Londoners are sharing moments of pride and excitement after local swimmer Maggie Mac Neil earned Canada’s first gold medal of the Tokyo Olympics in dramatic fashion.
The London Aquatic Club, where Mac Neil used to swim, says roughly 200 people gathered at the Oxford Drive In in Woodstock, Ont., on Sunday night to watch her compete.
“While we were all wearing our masks and we were all staying within our spots, we really felt like we were together and there was a big community out there and it was just so exciting,” said Donna Moskal, GM of the London Aquatic Club, which organized the event.
“It was such a great experience for all of our swimmers to be part of it and to all be together. And after the tough year we had, it was such a great celebration.”
Mac Neil, 21, began swimming with the London Aquatic Club at age 8 and head coach Andrew Craven said he was not surprised to see her take gold.
“Maggie, because of the focus, the incredible focus and attention to detail that she exhibited virtually from the very first day she stepped onto our pool deck at eight years old… she got what for us, quite frankly — while it was an exciting result and you should have seen us last night — it was not an unexpected result.”
Mac Neil’s gold-medal swim also set a new Canadian swimming record in the 100-metre butterfly at 55.59 seconds.
It took her a second before she realized she had won, and Mac Neil could be seen squinting at the result before yelling out, “Oh my God!”
“Everyone’s always dreamed about that kind of moment, but it’s definitely not something I thought would actually happen,” Mac Neil told Global News.
“I don’t know if I have the words for it. It’s definitely an incredible, incredible feeling. And just hearing the national anthem play was unbelievable.”
The race itself was extremely close, with Craven explaining that the difference between first and fourth place was just 14 one-hundredths of a second. Mac Neil was also in lane seven, which swim experts say makes her win even more impressive.
“When they set it up, they set it up in a bit of a V-formation. So there’s a bit of a wake that comes out to the edge of the pool and it can get a bit of bounce back and get a little rougher on the outside lane,” said Liz Moskal, age group coach at LAC.
“For Maggie to dive in and do what she did at a lane seven was just amazing.”
Craven suggested that the placement might have actually worked in her favour.
“She didn’t have the spotlight of being in the fastest lanes, as Liz described, lane four, lane five, lane three — those are where the favourites are situated for the final. But Maggie was over there in lane seven, just kind of doing her own thing. And I think she probably felt a little bit more relaxed out there.”
Mac Neil says she didn’t realize how close the race was until an hour or two after it finished, since she didn’t have her glasses and couldn’t read all the times.
She added that during the race, for the last 15 metres, she kept her head down.
“I don’t know how many strokes I took without breathing, but I knew that was something I wanted to work on from prelims and semis, so I’m glad I did that. And I think that definitely helped me get to the wall as fast as I could.”
Craven noted that it’s “great if you can go the whole 15 metres underwater but if you’re not doing it fast, it doesn’t really amount to much.” However, he says every one of Mac Neil’s kicks is done “with the maximum amount of power.”
“You better be way ahead of her on that first wall if you hope to have a chance to win at the end.”
Mac Neil’s win has already ignited an interest in swimming locally, with the London Aquatic Club receiving six new inquiries Sunday night by the time the registrar had arrived home from the drive-in event.
Mayor Ed Holder extended his congratulations on Monday, noting Mac Neil’s local ties as a graduate of Banting Secondary School and former member of the London Aquatic Club.
“Maggie and our great Canadian Olympians have trained through COVID and without the usual international meets to hone their skills. So it is exceptional that this is actually Maggie’s second medal of the Games and Canada’s first gold.
“So congrats, Maggie. To all the athletes from the London area competing in Tokyo, you make us so very proud.”
Middlesex County Warden Cathy Burghardt-Jesson echoed those sentiments.
“On behalf of the residents in Middlesex County and my colleagues, certainly we pass along our congratulations to Maggie. What a great accomplishment. And it’s so great to be able to celebrate something.”
The games aren’t over yet for Mac Neil, who is expected to swim in the 4x100m medley with heats scheduled for July 30 at 8:36 a.m. ET.
Mac Neil took silver alongside Kayla Sanchez and Penny Oleksiak of Toronto and Rebecca Smith of Red Deer, Alta.
— with files from Global News’ Andrew Graham.