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Column: London's Maggie Mac Neil basks in golden afterglow at Olympics

Londoner Maggie Mac Neil struck gold Sunday night in Tokyo, and a party back home awaits.

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Maggie Mac Neil’s supporters celebrated her victory at a London-area drive-in theatre Sunday night.

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The new Olympic champion, however, has never been to one.

“Not officially,” the 21-year-old swim star said in a Zoom call on Monday, hours after her gold-medal win. “In lockdown last year, my close high school group of friends spent so much time together. We had campfires, pool parties and then one day, we said, ‘why don’t we have a drive-in?’ So we all pulled up our cars and sat in the driveway of my friend, whose aunt – I don’t know why – had one of those big screens that you would have in a classroom.

“We had our own little movie night and it was so much fun, but I still have yet to go to a real drive-in.”

They settled in to watch the 2001 rom-com The Wedding Planner starring Jennifer Lopez.

“No double feature, though,” the world’s best 100-metre butterflyer quipped. “It was too late for a double feature.”

That was back in the stress-free days when Mac Neil’s only problems were trying to make millions of pull-ups and laps in her compact backyard pool tolerable. The Tokyo lead-up, conversely, offered a number of puzzles and barriers.

Suddenly, she was choosing between comfortable training surroundings in Ann Arbor and attending Canadian trials, which required a 14-day home quarantine for crossing the border. Then, her trusted University of Michigan coach Rick Bishop accepted the head position at Louisiana State. By NCAA rule, contact between the two was supposed to be limited.

GOLD! London erupts over Maggie Mac Neil’s trailblazing Olympic win

Mac Neil, a Banting graduate and London Aquatic Club member, is a notorious planner and stickler for routine. She eventually opted to move to Toronto and work with a relative stranger in national team coach Ben Titley.

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“It was definitely a worry,” she said. “I feel changing up your training really close to the Olympics sounds like a recipe for disaster but it honestly couldn’t have turned out any better. That was definitely one of the hardest decisions I had to make was timing it to come back (home) and quarantine. I’m glad I got that over with when I did. The last month was definitely rough when my coach announced he was leaving but he’s here (working with the Hong Kong team) so we were able to kind of reconcile it and just talk about it.

“That definitely helped a lot knowing he’s still here and available and was around for me (Sunday) when I needed him.”

Maggie Mac Neil of London reacts after winning the women’s 100m butterfly gold at the Tokyo Olympics. (REUTERS/Aleksandra Szmigiel)
Maggie Mac Neil of London reacts after winning the women’s 100m butterfly gold at the Tokyo Olympics. (REUTERS/Aleksandra Szmigiel)

She took solace that world record holder Sarah Sjostrom was in the lane beside her in the Olympic final. It was the same way at all three races at the 2019 worlds when Mac Neil had her breakthrough win.

“There was something familiar about that,” she said. “It (the gold) hasn’t set in. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the silver we got from (the 4x100m freestyle) relay. I thought that was so incredible. I don’t think this one is going to set in for quite a while.”

Canada’s new sports hero still has some work left to do in the medley relay. That sets up a chance for a third medal at her first Games, then perhaps a COVID-friendly party.

“I don’t think I will celebrate probably until I get home with my family and friends,” she said. “We played cards the other night, but it’s kind of hard now with everyone swimming and different schedules.

“I think we’ll all celebrate once the meet is over.”

Maybe even catch a movie. There will be lots of time then for a double feature.

Maggie Mac Neil of London poses with the gold medal for the women’s 100m butterfly on Day 3 of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on July 26, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Maggie Mac Neil of London poses with the gold medal for the women’s 100m butterfly on Day 3 of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on July 26, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

rpyette@postmedia.com

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