Mac Neil wins Canada’s first gold in Tokyo Games first in women’s 100 butterfly

TOKYO — Margaret Mac Neil shrugged off the bull’s-eye she felt on her to win Canada’s first gold medal of Tokyo’s Olympic Games.

The reigning world champion in the women’s 100-metre butterfly blitzed the back half of that race Monday at the Tokyo Aquatic Centre.

Seventh at the 50-metre turn, Mac Neil mowed through the pack to win in 55.59 seconds, which is the third-fastest time in the history of the event.

“It was more than I was hoping for at this point,” said the 21-year-old from London, Ont. “I was really just trying to enjoy the experience and just have fun, which I think I did today.

“So I’m really proud of that and just trying to not be so nervous and just try to loosen up, which is when I really swim at my best.”

The Canadian out-touched silver medallist Zhang Yufei of China by five hundredths of a second. Australia’s Emma McKeon took bronze.

Mac Neil is the seventh Canadian to win Olympic swimming gold. She joins teammate Penny Oleksiak (2016), Mark Tewksbury (1992), Alex Baumann, Victor Davis, Anne Ottenbrite (1984) and George Hodgson (1912).

She’s also Canada’s first multi-medallist in Tokyo after combining with Oleksiak, Kayla Sanchez and Rebecca Smith to win freestyle relay silver on the opening day of finals.

Mac Neil didn’t know she’d captured butterfly gold when she touched the wall. She wears glasses outside the pool, but not contact lenses when swimming.

Mac Neil squinted hard at the scoreboard to read her result before exclaiming “oh my god.”

The London Aquatic Club product possesses a strong underwater kick off the blocks, but is no stranger to swimming a negative split to win.

“I’m not usually out as fast,” she explained. “I need a little bit more time to get going. The second 50 is always my sweet spot and where I feel the most comfortable.”

Mac Neil was a surprise winner of a world title two years ago in Gwangju, South Korea, where she bested 2016 Olympic champion Sarah Sjoestroem of Sweden.

“Coming in with a target on your back is hard in so many ways that I wasn’t really expecting” Mac Neil said. “Going into worlds, I was relatively unknown, so I had that to my advantage.

“Going in with an expectation that I wanted to do well for myself and my family and friends and teammates that are home, I think that added pressure just makes it a little bit more challenging.”

World-record holder Sjoestroem, who broke her elbow in February in a fall on ice, finished seventh Monday.

Canada’s swim team opened the Olympic Games with two medals in as many days, and nearly claimed a couple more Monday

Toronto’s Summer McIntosh, who at 14 is the youngest athlete on Canada’s Olympic team, was fourth in the women’s 400-metre freestyle.

“It’s definitely just the beginning for me,” the teen said. “It’s amazing that I can have this experience under my belt for the coming years.”

Standing in the media interview room watching McIntosh race on television, Mac Neil urged her athletes’ village roommate with repeated “Go Summs.”

The men’s 4 x 100 freestyle relay team of Brent Hayden, Josh Liendo, Yuri Kisil and Markus Thormeyer was also fourth.

World champion backstroker Kylie Masse of LaSalle, Ont., advanced to the 100-metre final with the second-fastest time in the semifinals. The final is Tuesday morning local time, but late Monday evening in Canada.

A two-time NCAA champion who trains under Rick Bishop at the University of Michigan, Mac Neil returned to Canada in early April and served her mandatory two-week isolation under COVID-19 restrictions.

She then joined Ben Titley’s training group at the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre.

“I was really kind of quite nervous about how it was going to turn out, switching so close to the Olympics and trials, but it worked out for the best and I’m really happy with that decision,” she said.

Mac Neil placed sixth in 100 butterfly in the 2016 Olympic trials for Rio. She watched a 16-year-old Oleksiak win silver in her event, as well as freestyle gold, and thought to herself “I’m the same age as her.”

“I kind of forget where I was but I remember when Penny won her gold,” Mac Neil said. “That was the first gold that Swimming Canada has had for a very long time. I’m really honoured to add to that legacy.”

She looks forward to getting inked with an Olympic rings tattoo when she returns to Canada. Mac Neil suspects her mother Susan McNair will drop her previous reservations about it.

“She’s not a fan of it, but as a physician she’s emailed every doctor to find out the cleanest spots in London,” Mac Neil said. “You can bet I’ll be getting one when I go home.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 26, 2021.

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