World Champ will have to wait

Andrew Craven

Michigan swimmer Maggie MacNeil is a world champ, but Olympic-size pool and dreams have to wait      

Orion Sang, Detroit Free Press

 

Maggie MacNeil was at home, studying in her room on a Sunday night, when the news broke. 

While the Michigan swimmer was watching a lecture online, her social media began to blow up. Canada, the country she represents, had announced it would not send athletes to the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games because of concerns about the coronavirus outbreak unless the games were postponed a year.

"I didn’t know what to say," MacNeil told the Free Press. "I didn’t know if the games were still going to proceed or not. That was definitely hard. It was a 30-minute lecture and it took me an hour and a half to get through because I kept pausing to re-read things or I was getting messages from people."

A couple of days later, on March 23, the International Olympic Committee and Japanese government announced they had agreed to postpone the Olympics until 2021.

On Monday morning, organizers announced the new dates July 23 through Aug. 8, with the Paralympics to be held Aug. 24 through Sept. 5. 

"Now that the IOC has made the decision to postpone the games for everyone," MacNeil said, "that’s definitely the best-case scenario.”

The sophomore from London, Ontario, happens to be one of the best in the world in the 100-meter butterfly. Last summer, she won gold in the event at the 2019 world championships, beating four-time world and reigning Olympic champion Sarah Sjostrom. 

Given MacNeil's ascent the past year, she likely would have had more than a good shot at qualifying for the Olympics.

“It’s still crazy. Everything I’ve done for the last two years of my life, swimming and school, has been shifted," she said. "It’s surreal still."

MacNeil is in a different position from many Olympic hopefuls. She's still a college athlete, competing in Big Ten events while still training for the Olympics. Other, older athletes spend all of their time training just for the games. Some even take the year off from college. 

Participating in college events while training for the Olympics is a challenge: the NCAA's pools are a different size from Olympic pools.

"I have to focus on short-course yards most of the year, but in a way, that’s also good because I can focus on the details and the technique more during short course than I would during long course," MacNeil said. "The only downside is I don’t swim long course as much, the size pool that the Olympics is held in.

"It’s not too big of an issue when you switch over, but I think working on the technique helps my longer races in long course.”

That answer is essentially how she is trying to approach this situation: It's not ideal, but she's looking at the postponement as a way to improve. 

“I’ve had a bunch of meetings with different people, and they’re always like, ‘You can’t control anything right now, so control what you can control and try to look at it positively,’ and I think I’ve done a really good job of doing that," MacNeil said. "Looking at it like another year where I can try to get better and enjoy the ride as opposed to learning about it not happening this summer.

"(I'm) focusing on staying inside and hopefully we can get this disease under control before the games next year.”

Her coach at Michigan, Mike Bottom, has coached at the past six Olympic games and believes MacNeil's best swimming is only ahead of her.

“I think she’s just going to get better," Bottom said. "If you look at her curve, she didn’t come on the scene until last year at the world championships. And that was quite a jump from her high school times when she came to Michigan, so she grew quite a bit when she came to Michigan. I think she knows that she has a lot of positive ahead of her.”

For now, she's training by herself while continuing to take online classes. Her Olympic dreams may be on hold — but MacNeil is hoping this is only a temporary delay, and that she'll return to competing with the world's best next summer.

“I was definitely excited to even go to trials," she said. "I was really disappointed I couldn’t do that. But I’ll have another year of training and some more work on the technical details — I can have an even better Olympics than I can have this year.”