea, Jamaica (6), Kenya, Zimbabwe, India, Isle of Man, Trinidad, Guyana, Singapore, Malaysia and Bahamas have just 19.

In this staggeringly unequal racial representation for what is a core sport, comes the charming Canadian, Margaret Mac Neil, a frequent flyer to the podium, who perks up the arena with her ready, infectious smile from behind the studious spectacles.

Nathan White, communications manager with Canadian Swimming, informs that Maggie Mac Neil apart from her prodigious swimming talent – she’s 100m butterfly Olympic champion from the 2020 Tokyo Games, and a 2019 World Champion – is also a bright brain, having graduated from University of Michigan. “She’s just super smart, and has memorized the periodic table and other such things,” he offers as an introduction.

Mac Neil’s golds at the biggest stages are no longer shock medals for Canada and to the world. Her early beginnings though can still evoke awe at the sheer serendipity of life. Born to Chinese parents in Jiujiang, Maggie was adopted by a Canadian family and she grew up in London, Ontario.

The Sunday Times quoted China’s one-child policy resulting in abandoning of baby girls as the reason why Maggie was given away.

When the family moved into a home which had a 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 London Ontario Club,” Nathan White informs. When Mac Neil won gold at Tokyo, she was catapulted into a social media trend for her sheer reaction after the 100m fly final – not wearing her contact lenses, she was captured squinting at the giant board, checking for where she had finished, and later looked agape as she realized she’d won gold.

“I like to check the scoreboard pretty quickly. But it’s hard just because I don’t have contacts (contact lenses),” she was quoted then by swimming world magazine of her delayed reaction. “It does take me a minute to read the scoreboard, so I was just trying to squint and see where I came. I knew quicker at the (2019) Worlds (that I had won) because I had (then Olympic defending champ) 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 realised I had won.”

At the Sandwell pools in Birmingham, Mac Neil’s wins are no surprise. “Not shocked by any race she wins anymore after she beat Sarah Sjostrom,” White explains. He was at Tokyo, and the TVs were not set up where the Canadian team was watching from within the bowels of the swim venue. “My Australian counterpart had sneaked into where the TV was and he came and told us, Oh Maggie has won!”

Her first reaction to winning gold became a rage in Canada because so many identified with her as the girl-next-door. “When she was shown squinting to see the points, so many identified with her, as just one of us, just an everyday kid,” White recalls. Swimming teems with tall figures, with outlier wingspans and streamlined torsos – a body-type, across genders that separates them as some form of special physical specimen. Here was a not-so-tall woman, lightening fast on the fly in the pool, but her eyes screwed to sight a far-off decimal figure. Canada instantly took to her.

“She’s kind, intelligent and funny as a person. And has this goose laugh that makes everyone around happy,” White added. What has struck the Canadian fraternity most was her absolute clarity of goals. “She had the opportunity to go to Pacific seniors’ meet in 2018, but she had her goals and targets and stuck to a smaller Pan Am juniors meet instead, while she was getting ready to go to University. She let go a chance to go to a seniors meet because her plan was clear about the junior meet, and who could’ve guessed, next year she was world senior champion!” White says.

At Tokyo, Mac Neil’s medal shocked the Chinese most as it triggered a conversation on the country’s one-child policy which ended up seeing her let go as a child by biological parents, according to Sunday Times. Ironically, she beat a Chinese, Zhang Yufei, to the gold. The Chinese swimming programme has had a strong resurgence, on the back of aerodynamics training with China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation. The swim teams use sensors common to missile development, miniaturized to work on human bodies to check for drag produced by different water movements, according to swimmingworldmagazine. It led to China winning six medals from the pool in Tokyo – including women’s 800 free relay mixed medley silver, but China always held a stranglehold on 200 womens fly titles since 2008 – winning three in four games. Over the 100m though, Mac Neil shocked Zhang just like at the 2019 Gwangju Worlds.

Maggie breaks the visible stereotypes of Commonwealth swimming at any rate where the white-dominance is staggering and very visible any evening you drop in at the swimming. The sport has been notoriously mono-chromatic, with a sprinkling of Japanese, Chinese and Singaporeans breaking through at the Olympics. Enith Brighit won the first Olympic medal for a Black for Netherlands in 1976, while Suriname’s Anthony Nesty remains the most well-known name to win gold in 1988. Maritza Correia was the first Black female in the US 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 though, albeit through a woman who has only known herself as a Canadian since she was very young, looks a little diverse in Maggie’s presence. Feeling a tad burnt out, Mac Neil had skipped the World Championships in 2022, focussing on the CWG . “I love being here, because my mother’s a big London fan and had always wanted to come here,” she told the Express after yet another relay podium for Canada. It had been two years since her parents and sisters watched her compete.

She had said she wanted a ‘chill summer’ before the CWG, not defending her Worlds title. “It just motivated me to come back to compete at CWG. I met my high school friends during the break, and we went rock climbing!” she said. Recharged, she returned to CWG, eight years after visiting 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 geeky, bespectacled woman who absolutely smashes times in the pool, and opens a closed loop for the atypical swim types.

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